When my husband and I exchanged two decades of urban existence for suburban life, I didn't know a rhododendron from a Rototiller. We did know that we wanted to forgo the "weed 'n' feed" approach to lawn care. To our pleasant surprise, organic yard care is simple once you go through the steps of disconnecting your lawn from its chemical life-support system.
Curing this chemical dependency has its environmental benefits. One 40-pound bag of synthetic fertilizer contains the fossil-fuel equivalent of approximately 2.5 gallons of gasoline, and mowing for one hour with a gasoline-powered mower generates the same amount of pollution as driving a car for 20 miles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To keep lawns green, we apply about 10,000 gallons of water, which leads to fungal diseases and weeds that attract pests, so we douse our coveted green patches with approximately 67 million pounds a year of synthetic pesticides.
As in any detoxification program, the first step is admitting that you have a problem, says Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual (Storey, 2007). "The organic lawn is not a ton of work—it really isn't—but it requires more understanding."
Start with the soil
"Everything is as healthy as the soil it grows in," says Harmen Vos, president of the Organicdutchman lawn service in New Jersey. Healthy soil contains naturally occurring potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus as well as billions of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and protozoa and larger creatures like earthworms that build soil structure. Chemically treated grass, in contrast, has very little life because, over time, the fertilizers and pesticides kill or slow down these helpful bugs.
To aid your organic conversion, many university cooperative extension offices will test your existing soil for organic matter, nutrients and pH for a small fee. Once you know what's in your soil, you can begin to bring it back to life. Lawns prefer slightly acidic soils with a pH range of 6.5 to 7, but flowers, shrubs and trees vary in their pH preferences. Lime helps balance acidic soil, while sulfur helps with alkaline. Other soil improvers such as worm castings, kelp, fish wastes and decomposed organic matter called humates add nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Compost or "compost tea"—liquid compost that more readily penetrates soil—can help restore beneficial microbial life. You can have it applied by an expert in organic lawn care, or purchase organic compost, such as Intervale or Vermont Compost Plus. Bill Duesing, contributor to The NOFA Organic Lawn and Turf Handbook, a publication of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, suggests that you make your own compost using lawn clippings, food scraps and fall leaves.
If you turn to an "organic" lawn care serice, remember that there is no legal definition or third-party inspection for organic or natural lawn- and landscape-care. Always ask to see the details about what will be applied including any occupational health warnings.
The amount of shade and rainfall, soil type and temperature ranges, as well as how much time your family will spend on the lawn, have an impact on your lawn's health, so choose a grass that can tolerate those things. Native grasses tend to be easier to maintain, since they are adapted to local conditions. For instance, seashore paspalum, native to the Southeastern U.S. coast, is so salt-tolerant that it can be watered with seawater.
Your grass of choice will also determine how much to take off the top when mowing. Cutting too short creates stress and weakens the plant. Keep the mower blades sharpened and leave clipped blades on the grass as compost; they recycle nitrogen.
Read the weeds
Weeds are messengers that tell you what's wrong with your soil, says Tukey. "You can kill the messenger all day long," he says, "but it doesn't kill the message." For example, dandelions indicate that soil is too low in calcium, too high in potassium and too acidic.
However, not all "weeds" are bad. Clover is drought tolerant, stays green all winter and converts nitrogen into a form usable by other plants. A lawn that contains about 5 percent clover can create enough usable nitrogen to make fertilizing unnecessary if clippings are left on the lawn.
Detrimental weeds, especially those with deep root systems, can be removed using a long, forked "dandelion weeder" or spot-sprayed with vinegar. Corn gluten applied early in spring is another chemical-free alternative to pre-emergent herbicides that kill germinating weed seeds.
Water, water—but not everywhere
Instead of following a set schedule, water only when needed. How will you know? The grass starts to look a little wilted and gray and doesn't spring back as quickly when stepped on.
Water in the morning so that evaporation is minimal and because leaving grass wet at night encourages fungal diseases. Water should soak six inches or more into the soil to reach the roots. Set a cake pan near your sprinkler, and when it's roughly full, you'll have watered sufficiently.
Cut down on consumption by harvesting rain in rain barrels. Or be creative: George Spalek, a homeowner in Santa Fe, N.M., collects rain in five cattle-feeding troughs, purchased from a farm-supply store, that he paints and covers with a mesh screen to keep out mosquitoes and dirt.
Also, match your plants with your locale, says Douglas F. Welsh, Ph.D., professor and extension horticulturist at Texas A&M University. "It is as inappropriate to have a cactus in Newark, New Jersey, as it is to have azaleas in El Paso, Texas." He prefers Xeriscaping, landscaping practices that reduce water waste through an equal mix of adaptable plants, decks, walkways and smaller lawns. "People have a mental image of drought-tolerant landscapes as wagon wheels, animal skulls and a few cacti," says Welsh, but "we can have high-quality landscapes that are in harmony with the environment we live in."