The intoxicating scent of freshly mowed grass tickled my nostrils as I proudly looked at my lush green lawn. A flush of happiness soothed my body and mind because I knew the sight I was staring at was the result of organic fertilizers and absolutely no lawn pesticides. I felt confident that I had overcome challenges and was now performing a new, better way of lawn care. A method of lawn maintenance that was saving money on my water bill, keeping neighbor children and pets safe, and protecting the environment while still having a beautiful healthy lawn that made my jealous neighbors wonder why they haven’t made the switch to organic lawn care yet.
The debate continues whether lawn pesticides are harmful to young children, pets, and the environment. It isn’t much of a debate these days with numerous new studies coming out providing evidence that many of the materials that were and still are being used in “traditional” lawn care will cause cancer and other health problems while harming our environment. My goal of this article isn’t to scare homeowners into using safer products or to provide statistics and scientific research on if lawn pesticides are bad. My goal is to educate, and let folks know that there is a better way of maintaining a lawn through the use of organic materials and inform them why it is beneficial for them to make the switch. Hopefully with the help of this education, consumers will start demanding that companies such as Scott’s begin to put more of their large R&D budgets toward safer and more natural products that are as effective as the chemicals we have been blasting our lawns with for years.
The first thing I would suggest is to adjust your mentality to what a perfect lawn looks like. Residential lawns are never going to look like the fairway at your local country club. The sooner you realize this, the better. A couple of dandelions showing their yellow heads is not the end of the world. It is actually natural and common even on the most expensive lawn program out there. I’m not saying your lawn can’t look similar to that fairway, but weeds come and go. That’s nature. Work with it and not against it.
The second thing I would suggest is adjust your cultural practices such as mowing and watering techniques. Without practicing these two things properly, your lawn will continue to fight nature instead of working with it.
Mowing your lawn to short lengths like your country club fairway is not beneficial or correct. Those fairways are usually bentgrass and the correct mowing height is under an inch. Most residential lawns in the Midwest and the northern part of the U.S. are blue/rye/fescue cool season grass mixes. These types of grasses should be mowed at 3-4 inches after being cut. If they are mowed down to lengths below this you will exponentially create an environment that is more prone to crabgrass, broadleaf weeds such as dandelions, and a shallow root system that can’t fight off drought, insects, and disease very well.
Watering your lawn everyday is not smart and your root system will hate you for it. The roots of the grass want to dive deep into the ground to search for minerals and water. By watering everyday you are keeping those roots close to the surface and creating a weak root system more prone to stresses. The proper way to water if you need to, is to provide the grass with water when it needs it. Every lawn is different, but I usually suggest watering every 4-7 days for about 1-1.5 hours per spot. You want to water deeply and infrequently to train your roots to dive deep into the ground.
Now let us get into the fun stuff. How can switching to an organic lawn maintenance program save you money? This is what everyone wants to know these days with the economy struggling. Well, the main reason you can save money through a more natural program is because you are actually improving your soil structure instead of just juicing the lawn up with unsustainable top growth through synthetic fertilizers. How does this occur? A lawn is only as good as its base, the soil. You can grow grass on concrete, but it would cost a lot of money, cause you plenty of headaches, and it would be silly since growing grass in 6-10 inches of quality soil is much easier and less expensive. So let’s address the issue of how to develop a high quality soil first and then I will explain how this can save you money.
Get your soil tested. This can be done by a local professional lawn service provider, yourself, or your local county extension office. Getting your soil tested is not only smart, but also the right thing to do. The results will provide you with what the soil needs, so you can save money putting only the necessary materials down. Once you have this information, you can then develop a fertilization plan around what the soil is deficient in. There are many organic fertilizers out there that provide many of the same nutrients as chemical fertilizers. The way they work is slightly different, but the result of feeding the grass plant the necessary nutrients is the same. Chemical fertilizers feed the grass plant mainly through the tips of the grass, while organic fertilizers feed the grass plant from the soil up. Organic fertilizers feed the soil life, which in turn feed the grass plant. So how does using organic fertilizers save you money? With organic fertilizers you are actually improving the soil structure with the organic matter while also feeding the grass. This combination of benefits is why organic fertilizers are superior to chemical fertilizers and how in the long run it ultimately will reduce your water bill by providing a much improved soil structure with deeper roots. It seems so simple because it is.
Improving the soil biology aspect of organic lawn care is a little more complicated, but how this reduces your need for lawn pesticides to control fungi and insects is pretty simple. Improving your soil biology instead of depleting it will create an environment that allows nature to fight off pests that harm your lawn. Feed the good guys down there, so they can fight off the bad guys and eliminate your need for insecticides and fungicides. Again, this means less money you have to spend to keep your lawn the envy of the neighborhood. That sounds good right?
So why isn’t everyone doing organic lawn care instead of “traditional” lawn care? The main obstacle holding the movement back is the absence of a selective organic weed control. This is where the adjustment of your mindset comes into play. Don’t let this scare you though. Your organic lawn doesn’t have to be a plot of weeds with some grass surrounding it. There are ways around this, but sometimes it takes a little patience, adjusting your mowing height, a little seed, and even possibly some extra work. Uh oh, did I just lose some of you with that “extra work” comment? I hope not, but don’t worry it isn’t that much extra work. Following this statement that may seem a bit hypocritical, I will provide you with some tips that will keep your lawn weed free without using lawn chemicals. First though, let me state that some lawns may need an application or two of spot treatments of a selective broadleaf herbicide before the grass can start to naturally crowd out the weeds. This doesn’t have to be done, but often times can satisfy the more impatient homeowner looking for a more weed free lawn quicker. Many religiously organic lawn gurus will curse me for stating that, and honestly I hate stating it, but on some occasions it may be needed to avoid drastic lawn renovations that completely kill the lawn and then you would have to start over. If you do use spot treatments of herbicides, make sure to only use them where they are needed and follow the instructions that the label provides because these pesticides can cause harm to humans and animals. Use the proper safety equipment and please make sure to keep your children and pets off the lawn for 24 hours after the application if possible. That is a last resort technique and should only be used after testing out the following tips to reduce and eliminate the weeds in a safer more natural manner.
So what are these safer methods of controlling weeds? The first and most important tip I can give anyone trying to control their weeds naturally is to mow high. A thick lawn will have less weeds and this type of lawn is developed by mowing properly. Remember the mowing tips stated earlier? Follow these and it will help drastically to reduce the number of weeds that thrive in your lawn. Another tip is fill in any bare/thin areas with new grass seed in September or October for cool season lawns. These two tips will help you develop a thick lawn that can “crowd out” the weeds. Even a thick lawn will have some weeds though, so what can you do then? Hand pull or use a device that makes manual weed pulling easy. Make sure you get the entire root of the weed and don’t get discouraged when the weeds keep popping up. If you keep at them, they will lose their energy eventually and die off. The main thing with weeds is to stay determined and remove them before they have a chance to seed. If the weeds seed, the vicious cycle of perennial and annual weeds will continue. Sometimes this might mean collecting the clippings while mowing your lawn to avoid spreading the weed seeds over the lawn. This is the only time I would suggest bagging your clippings because those clippings provide extra organic matter and recycles the same nutrients you provide with the fertilizer being applied. This is just another way of saving money because if you collect those clippings when it isn’t necessary you will have to put down more fertilizer.
Organic lawn care is the new, better way of maintaining your lawn. There are a plenty of reasons that places like Harvard University are now caring for their property organically. Saving money is one reason, but helping the environment and providing a safer place for children and pets are other reasons. Provinces all over Canada are banning the use of cosmetic lawn pesticides. Places like child care centers, schools, and places where animals habitat are beginning to use organic lawn care because of the previously stated reasons. So why not become one the thousands joining the organic lawn care family daily? Soon, you too can smell the scent of freshly cut grass like myself while having the peace of mind that you are doing something good for the planet. Oh yeah, and you can save some money so you can enjoy that gorgeous healthy lawn of yours.
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