The (Organic) Grass Is Always Greener

Bright green, weed free, and well groomed — this is what’s almost universally considered to be the perfect lawn.

Most lawns that fit this description come about thanks to synthetic products — fertilizers and weed killers. But beautiful lawns can also be cultivated organically.

A great organic lawn begins at root level with great soil. Great soil means soil that’s teeming with life, with the organisms and microorganisms — earthworms, fungi, bacteria and whatnot — that support the plants that grow in it. These tiny organisms provide this support by breaking down organic materials — things like grass cuttings, leaf particles, and other natural matter — into minerals that the grass plants use to make carbohydrates and sugars during photosynthesis, and by helping plants build their natural defenses against insect and disease invaders.

You can do a complete lawn overhaul on your own if you have the tools and the time, and if a good amount of physical labor doesn’t daunt you. However, most homeowners find it easier to call in the experts, and it’s definitely a good idea to do so if you’re thinking about making substantial changes to your yard — such as improving the slope around your house or improving drainage issues.

Step 1: Pump Up the Volume

If you want lush, weed-free grass and you want it fast, increasing the density of the grass plants growing in your lawn is one of the best ways to get there. Weed seeds don’t have a chance when grass is thick and healthy, since the roots and the leaf canopy overhead literally squeeze them out.

Fall is traditional overseeding time if you’re growing cool-season grasses (spring is for warm-season grasses) because the conditions are most favorable, but you can overseed almost any time of the year. Cool-season grasses are grasses like Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and perennial fescues that are typically grown in cooler climates. Warm-season grasses are grasses like Bermuda grass, St. Augustine grass, and Bahia grass that grow in warmer climates.

For the best results:

  • Choose a seed mix that matches the blend of grasses already growing in your lawn. Don’t use a mix that’s formulated for grass growing in the sun if your yard runs more to the shade. (If you have a lot of shady spots or your yard is fairly sun deprived overall, your grass probably isn’t growing all that well and it won’t matter what you do, as grass needs a fair amount of sun to thrive. Consider something else in its place, such as a shade-loving ground cover.)
  • Prepare your lawn for the seed by cutting it fairly short — about 2 inches or so will give the seeds the sunlight they’ll need for germination.
  • Use a drop or rotary spreader (hand spreaders are okay, too, but you’ll get better results with a larger spreader, especially if you have a good deal of ground to cover) and spread the seed at a rate of about 3 to 4 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

You can give the new seed a bit of a nutritional boost and protect it at the same time by topdressing it with a very light layer of compost after you put it down. Make sure you apply a very thin layer — too much compost will prevent sunlight from reaching the seeds and diminish the germination rate.

Be sure to keep the seeds moist after putting them down. They’ll stop growing if they dry out and they won’t start again no matter what you do, because seeds only contain enough food to support one germination. If the process is interrupted before they develop blades and roots, you’ll have to start over again.

Step Two: Whack the Weeds

Weeds are largely the result of not taking care of your lawn properly, so when you start doing things right their levels should diminish a bit on their own. But they won’t go away entirely. Weeds are always present in lawns, and weed seeds are always present in the soil — the top layer of soil can house up to 40 million weed seeds. What’s more, they can remain viable in the soil for as long as 30 years and even longer in some cases.

Weeds always seem like a bigger issue when you’re right on top of them. For a clearer perspective on your weeds, spend some time examining your lawn from the curb, the same vantage point that most people use. If your lawn is home to an average amount of weeds, you shouldn’t have to do more than the following to control them:

  • Mow at the right height. Keeping your grass at the high end of its length range—usually around 3 inches or so—will go a long way toward fighting crab grass. According to some experts, this technique is as effective as using herbicides, if not more so.
  • Pluck and pull. Many weeds can be controlled by hand, but you have to stay on top of them. Candidates for this approach include crab grass, dallis grass, oxalis, spurge, broadleaf plantain, and ground ivy. Fibrous, deep-rooted weeds like dandelions are not a good candidate for pulling, as they’ll keep coming up if you don’t get all of their roots out. But you can dig them up with a dandelion tool.
  • Apply corn gluten meal. Corn gluten meal is effective on many types of weed seeds and it boosts turf nutrition as well.
  • Spot-treat with herbicidal soap. Herbicidal soaps kill plants by burning their leaves. They’re good for spot treating but be careful with them, as they will kill anything they come into contact with. They’re not as effective on perennial weeds, but they will suppress them with repeated application.
  • Torch ‘em. Farmers have taken this approach for some time. The home version requires a weed-flaming tool—basically a long wand—and a small butane or propane gas tank. You don’t actually burn the weed, you hold the flame close enough to scorch the foliage. The plant then dies from dehydration.

Weed control should take place as long as grass is actively growing. Try to remove any weeds before they go to seed.

Clover is often considered a weed but it’s actually one of the most beneficial plants you could ask for in a yard. Turfgrass enthusiasts detest it because its round leaves disrupt the uniform look of well-groomed lawns, and it flowers, which again disrupts uniform fields of green. It can also make big brown patches in your lawn during drought conditions and in the early fall when it goes dormant. But clover adds nitrogen to the soil, which is a good thing; nitrogen is one of the three essential elements for plant health. So if you find clover in your yard, think twice before pulling it all out or dousing it with chemicals.

Take Action

Show your commitment to going chemical-free on your lawn by signing the SafeLawns Million Acre Challenge at www.SafeLawns.org. There are more than 40 million acres of turf in the United States; SafeLawns is committed to converting one million of them to eco-friendly yards by 2010 by spreading the word on the benefits of environmentally responsible lawn care and gardening. When you sign the SafeLawns Million Acre Challenge pledge, you’re showing your commitment to caring for your lawn in an eco-friendly way, including eliminating synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, using a push and/or electric mower, and watering and planting responsibly.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organic Living by Eliza Sarasohn with Sonia Weiss.

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