Getting Your Lawn off Drugs: Converting Conventional to Sustainable

Posted on Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

When it comes to treating lawns, I categorize expectations in one of three ways. The first is that the lawn needs to be finely manicured, weed free and green at all the right times of the year depending on the type of turf. It will be irrigated as often as necessary to maintain the lush carpet regardless of rainfall. The second category would be that the lawn should be mown on an appropriate schedule to appear kempt. There should be more desirable turf than weeds and that it’s generally fed and green throughout the growing season. Once in a while you may supplement rainfall with irrigation during the toughest of seasons. The final category is much more “granola-crunchy” than the prior two. To this Earth steward, there is no definition between what is classified as weeds and turf. Everything green is acceptable and as long as it’s mowed to keep the “meadow” from becoming too long, it is just fine. Fertilizer and weed control are not necessary because weeds everything existing grows naturally without supplemental means. There is never a reason to apply supplemental water because that seems like a huge waste of resources and is unnatural.

You probably have decided in reading these categories which you fall into. In this article, we’ll touch on the first two categories more than the last, as this is where gardeners tend to struggle the most with the change. When we say, “getting your lawn off drugs”, we are referring to working to make the switch from conventional (synthetic) fertilizers to using a more natural approach integrating organic fertilizers, natural growth hormones and soil builders amongst other things. You may say that it surely is impossible to gain the exact same results naturally as you would with synthetic products and that there is no reason to compromise your expectations for the sake of “being green” or environmentally conscious. To this end, there are ways to manage expectations and to also use appropriately timed products and approaches to gain outstanding results.

There are many reasons that consumers as well as agricultural crop farmers are being encouraged to use organics. I find myself compelled to make the commitment to this change because I recognize that many chemical fertilizer components are not held in the soil, rather are leached readily into our groundwater and into streams, rivers and lakes through runoff. It is very difficult and costly to decontaminate drinking water from the nitrate form that is shed from fertilizers. It is also known that phosphates cause terrible toxicity to aquatic life and also causes eutrophication. This is the process where algae and other phosphate-dependent organisms proliferate on the water’s surface. This in turn uses available oxygen and prevents sunlight from entering the water making quite an unlivable environment for many species. Besides the wastes that are directly from the compounds, the production of chemical fertilizers and the inert ingredient wastes that are created are highly toxic to plants, animals and humans. You can find pages of research studies and articles for more information by searching “chemical fertilizer toxicity” on the internet and decide for yourself whether the risks outweigh the benefits. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, as they say…

Now you’re wondering, how can natural products and sustainable practices achieve as great success as “once-and-done” fertilizers and weed control products and how can you make the switch. It’s as simple as stopping the use of chemical fertilizer and beginning to focus instead on the health of your soil. Soil microbes are the best defense against soil borne pathogens and pests as well as managing the fertility in the plant. A good step to begin with is a soil test. As many testing agents will focus merely on the chemical fertilizer residue that is available to plants, have the sample also tested for soil microbe species count and organic material. Once you commit to using organic fertilizer, a good start is in composting your lawn. You may be skeptical about the use and benefits of compost, but in short, healthy, decomposed compost that is spread and raked or swept over the grass onto the soil works beautifully to feed your microbes. Healthy microbes will, in turn, make healthy plants. Organic fertilizers come in various forms and generally need to be put out at a higher rate than chemical fertilizers and become effective and available to the plant after the microbes have processed the material. This usually takes a couple of weeks to see visible results.

The role and performance of the microscopic soil organisms is pretty astounding. They are the decomposers and work to create humus out of plant and animal wastes. Other functions are enhancing soil porosity, increasing water filtration and reducing runoff, improving soil tilth and structure and shift the soil to a neutral pH. These little guys work wonders for landscapes and lawns and require very little to stay motivated. Provide your microbial life with lawn clippings, plant or animal protein and proper hydration and the transition will begin to take effect. It’s important to have patience, as these large scale changes do not happen instantly and will take a season or so to show visible improvement. Take heart in knowing that your persistence in this manner will result in much more disease, pest and drought resistant turf. In time, the healthy turf and roots will naturally resist environmental stresses and rebound much more quickly from them than lawns which are chemically treated. Your soil will be richer in color and texture and will cease to be bleached due to the high salts in chemical fertilizers.

Some maintenance measures should also be put in place to help you see maximum results in your turf. Each type of grass requires a little bit different mowing height for optimum results. Warm season lawns, such as Bermuda and Zoysia, prefer a mowing height of 1”-2.5” and cool season Fescue does best when mowed around 3.5”-4”. Ideally, you’ll cut off no more than 1/3 the blade height with each mowing and allow the clippings to fall into the lawn. As microbes get to work, there should be virtually no thatch to be concerned with. Also, mowing at the highest setting allows grass to grow thickly and shade out unwanted weeds.

This brings me to the next point about weeds. As there are no “weed and feed” organic products, it’s best to use good cultural practices and eventually your lawn will choke them out. Weeds are opportunistic and grow where there are voids and where there is little competition. So, in thin and weak lawns with poor pH and little microbial life, weeds essentially have a field day. To combat this, Corn Gluten Meal is an organic pre-emergent that can be ordered from local feed and seed stores. This natural protein takes time to begin working in the soil, but will build up residual in the lawn and also will act as a plant protein fertilizer. Timing is everything in getting this product to work right as it suppresses seed growth but will only work to feed weeds which have already germinated. And, while it takes a bit of time and effort, the best option, especially in small to medium sized lawns, is to hand pull the weeds. Combining proper mowing and hand pulling to keep weeds from producing seeds are two important steps to aid in detoxifying your lawn.

Lastly, be sure not to over water your lawn. Good cultural practices and avoidance of unwanted pests and disease are managed best when the soil is neither overly wet nor dry and cracked. If you irrigate, do so less often with longer intervals. This will increase the depth of water in the soil and will “train” your roots to go deeper for hydration. The results are more drought resistant plants and less favorable conditions for fungal pathogens to begin manifesting. Another way to see it is as a true savings in expense whether you’re on a city water system, rainwater system or pumping water system, you’re saving cost in water and/or electricity in becoming a low-water consumer. There will also be a savings in costs of products being purchased and applied to control unwanted pests and disease that occur during periods of turf stress.

Whether or not you have made the decision to get your lawn off drugs “cold turkey” method or are more interested in a weening approach, there is some level that can be achieved. If you begin with eliminating one round of chemicals or all of it at once, the efforts will make a difference. Contact a local sustainable landscaping professional in your area for assistance. Or, do a bit more research on your own lawn type and soil and begin a regimen that works for you and your budget. Even little steps in the right direction will propel you forward and eventually, with satisfaction and results, you will begin running, barefooted, with an organic program.