There’s no shortage of lawn care chemicals on the market today. Whether it’s fertilizer, weed control, pest control, or soil conditioners, you have virtually endless options. However, many of these are loaded in chemicals that may make your lawn look great, but they can harm your soil quality, lawn hardiness, or even the people and animals playing in your yard.
To prevent these potential issues, many homeowners are switching to organic lawn care. Where do you start? Below we cover how to get off the chemical lawn care products organically .
The Problem With Chemically Dependent Laws
Chemical fertilization and lawn maintenance industries continue to thrive, especially with strict homeowner association rules forcing your hand. If your lawn starts to brown or sprout weeds, you could get a swift HOA nastygram warning you to rectify the problem within a week or face a fine.
It’s no wonder most homeowners seek the quick fix chemical lawn care products provide. While these chemical-heavy lawn care products often put on their best face by calling themselves non-toxic or safe for pets, there are some severe downsides to using chemical herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers.
Runoff and Leaching
Runoff is when excess chemicals run off your yard and into the waterways due to heavy rains. Leeching is when unabsorbed chemicals make it through the soil, also during heavy rains, and into the water table, contaminating the groundwater, which eventually makes its way into the surrounding waterways.
This process may be slow and go almost unnoticed, but it can eventually significantly impact fish and other water-dwelling creatures.
Not Totally Non-Toxic
Most professional lawn care companies will tout their products as non-toxic, but there’s a catch. After they complete an application, they’ll often put a sign out that reads “stay off until dry.” This is often because the chemical they applied is toxic until it dries.
You may be able to keep your kids and pets off the lawn until it dries, but other peoples’ pets and wildlife can’t read that sign.
Kills the Original Lawn Care Professionals: Earthworms
Earthworms are nature’s lawn care professionals. Sure, they are squirmy, slimy, and known to damage woodlands, but they are also the original lawn care professionals. They not only eat decomposing grass and other organic matter, but their waste is some of the best fertilizer. And since they live deep in your soil, your grass must grow deep, powerful roots to reach it.
Second, earthworms are natural aerators. As they burrow through your soil, they keep it loose so nutrients and water easily pass through.
According to the U.S. Wildlife Federation, chemical-based lawn care products kill up to 90% of the earthworm population in your yard.
Prepare Your Soil for the Transition to Organic
The switch to an organic lawn starts with preparation. Start by raking up all the thatch, the organic material, like grass clippings, dead roots, rhizomes, and others, that sits at the base of the grass. This ensures the organic fertilizer and other amendments have a clear path to the soil.
If you don’t feel like raking up the thatch, you can opt for a liquid dethatcher instead.
Next, aerate your yard. If you have a small yard, you can use a manual aerator, but those with a larger yard will appreciate a powered or tow-behind aerator. You can rent these from nearly any tool rental or hardware store. You can also take a third, easier route and use a liquid aerator.
Aerating the soil breaks up the clumps and leaves small holes that allow the nutrients and water get deep into the ground, forcing the grass to grow deep, hardy roots.
Fix Your Soil
Making the switch to an organic lawn requires healthy and nutrient-rich soil. Great soil will allow your organic lawn to thrive as well or better than it ever did when it depended on chemicals.
Before you start adding organic soil amendments, you’ve got to test the soil. Head to your local lawn and garden store and pick up a lawn nutrient test and a pH test. Using these tests will give you a great idea of where your lawn’s struggling and how to get it ready for the big switch to organics.
Some tests will give you immediate results, but more complex tests may require you to send samples to a lab.
Ideally, your lawn’s pH will be between 5.5 and 7, and the nutrient levels will be spot on. Unfortunately, the world of lawn care is rarely “ideal,” so you’ll like see that both the nutrient levels and pH levels are out of whack.
Adjust Your Soil’s pH Organically
Adjusting your soil’s pH isn’t a quick fix, but it can be a long-lasting fix if you choose the right products.
If your pH is low and needs a boost, limestone is your best option. It may take a little while to take effect, but it lasts longer than any other solution. You’ve got to get the amount right, or you risk burning your turf.
The calculations are as follows:
Sandy Soil: 2 pounds per 100 square feet
Loamy Soil: 3.5 pounds per 100 square feet
Clay soil: 5 pounds per 100 square feet
If your soil’s pH is a little high and needs to come down quickly, the best organic compound for this is elemental sulfur. Like limestone, you must add the right amount of elemental sulfur to get the best results and not cause any damage.
The calculations to reduce pH by 1 point are as follows:
Loamy or Sandy Soils: 10-15 pounds per 1,000 square feet
Clay Soil: 20-25 pounds per 1,000 square feet
Sulfur, while very effective at lowering pH, can also be extremely harmful to your grass in high doses. So, you want to spread out the recommended application over 3-4 weeks and never apply more than 10 pounds per 1,000 square feet per year.
If your lawn requires more than 10 pounds of elemental sulfur to get the pH right, break them up into yearly application cycles. Ideally, do a few applications in the spring or fall each year until the pH levels are where you need them.
Check and finetune your soil’s pH a few times per year.
Feed Your Lawn the Good Stuff
You head to that high-end grocery store to snag those top-shelf organic meats and veggies for your family. You have no problem with the extra cost because healthier food for your family justifies the cost.
The same thought should apply when feeding your lawn.
Think of these chemically produced fertilizers as the packaged ramen noodles you find in the grocery store for about 50 cents each. Sure, they’ll fill you up and taste good, but too much can leave you with other issues. Organic foods (and fertilizer) may cost more, but they’re often far better for you.
Plus, a large portion of these chemical-heavy fertilizers ends up in our waterway and aquifers, which can cause issues for humans and wildlife alike. Instead, switch to organic fertilizer, like self-prepared compost or composted manure.
You can spread the compost over your yard using a broadcast spreader, drop spreader, or a shovel until a 1.5- to 2-inch layer covers your yard. Rake the compost as deep as possible into the soil and water it in.
This topdressing process gets the nutrients deep into the soil, forcing your grass to grow deep roots. The deeper the roots, the healthier and more resilient the soil is.
Check your soil’s nutrient levels periodically throughout the year and make small adjustments as needed.
Chemical-Free Weed Control
Unsightly weeds are a catalyst to run to the lawn and garden store, pick up the nastiest weed killer you can find, and eradicate them. Unfortunately, these chemicals have been linked to many cancers and other health issues in humans, not to mention the impact they have on wildlife.
But there are ways to prevent and eliminate weeds organically. And, in some cases, what you think are weeds are actually useful plants and herbs.
That’s Not a Weed
Not every non-grass plant the sprouts in your yard is a weed. For example, clover is actually very beneficial, as it helps deliver natural nitrogen into your soil. Plus, it is one of the few plants that give bees early spring nectar.
Some plants that sprout in your yard may also be tasty herbs or have other uses. These useful “weeds” include:
Goldenrod: Treatment for respiratory issues, diabetes, wounds, and you can brew it into a calming tea
Dandelion: Edible and a great source of vitamins A, B complex, C, and D and minerals like iron, potassium, and zinc
Plantain: Useful as a treatment for stings, burns, and cuts
Wild Garlic: Moth, insect, and mole repellent
Wild Strawberry: Edible, and it’s useful as an anticoagulant, antiseptic, and fever reducer
Chickweed: Great in salads and soups and is a source of calcium, potassium, and vitamins A, B and C.
Thick Turf Wins
Beneficial or not, sometimes, you just want the weeds gone, and the best weed preventative is a thick and healthy lawn.
If your grass is thick enough, it’ll choke out any sprouting weeds, preventing them from growing large enough to spread. Using the organic pH adjustment and fertilization processes listed above, you can get the thick lawn you need to prevent weeds from ever growing.
Keep the Mower High and Sharp
Thick turf also requires proper mowing. Gone are the days of shorter is better. In the world of organic lawn care, more frequent mowing with less cut off the top is ideal. Aim to cut no more than a third of the grass at a time and always leave at least 3 inches of grass.
Also, avoid mowing when the grass is stressed, like during extremely hot days or when the grass is dry and brittle. Keeping your mower blade sharp will ensure you slice the grass blades instead of breaking them off, improving your law’s health.
Deep, Infrequent Watering
Growing a thick, weed-resistant lawn also requires proper watering. There’s no need to water multiple times per week in most areas. Instead, ensure your grass gets its requires 1-2 inches of water per week, including rain. If your lawn doesn’t get enough rain and needs watering, limit your irrigation to one deep watering per week.
This deep, infrequent watering forces the grass to grow deeper roots to find water. And as we’ve mentioned multiple times, deep roots equals healthy, hardy grass.
Pre-Emergent Weed Control
Pre-emergent weed control prevents weeds from ever reaching the surface by keeping their seeds from germinating. Unfortunately, nearly every pre-emergent herbicide on the market is loaded with chemicals that can harm you or the surrounding wildlife.
That said, there is one pre-emergent herbicide that’s perfectly non-toxic: corn meal gluten. In an Iowa State University study, researchers accidentally found that corn gluten meal prevented grass seeds from sprouting. The researchers tried it on several weeds, including crabgrass chickweed, and dandelions with success. The researchers attributed its ability to curb weeds to its dipeptides.
Plus, corn meal gluten is 10% nitrogen, so it fertilizes while protecting your lawn.
Unfortunately, later research contradicted these findings, as Oregon State University researchers had no success preventing weeds with corn meal gluten. In fact, some OSU researchers claimed corn meal gluten has too much nitrogen and can negatively impact.
So, when using corn meal, keep in mind that your mileage may vary. If it doesn’t work for you, stick with post-emergent weed control.
Post-Emergent Weed Control
Unfortunately, there are no known organic selective herbicides. Every selective herbicide — those designed to kill weeds and not grass — are loaded with chemicals.
So, if you want to do post-emergent weed control, you have two choices: pull it out or dig it out.
If a weed is well-established and has deep roots, you’ll want to dig it out to ensure you’ve removed the entire root system. If it’s small, you can grip the weed firmly by its base and pull upward sharply to remove it.
Get the Lawn You Want, Organically
Getting that lush, green lawn is a goal for many homeowners, but many do so with chemicals, putting Mother Nature and their kids or pets at risk. By switching to an organic lawn, you can save Mother Nature and, potentially, lives.
Switching to organic lawn care requires significant commitment, but it’s a rewarding and relieving process when done right.