Moving To An Organic Lawn Care ProgramI have always followed a responsible approach to garden maintenance:
- Plant the right plant for the conditions (sun or shade, soil conditions, moisture conditions etc.).
- Treat the soil well by adding organic matter either in the form of compost or mulching with finely shredded mulch.
- Use good plant maintenance practices: mulch to reduce weeds and retain water, water deeply when needed, prune out dead or diseased areas when spotted, weed and deadhead regularly. All these practices help your plants avoid being under stress in the first place. Stress makes plants more susceptible to pests and disease.
Translating this practice to a large lawn (we live on a two plus acre piece of property) has proven to be a bit challenging.
On April 22, 2009, Earth Day, Ontario banned the sale and use of chemical pesticides for cosmetic use. This ban was predicted in early 2008 and legislation was brought in during the fall. Anticipating the ban, I decided to convert my entire lawn care program to an organic approach in the spring of 2008.
Everything I was able to research seemed to suggest that to fight weeds in a chemical free environment, a lawn needed to be healthy and thick enough to stop most weeds from germinating and choke out any weeds that did grow. I decided that the best approach would be to go fully organic, creating a really healthy soil base for my lawn to grow. This approach seemed to work for my gardens, why not for the lawn?
After spending much of the winter of 2007 researching many organic lawn care options I finally found an approach that is 1) easy to understand and 2) manageable to put into practice.
This article outlines some of my research findings and what I have decided to adopt. I am neither a lawn care professional nor scientist, so this is basically a layman's viewpoint and conclusion. My approach to organic lawn care will mean putting in place much of the same cultural maintenance practices that I have used in gardening.
Treating the soil by top-dressing with organic matter.
Everything that I have read says that a successful organic lawn care program requires healthy soil. It must be alive with a variety of beneficial microorganisms, worms and other helpful bugs. This means adding organic matter such as compost to the lawn. OK now with roughly one acre of lawn area that would be difficult to do with traditional compost. Luckily I have found a product that is certified leaf & yard compost that has been pelletized.
Let's talk compost for a minute. All compost is not created equal. There are many concerns with the quality of the compost you put on your lawn and gardens. Was it processed properly (especially heated sufficiently) to kill pathogens and weed seeds? Many producers are starting to produce 'fast' compost by using an anaerobic (without oxygen) composting process. This makes composted material faster but likely kills the microbes used to create it once you introduce it to air. That means you are no longer getting the benefit of healthy microbes in your soil. I also do not want to put any animal products on my lawn due to potential pathogens which may exist if the product is not properly processed. For me that means sticking to a plant based aerobic compost.
Now, back to how can I spread this easily on a large lawn. Pelletized plant based compost can be spread on my lawn with a broadcast spreader. It will provide the advantage of adding organic matter which will increase the amount and health of beneficial microbes in my soil, preparing it for an organic fertilizer program.
When am I planning on doing this? For my first year I plan to spread the pelletized compost both spring and fall. I plan to perform a soil test this spring to see how my soil stacks up in terms of organic matter but my feelings are it will need a little boost the first year. (The cost of a soil sample is about $25 and it provides a lot of information that is beyond the scope of this article. Check back in mid-spring and I will update you on my results.) Since I want the compost to come in contact with the soil I plan on spreading it in spring after racking the grass with my dethatcher and again after my fall aeration. Down the road the beneficial microbes should do my aeration for me, but for this year I plan to aerate.
Applying organic fertilizer to feed the soil and turf.
Let's talk organic fertilizer for a moment (OK a long moment, there's lots to know). First I'd like to point out that many companies have come on board with organic-based fertilizers. Did you know that by law in Canada that means they only have to contain 15% organic material! That means 85% non-organic, might as well stick with the cheaper stuff.
Organic fertilizers are protein based fertilizers such as corn gluten meal, alfalfa meal and even coffee grounds. (Animal based products do the same but as noted above I do not want to put them on my lawn). Protein provides a combination of nutrients that include nitrogen. When the healthy microorganisms in the soil eat the protein, the nitrogen is converted into a source available for the lawn (or other plants). You need a healthy soil for organic fertilizers to work. In addition, since the microorganisms have to eat the protein to convert it into nitrogen, the process is slower (good in that you can't burn your lawn) and that may mean adjusting your expectations as to how immediate the product will work. I do believe that when going organic you have to have a slightly longer term outlook.
When I first started looking into organic fertilizers for the lawn it was certainly confusing. Corn gluten meal, corn meal, alfalfa pellets or meal, seaweed. What to use was certainly hard to determine. Here is a short summary of what I found.
Corn Gluten Meal: Corn gluten is an organic protein with one of the highest rates of nitrogen (it is equivalent to a 10-0-0 fertilizer). It releases nitrogen slowly (as it is digested by the microorganisms). It also has an enzyme that inhibits the production of root hairs on newly germinated seeds. This means they cannot absorb water as well and as a result do not take hold and will die. Health Canada (through the Pest Management Regulatory Agency) has just recently approved corn gluten as a weed control agent. The downsides? In years where we have a lot of rain the seed will likely still survive. Corn gluten does not discriminate among seeds so it affects your ability to over-seed your lawn. It also may build up in the soil thereby affecting your ability to over-seed in future years.
Alfalfa: Alfalfa meal is equivalent to a 3-1-2 fertilizer. Alfalfa also has natural bio-stimulants that are reported to enhance root growth, increase seed and flower production and increase the ability to use nitrogen. They say lawns fertilized with alfalfa will break dormancy earlier in the year (turn greener earlier). Alfalfa meal can be used alone however good alfalfa based organic fertilizers are often blended with other organic products to make a complete and balanced fertilizer.
Seaweed: Seaweed fertilizers are reported to give quick results. Although they do not have large amounts of N-P-K, they contain a lot of other micro nutrients. The main issue is that not all seaweed is alike or will work. To be effective as a fertilizer it appears the seaweed must come from the North Atlantic variety known as Ascophyllum nodosum. Confused yet? So was I. In addition to this it has a short-lived benefit window, must be reapplied often, and are usually applied as a liquid. Given all this, I passed up seaweed as an option for now.
Just a note, compost is not a fertilizer but is a soil amendment. Although it enhances the soil, it does not itself provide any N-P-K. Composted animal product does provide some nutrients, but as I said earlier, I do not want to put any animal compost on my lawn.
When am I going to do this? I plan on putting an alfalfa based organic fertilizer down in spring (May), a corn meal based product down in summer (June) and an alfalfa based fertilizer in fall (perhaps twice depending upon my results).
Use good cultural turf maintenance practices.
Good lawn care practice involves proper mowing, proper water application, aeration and weed management.
Mowing: I will continue my practice of mowing to a height of 2 to 3 inches. The one-third rule applies to turf just as it does to garden plants. Cutting more than 1/3 of the height of your lawn at one time puts the lawn into unnecessary stress. Cutting your lawn short does not mean you will have to cut less often. Cutting stimulates growth. If you cut often you will encourage sideways growth as well as top growth thereby creating a thicker lawn to help with weed suppression.
Watering: Water less often but water deeply.
Aeration: From what I have read, if your soil is teaming with microorganisms they should aerate the soil for you. Since I am starting a new organic lawn care program, I plan on aerating once this spring to kick start the program. After that, if my results are good, I may just rely on the earthworms to aerate for me.
Weed control: The above cultural management practices, combined with an annual over seeding should help me keep a thick healthy lawn. This will help shade and choke out most of the weeds. I will also hand pull weeds when I am out and about. If absolutely necessary I may spot spray the first few years until my soil catches up with the new program. See my article on Organic Weed and Pest Control for a more detailed discussion on what I learned about organic weed and pest control.
All in all, I hope for good long term results. I will post my results throughout the summer so you can see how it is going.
For an update on my results and my continued foray into organic lawn care in year two, see my blog post Organic Lawn Care - Year Two