This was going to be one post with five steps, but it was getting so long that I decided to break it into five parts. This is part one of a series about my transition to organic lawn care.
I was at the carnival yesterday at our local park district, and while I was waiting for my daughter to finish her ride, I looked down at grass growing out of dirt that appeared and felt like concrete. Have you ever seen this? This is also the park district that, while backing up to our town’s lake, sprays liberal amounts of chemical fertilizers and herbicides all over their fields and other property.
That’s Dirt—Not Soil
Speaking of their other property, I sent my daughter to the park district’s preschool program that was held in the lake’s summertime beach house. It’s a beautiful setting that also has a playground right outside the door. Unfortunately for the kids (and the lake), there are certain days in the Fall and Spring when the kids can’t use the playground because of an unsafe herbicide treatment. Why would we want to spray with chemicals that are unsafe for humans and pets? Especially at a preschool in a park district?
Photo credit: Peter Organisciak
Anyway, staring down at the concrete-dirt reminded me of when we moved into our home about twelve years ago: we had dark green lush grass and soil as hard as a rock. That’s because the grass had been treated for years by a lawn service. From what I’ve read, using chemicals are kind of like fast food for grass; it feeds it quickly with a boost of nitrogen, but does nothing to improve the soil itself. Over the years, the life in the soil slowly leaves, changing the living soil into common dirt.
Organic amendments to the lawn like organic fertilizer, compost, leaf clippings, and shredded leaves are derived from living material and they add and encourage beneficial microorganisms to move into our lawns. In addition to the microorganisms, beneficial bugs and earthworms set up shop and aerate our lawns, improve soil structure, help decompose dead material like grass clippings and shredded leaves into available nutrients, and protect against the bad microorganisms that cause disease.
Chemical fertilizers provide an “empty” type of food directly to the plants. This is like the empty calories we get from eating pure refined sugar. Microbes provide full service to the plants. They decompose dead plant and animal residues to humus; combine nitrogen and carbon to prevent nutrient loss; suppress disease; produce plant growth regulators; develop soil structure, tilth, and water penetration/retention; clean up chemical residues; shift soil pH toward neutral; retrieve nutrients from distant parts of the soil; decompose thatch; and control nitrogen supply to the plants according to need. Besides that, if a chemical fertilizer contains NPK of 10-10-10, nobody knows what the 70% of unlisted stuff is in the chemical bag that is not fertilizer.
I didn’t know anything about organic lawn care at the time, but I did know that I didn’t want to pay for the lawn service. What one learns when one stop feeding chemicals to a lawn is that it quickly turns from dark green to a light green or even yellow in no time flat.
For years, I’ve been reading about organic lawn care and I feel like I’ve finally have a lawn that’s as green, healthy (probably healthier), and weed free as my “weed and feed” neighbors . Here are five steps I have followed:
Step 1: Mow High
I do want to mention that I am writing about cool season grasses that will take a higher cut. If you live in the southern United States or a hot climate, you probably grow other types of grass (like St. Augustine or Bermuda grass)—some of which need to be mowed shorter.
In my front yard where I get full sun all day, I set my lawnmower blade as high as it will go–about four inches high. My neighbor, God bless him, cuts a golf course for a living and treats his lawn like a putting green. And just as he has to cut the golf course several times a week to maintain that super-short length, he actually mows his lawn 3-4 times a week!
The experts all say to never remove more than 1/3 of your grass blade at a time. Otherwise, we stress the plant and it often turns yellow. So if you’re trying to maintain a lawn at two inches, you have to mow as soon as it grows to three inches. That translates to several times a week since short grass grows faster.
Why does short grass grow faster? It makes sense when you realize that mowing short cuts most of the leaf off of the grass plant. Without the leaf, the grass plant can’t make food via photosynthesis. The grass goes into survival mode and uses its energy to grow a new leaf as quickly as possible. This stresses the grass plant, which is why once the summer heat arrives, my neighbor’s yard gets these huge brown patches, while mine remains tall and green. Stressing the grass by scalping it also makes the grass more susceptible to disease.
Since my blade cuts at about four inches, I can go longer periods before my grass needs to be cut. In fact, even if I let my grass get to six inches, I’d still be removing only 1/3 of the plant if cutting to four inches. And since the long grass has plenty of leaf space and can do lots of photosynthesis, the plant is strong, healthy, disease resistant, greener, and more drought tolerant.
In addition to longer grass being greener, a second great benefit to long grass is that it spreads. Grass spreads by rhizomes under the ground, but it won’t do this if it is always under stress and trying to rejuvenate its leaf. So if you have some thin patches in your grass, mowing high may be more effective than reseeding. Of course, if you mow high, your grass may go to seed a little bit before you cut, and that will naturally seed your lawn.
Tall Grass Blades=Less Mowing + Greener Grass + Less Water
The third benefit to tall grass is that it cuts down on weeds. In order for weed seeds to germinate, they need sunlight. Talk to shades the exposed soil where weed seeds land and prevents them from germinating. Even if they do germinate, a sick turf will eventually squeeze them out. I will talk more in another post about weeds, but if you have a weed problem and are cutting your grass short, consider raising your blade to see what happens over time.
I also want to mention that if your grass is in the shade or if it is very thin and prone to laying down, consider lowering your blade a little bit. For example, my grass in the backyard is in partial shade and is not as firm as my front yard grass in the full sun. Therefore, I have to lower my blade down to about 3 inches to prevent the grass from laying over. If your grass starts to lay over, it can smother the grass it covers.
In part two of How I Converted to Organic Lawn Care, I’m going to talk about what I’ve learned about feeding the lawn.
What about you? If you practice organic lawn care, please chime in with any tips. Did I miss something or make a mistake? How have your results been by mowing high?