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Organic Lawn Care 101: How to Maintain a Chemical-Free Lawn

Lawn Care

There’s a growing need for organic lawn care and more people are gaining awareness about the issues surrounding the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in their home lawns.

Lawns may have been invented in Europe, but they’ve reached their apotheosis in North America. For those in the U.S. of A, that green, green grass ranks right up there with apple pie, backyard barbecues, and softball.

For Canadians, it’s proof of place, both a responsibility and a privilege, like wearing decent clothes when you leave the house. Keep your teeth clean and your grass green. In the lower 48 states and much of southern Canada, grass is practically an obsession.

But this obsession comes at a cost; a cost that can wreak havoc not only on your wallet but also on the environment. So, we at Planet Natural have made this guide that details all the primary information you need for proper organic lawn care to help fight this problem once and for all.

Why Organic Lawn Care is Important for North America

The problem with the perfect lawn is that it wreaks havoc on both your wallet and the environment.

Between 30 and 40 million acres of land in the U.S. are devoted to turfgrass, and Americans collectively spend big bucks — about $40 billion annually — on seed, sod and chemicals.

In Canada, which has around one-tenth the population of the U.S., sales from all lawn care products have risen steadily over the past five years, to over $2 billion by 2007.

Much of that money goes to products that “help” grass only in the most superficial ways and that degrade the soil, pollute any water they reach, and pose serious health threats to humans, their pets, and any wildlife in the area, including birds.

Affiliate Disclosure:  Planet Natural editors review and select each product mentioned in the article independently. If you buy through affiliate links, we may earn a commission which will help support our website.

Changing Attitudes Towards ‘Conventional’ Lawn Care

As people become aware of these facts, attitudes towards conventional fertilizers and pesticides are beginning to change. In Canada, over 130 communities and two entire provinces have passed laws severely restricting pesticide use, so homeowners and city park services are going organic perforce.

In the U.S., where municipalities in many states lack the power to pass such comprehensive laws, a number of cities and towns have restricted the use of pesticides on school grounds or in parks.

Furthermore, while many pesticides remain legal in the States, more and more people are becoming aware of the strain that they place on the ecosystem. All across North America, people are not only considering going green, but whether the perfect lawn is worth the long-term environmental price we’re paying for it.

Tip: Lawns add beauty and comfort to our lives. As the places where children play and friends gather, you want them to be as safe as possible. Planet Natural Garden Supply offers a complete line of lawn and landscape products to help you create the healthiest and best-kept outdoor environment possible.

Why Conventional Lawn Care is Harmful

Many of us have inherited our lawns and our ideas about how to care for them from an earlier era, when pesticides seemed safe and water inexhaustible.

Since the mid-1950s, when the ideal of the weed-free carpet-like lawn took shape, pesticides — meaning insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides — have often been used routinely and preemptively, with the result that synthetic chemicals are often overused on lawns.

In fact, one 1996 survey found that more pesticides are used on turfgrass than on any other ornamental.

We’ve inherited more than our maintenance standards and procedures; we’ve inherited the grass itself. Look around almost any town and you’ll see Kentucky bluegrass, still one of the most prevalent grasses in North America. It makes for a beautiful lawn but requires enormous amounts of water, which hurts both the environment and your pocketbook.

A sustainable landscaping presentation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that watering lawns accounts for 30 to 60 percent of water consumption during the summer months.

There are other costs of planting a grass that isn’t well suited to the land or its rainfall. We end up using tons of soil amendments, fertilizers and pesticides to keep things looking good.

Unfortunately, tons here is not just an expression. Estimates vary, but Americans dump approximately seventy million tons of fertilizer and seventy to ninety million pounds of pesticides on their lawns each year.

How Green is Your Grass?

  • According to the US Environmental Protection Association, a gas-powered push mower emits as much hourly pollution as 11 cars and a riding mower emits as much as 34 cars (see Small Engine Rule to Bring Big Emissions Cuts).
  • Lawn and garden equipment emits 5% of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the US, which cause health problems and contribute to ozone formation.
  • A gas mower emits as many hydrocarbons in one hour as a car driven 20 miles.
  • Mowers in the US use 580 million gallons of gas per year.
  • 40-60% of nitrogen from fertilizer runs off or leaches away, ending up in ground or surface water, including wells.
  • 60-70 million birds die from pesticide poisoning each year in the US alone.
  • In the US, 30 percent of water consumed on the East Coast waters lawns, 60 percent on the West Coast.
  • A 2001 Toronto Staff Report (PDF, reported that using a commercial leaf-blower for one hour generated “498 times as much hydrocarbons, 49 times as much particulate matter and 26 times as much carbon monoxide” as a then newer-model car.
  • Close to 70 million pounds of pesticides (including herbicides) are applied to US lawns each year. This is approximately ten times the amount applied to American farmland, acre for acre.
  • As of 2004, about 70 million tons of fertilizer were used on US lawns a year.
  • A Toronto Public Health Report on lawn and garden pesticides (PDF format) claims that between 2004 and 2006, almost half the homeowners in Toronto used pesticides on their lawns.
  • The Virginia Cooperative Extension in its publication “Nutrient Management for Lawn Service Companies,” states that some fungicides and pesticides can kill 60 to 90% — or more — of the earthworms where they are applied.

    Other Reasons to Go Organic for Your Existing Lawn

    There’s further concern that these products are not only harming the environment (and our wallets) but also our health. Unfortunately, it’s not just limited to us. Beneficial insects, wildlife, and pets are also increasingly becoming affected by these adverse effects.

    Yet lawns, combined with gardens and other landscaping, do a lot of good. They muffle traffic and other noise pollution, and like all green plants, lawns help reduce carbon dioxide levels. They act as filters, removing pollutants from the air that we breathe. And nothing beats grass as a place for kids to play.

    Going organic doesn’t mean you have to give up your lawn, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you have to give up the rest of your life tending for your lawn. It means planting what will do well in your climate, watering deeply but infrequently, and avoiding the use of dangerous and expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

    This site should help, whether you’re ready to dive in head first, or just want to dip a toe in organic waters. You can scroll to the bottom of this article for links to some useful pages we’ve written to help you in your organic lawn care, or read along for our top tips for a healthy, and natural lawn.

    How to Have a Natural Lawn: Top Organic Lawn Care Tips

    Get Your Soil Tested

    To have a natural and healthy lawn, you need to first figure out the health of your existing lawn and its soil. The way to do that is to start with a soil test as it’s the easiest approach to figuring out if your garden soil is deficient in nutrients is to get it tested.

    The soil test result will include an analysis of your current soil as well as recommendations for which amendments to use to correct any deficiencies in your soil.

    While there are home test kits available, lab tests provide the most comprehensive and dependable results. Every state in the United States has a Cooperative Extension Service that is affiliated with a university system. A soil test typically costs between $15 and $20 and takes about a month to complete.

    Improve Your Soil Quality

    You can improve the quality of your existing soil but adding organic matter to it such as compost, some animal manures, and other natural substances.

    Compost is a great way to add natural nutrients to your soil, regardless of the test results. It’s more than just organic matter and can make a huge difference to the quality of your soil and even soil structure. You can also use compost tea as a soil amendment.

    The test results themselves will share with you what else your soil lacks so that you can pick the right organic fertilizers, so the process will be easier than it sounds.

    The best organic lawn fertilizer will contain natural ingredients such as feather meal for nitrogen, bone meal for phosphorus, and seaweed for potassium. Natural ones are also slow-releasing and won’t shock your plants or soil.

    It’s recommended to use them occasionally during the growing season to boost your soil. Improved soil contributes to healthy plants that are less vulnerable to pests and environmental stress, and a thick lawn that starves out weeds comes from having healthy soil.

    Use Native Turf Grass

    The best way to have and manage an organic lawn is to start with native turf grass. Since its native to the region, unlike Kentucky bluegrass that’s native to Europe, and St. Augustine grass that’s native to Africa, it will be more suitable and tolerant to drought.

    Buffalograss is a drought-resistant variety that’s low-growing and low-maintenance too since it only needs to be mowed once a month.

    You can overseed your lawn or replace it entirely with native grass seeds, or even opt for the newer organic grass seed by DLF organics, which is the first US company that offers USDA-certified lawn seed.

    Learn Natural Weed Control Methods

    Unfortunately, when you first start off with organic lawn care, you may have to deal with some weeds for the first year or two until your grass is strong enough to deal with them naturally.

    During this time, use corn gluten meal as an organic weed killer and preventative measure in your lawn during early spring. It’s important to remember not to use it simultaneously when overseeding as well since it will prevent germination.

    And if crabgrass is an issue, then you might have an issue with soil compaction. That’s when core aeration is the solution you need. It involves using a lawn aerator to remove plugs of soil cores from the lawn as well as thatch.

    Diluted white vinegar can also be used to take care of peskier and more annoying weeds such as dandelions. But the good thing is that if you have high-quality topsoil, your lawn will be dense and have fewer weeds, so always make sure to properly care for your lawn to avoid other issues from arising.

    Fortunately, not all weed is bad for your lawn and some might actually help. Clover is one of them as its natural nitrogen-fixing abilities can supplement your soil organically.

    Get Rid of Pests and Diseases Naturally

    Keep an eye out for any insects or fungal diseases. Chinch bugs are unfortunately common in dry and drought-stressed lawns. Our guide to getting rid of chinch bugs is a great place to start.

    Fungal diseases such as dollar spot or brown patch can also be a problem if you water at night, especially during warm weather conditions as the soil will stay moist for a longer period of time.

    Watering your grass first thing in the morning ensures that it will have all day under the sun to soak up the moisture. So make sure to remember that the best time to water your lawn is early in the morning.

    Introducing some beneficial insects to your organic lawn can also take care of certain pests naturally such as grubs.

    Leave Grass Clippings on Your Lawn

    Leave the grass clippings on the lawn, since they quickly decompose and return nutrients and organic matter to the soil. Grass clippings left on the lawn can supply up to 30% of a grass’s seasonal nitrogen requirements while not contributing to thatch buildup.

    Do Proper Maintenance Mowing

    For an organic lawn to have a competitive advantage over weeds and to avoid disease, proper mowing techniques are especially crucial. Typically, organic lawns are mowed taller than regular lawns.

    Longer grass not only blocks the sun from the soil by providing shade, but also prevents weed seeds from sprouting, helps keep the soil cooler, and keeps less water from running off.

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