The Essential Organic Lawn Care Guide
Lawns are evil.
Ok, perhaps that is a harsh generalization. I like a picnic on soft blades of grass as much as the next person. At the same time, I don’t like wasteful practices that are harmful to the earth.
I would much prefer if everyone would replace their water-guzzling lawn with drought-tolerant gardens, native plants to attract pollinators, or zero-mile vegetable gardens. I would prefer to replace MY lawn with pavers and ground covers but I don’t have the only vote in the house.
We maintain a small patch of grass for kids and pets to play on in the back garden. It is a lovely, green, organic, natural lawn that requires almost no maintenance. If you too must have grass, then here is how I care for my lawn, without pesticides, herbicides, store-bought fertilizer, or water-waste.
This essential guide will show you how to create and maintain an organic lawn that is safe for people, pets, and all the other creatures who share the space.
Prepare the Soil
Rake the lawn to remove any debris. Remove any weeds without too much digging. Opening up the soil also allows dormant weed seeds to awaken and germinate, creating even more weeds! Keep the weeding to a minimal and it will reduce the overall number of weeds you have to dig up in the future.
Grass likes alkaline soil, so if you have acidic soil, you can spread some lime to help raise the pH. The best way to determine your soil pH is to use a pH kit.
Lawns are made up of different kinds of grasses:
- Rye grass is used as a base in lawn mixes. It’s cold-tolerant and rebounds well under heavy traffic. It grows in clumps so it’s best used in a mix where other grasses can fill in around it.
- Bluegrass is a nice green grass that fills in patches well.
- Tall fescue is an easily established grass that is heat-tolerant.
- Fine fescues are shade tolerant and slow growing.
Choose lawn seed that is a mix of these grasses for the best results. A shady lawn blend will work in both sun and shade, so it is a good choice if you have a lawn that has mixed lighting.
Spread seed evenly over the entire lawn, and add some extra in bare patches. Cover seed with a thin layer of turf soil, a mix of compost and sand to ensure good drainage.
For new lawns, seed 3x in the spring for instance: March, April, and May. To fill in the lawn, seed 2x in the spring.
Mowing and Fertilizing
Keep lawn at 2”-3” long to promote vigorous growth and prevent weeds. Fertilize your lawn naturally by leaving grass clippings on the lawn after mowing. They are rich in nitrogen and provide free fertilizer perfect for turf. Let the grass grow a bit longer and go to seed before you cut it, and you have now also seeded your lawn in the process!
If you go without watering your lawn for a whole year, you will quickly learn if lawn the right choice for your area. If the lawn can’t survive without a lot of added water throughout the season, then think about changing it to ground covers, native species, or even edible gardens (more on this is described at the end of this article).
If you must water your lawn, limit it to 1” of water once a week to promote deep roots that will require less water and maintenance. Measure water by placing a cup or a jar on the lawn and label the cup 1” from the bottom as the fill line.
It is completely natural and healthy for grass to turn brown in the heat of summer. Grasses do not like heat and will go dormant in very hot weather to protect the plants. The best way to deal with this is to accept that lawns will brown in the summer, and turn green again when the temperature cools. Save water and allow the plants to thrive by supporting their natural cycle not preventing it.
If the soil is compacted and needs loosening, you can pierce the sod with a pitch fork in the fall, then spread turf soil and rake to fill it in. This doesn’t need to be done every year. Every 3-4 years or as needed is sufficient. Keep in mind that any aeration also invites dormant weed seeds to become active again, so aeration should only be used when soil is clearly too compacted to thrive.
With these steps, I maintain a small and lush patch of grass in my yard. It is surrounded by flowering and edible gardens and one day it may be removed forever. For now though, I have a lovely organic lawn.
If your grass can’t easily be managed in your yard using these tips, then it might be time to consider replacing your lawn. Look for alternative ground covers such as moss, Blue Star Creeper (Isotoma fluviatillis), Kidney Weed (Dichondra micrantha), Bugleflower (Ajuga reptans), white clover (Trifolium repens), periwinkle (Vinca minor), and Elfin Thyme (Thymus serpyllum). Many seed companies also create an eco-lawn alternative full of hardy plant mixes that are perfect for lawn replacement as require less mowing and water, and can survive foot traffic.
Or why not turn your lawn into garden? Here are some tips on converting lawn into garden beds without waste.
Oh, and it you are looking for a way to prevent dogs from destroying the grass by doing their ‘business’, then check out this article on building a flushable dog run.