Organic lawn care relies on (1) building the soil that feeds your turf grass using a few basic horticultural techniques that are beneficial to the grass plants, and (2) addressing weed and pest problems without toxic chemicals. Organic lawn care may sound like a challenge, but it's no more of a challenge than, say, keeping an ice cream cone from dripping on a hot summer day. You have to be persistent to avoid problems, but we are fully confident that you can lick your lawn care problems using organic methods.
The first step in creating an organic lawn—one that's safe for you or your kids to wiggle your toes in—is to read our article
Lawn Care Tips, which covers many of the basics of natural and organic lawn care. Then come back here for more tips on organic lawn care, particularly in dealing with lawn pests.
The ability of water and air to penetrate deeply into the soil, as well as the need for a thriving community of soil organisms to help feed nutrients to your lawn, are the reasons to add organic matter to the soil under your turf grass. No, you don't need to temporarily roll back the lawn to do this. Here are a few methods.
- Grass Clippings — Mulching your grass clippings and leaving them on the lawn was covered in our companion article, Lawn Care Tips.
- Leaf Litter — If you have deciduous trees in your yard, your lawn gets a coating of leaves each fall. But instead of raking all those leaves into bags (or even onto compost piles), you can use a mulching lawnmower to chop the leaves up into small bits. As long as the chopped leaf litter doesn't completely cover the grass, you can leave it there and, over the dormant season, it will decompose and add organic matter to your soil.
- Compost — It's more trouble, but if you're into making compost—and you should be—it's better to compost your chopped leaves (along with the rest of your dead yard vegetation and vegetable waste from the kitchen) and turn it all into rich, dark, nutritious compost. Then, in the spring, you can spread a half-inch to an inch of compost on your lawn to feed it. You won't find better fertilizer than this, and it has the added advantage of spreading a few beneficial soil organisms around.
All that extra organic matter you're going to be adding to your organic lawn will go a long way to providing the nutrient needs of your grass. But you may want to occasionally add a light treatment of granulated, non-chemical, organic fertilizer. Such products decompose and release nutrients more gradually than chemical equivalents, feeding the grass more steadily and over a longer period of time—a much healthier and more natural way to nourish your lawn. Remember, though, if you're adding organic matter as we suggest in the section above, you don't need much bagged fertilizer.
WHERE TO GET IT
You can now get bags of organic fertilizer at many garden centers. You can also support Grinning Planet's operation by ordering it from our affiliate, Gardens Alive! Concern and Espoma are two brand-name organic fertilizers; you can also use dried poultry waste and cottonseed meal.
Healthy grass is very dense and tends to crowd out other plants, including weeds. So using the advice above as well as that from our Lawn Care Tips page is your first step to weed control. But for those pestiferous plants that still manage to pop up in your lawn, here is some organic lawn care advice about weed control.
First, stay on top of your weed problems. It's easier to pull out a few spindly little weeds regularly than to let them grow up to be seed-producing humongo-weeds that will increase your weed problems by an order of magnitude.
Now, on to solutions for a few of the more common lawn weeds.
Trying to pull crabgrass out of your lawn can be a challenge. But crabgrass is an annual, and as such it must grow from seeds each season. So, the key is to disrupt germination of the seeds in the spring. There are some nasty ol' chemicals that will stop germination of the seeds, but those have no place in organic lawn care.
The two main methods of preventing crabgrass are:
- Keep your grass cut high and mulch your clippings. The shade from the tall grass blades and mulched clippings will suppress most crabgrass seed germination and the tall, thick grass will out-compete those crabgrass plants that do manage to get a start.
- If you've tried step 1 for a couple of seasons and still have a crabgrass problem, apply corn gluten meal every spring—it's a natural "pre-emergent." (See our Dandelion Removal page for more info on using corn gluten meal.)
Gardeners seem to talk about getting red of dandelions almost as much as they talk about the weather, so we have an entire article devoted to dandelion removal.
These weeds usually can't out-compete healthy grass, so wherever one of these rascals pops up, address the problem with the grass and you will solve the problem with plantain. First get rid of the weed(s); then get that part of the lawn back in shape with a little aeration, compost, and grass seed.
We have a section on clover on our Lawn Care Tips page.
Moles do you a service by eating any Japanese beetle grubs that happen to be under your lawn eating the roots of the grass plants. But in doing this service, the moles can make a mess of your lawn.
The first line of action should be to try to get rid of the grubs that attracted the moles in the first place. See the grubs section below.
In the meantime, if you'd like to encourage your mole army to encamp elsewhere, use a castor oil repellant. Garden centers usually carry these products in spray and granular forms. Apply when the weather is dry.
Whereas moles are bug-eatin' vermin, voles are plant-eatin' vermin. They usually prefer garden vegetables and flower bulbs, but their menu does occasionally include grasses.
The castor-oil solution outlined for moles may work for voles, but if it doesn't, here are some other ideas:
- Try a garlic spray. This may help with your mosquito problems, too.
- Try mousetraps baited with peanut butter, placed somewhere that the voles won't feel too exposed. Voles usually stay on their runways, so set traps along these routes.
- Commercial repellents are available, too, but their effectiveness may vary.
If grubs are eating the roots of your grass and causing brown patches, there are a number of solutions within the realm of organic lawn care.
Short-Term Grub Solutions
- Lawn-Aeration Sandals — These are basically strap-on shoes with pointy spikes on the bottom. They don't do a very effective job of aerating, but they will pierce and kill grubs if the grubs are close enough to the surface.
- Nematodes — You can purchase and apply beneficial nematodes that will attack and kill the grubs. Look for the Heterorhabditis variety, and purchase a product designed to work in your temperature zone. Apply annually if you have a continuing problem.
Long-Term and General Grub Solutions
- Milky Spore — If you've managed to determine that your particular grubby invader is from the Japanese Beetle line, milky spore is a good long-term solution for organic lawn care enthusiasts. You apply it three years in a row, and after that it should be clear sailing for many years to come. It won't, of course, prevent the Japanese beetles that hatched in your neighbors' yards from eating your roses, but at least it will set up solid defenses against the beetles' grubs and prevent future damage to your lawn.
- Starlings — Though this invasive bird is causing problems for many native bird species, one of its positive attributes is that it eats grubs. So, that slightly creepy flock of starlings in your yard is really doing great things for you.
- Killer Wasps — If you plant peonies, firethorn, and forsythia, they will attract the Spring Tiphia wasp, which uses grubs as a nursery for her young. "Eww" ... but effective. (For more information on garden insectaries, see our article on beneficial insects and the plants that support them.
Why should you be tolerant of ants in your lawn? Because ants and termites are enemies, and a healthy ant population can help keep termites away. Those little wood-chewing buggers can cause problems much greater than mere unsightly ant mounds in your lawn.
CRAZY ANTS IN YOUR ATTIC ...
If you think the little black ants in the lawn are the same ones that are making raids into your kitchen, see our article on control for sugar ants.
But if you have an ants-in-the-lawn problem that is getting out of control, there are a few ways to deal with it naturally/organically:
- Saturate the ant mound(s) with water from your garden hose. Do this a few times and the ants will start to get the hint and move elsewhere.
- Grow certain plants whose fragrances ants find off-putting, including bay laurel, tansy, feverfew, and camphor.
- Apply diatomaceous earth directly to the ants' areas of operation. This may be effective, as may boric acid solutions.
These little buggers will feed on a variety of grasses, including fescues, ryegrasses, bluegrass, bentgrass, zoysia, and Bermuda grass. The news is not all bad—they will also feed on your crabgrass.
The first sign of chinch bug damage will be yellowing patches in your lawn. If the patches proceed to become straw-colored, the grass there may be completely dead.
Your first line of defense is simple lawn watering in the spring and summer. Chinch bugs need hot dry conditions for optimum survival and reproduction, and the nymphs of the species don't tolerate large water droplets. There are also a few resistant species of grass you can consider if chinch bugs are a continuing problem for your lawn.
To help yellowed grass recover from chinch bug damage, fertilize lightly and keep the area watered.
We know there are more lawn pests that some of you will no doubt encounter. For more tips, see UC Davis' tip sheet on Lawn Insects.
Some garden centers and all chemical manufacturers would have you believe that your lawn simply can't survive without their toxic products. But it isn't so, and many of the techniques we've described in this lawn-care series are not only natural or organic, they're free!
Know someone who loves their lawn—and their kids and pets? Please send them this article about organic lawn care.
For more articles in this series, see the index to the right.
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