The grass can be greener

Adding organic lawn care isn't as complicated as you might think.

May 6, 2013
Julie Collins
Bionutrition Today sponsored by Lebanon

If you’re looking to try something different with your lawn care services, maybe it’s time to step out of the conventional lawn care routine and provide organic lawn care. Getting started is easier than you might think.

“Going organic is doable, affordable, and does not have to be overly complicated,” says Chip Osborne, owner of Osborne Organics.

Here’s the lowdown on how to start.

Get your learn on. The most important first step? Get educated, says Nadeau Nadeau, president of Plantscapes Organics.

If you head to the hardware store and buy a four-step organic program, it won’t work. “You’ll go back to chemicals as quickly as possible,” Nadeau says. To succeed, you have to understand the fundamentals of organic lawn care.

“A conventional program is a product-centered approach where we’ve been taught to buy certain products at certain times of the year and put them down to manage the lawn,” Osborne says. “An organic approach is systems-based. The focus isn’t on product, it’s on building healthy soil.”

Conventional fertilizers are generally petroleum-derived, water-soluble nitrogen products. “Because conventional fertilizer is soluble, the plant can’t help but take it up in the roots, which causes excessive growth,” Nadeau says.

Organic fertilizer applications, on the other hand, involve putting down organic materials such as feather meal and finely ground rocks that the organisms in the soil consume. Eventually, these organisms produce waste in a form the plants take up. It’s a natural cycle called the “poop loop” or, more traditionally, the “soil food web.”

A typical conventional lawn care program requires about 5 pounds of nitrogen for every 1,000 square feet of lawn per season. “What that does is make the grass grow very lush, very green, but it grows abnormally, which takes a lot out of the plant,” Nadeau says.

By contrast, organic lawn care generally requires no more than 3 pounds of organic fertilizer, and often much less than that, per 1,000 square feet of lawn. “That fertilizer is broken down very slowly by microorganisms and fed to the plant in the most efficient manner when plants need it the most,” Nadeau says.

Make the transition. There are a couple of ways to jump from conventional to organic lawn care. The first: go cold turkey.

“You can just stop applying synthetics and go straight to organic materials,” Nadeau says. “Generally, your lawn will look worse before it looks better. It will take a while for the soil food web to build up on its own, but compost applications, compost tea and organic fertilizers can help.”

The other option is a gradual transition, or what Nadeau calls “rugs on drugs.”

“You can use bridge products that have a bit of synthetic components in them because the soil will not be able to assimilate 100 percent organic fertilizer yet,” Nadeau says. The transitional program weans the plants off synthetics and conditions the soil to accept organics over time.

Test your soil. The typical soil test identifies abundance or deficiency of minerals and nutrients and your soil pH so you can create optimum conditions for growing grass. Nadeau also recommends a bioassay soil test to ensure the right organisms are present.

Soil test kits are sold at many home improvement stores or online. Many Cooperative Extension System offices also offer soil testing and interpretation services. Or organic lawn care professionals can conduct the tests and develop a lawn care plan based on the results.

Improve the system. Once you know which minerals, nutrients and organisms are needed, you can begin whipping your soil into shape.

Organic matter only comprises 5 percent or less of your soil, but it’s vital. “Think of organic matter as a luxury condominium where soil organisms live,” Nadeau says. If the organic matter in a lawn is below 3 percent, adding a quarter to half an inch of finished compost and then applying compost tea can help achieve the right balance.

Compost tea is made from brewing different types of compost (high in fungi or bacteria, depending on what a lawn needs.) The organisms living in the compost get drawn into the liquid and are fed so they multiply. Once the liquid is brewed, it’s placed in a specialized sprayer and applied on the lawn.

Granular or liquid organic fertilizers also are available. Osborne recommends looking for low-nitrogen, phosphorous-free organic fertilizers that focus on living biological organisms and do not contain synthetic chemical. (He suggests trying Fire Belly Organic Lawn Care products.)

Be smart about maintenance. “Thirty percent of the success of an organic lawn care program is how the lawn is mowed,” Nadeau says. Keep grass at least 3 inches tall to maximize leaf surface available for collecting sun. “That means more photosynthesis, more carbon, more root growth, and a more vigorous plant,” Nadeau says. Plus millions of 3-inch grass blades cast more shade on the soil than if you trim to 2 inches, which helps prohibit weed seeds – particularly crabgrass – from germinating.

That’s a plus because organic lawn care doesn’t have a natural substitute for conventional weed killers or herbicides. “A tolerance level of 5 percent weeds or less over an acre of grass is common with organic lawn care,” Osborne says. The goal is to bring together processes that help mitigate weed pressure, even though weeds can’t be eradicated entirely.

What about watering? Less is more, Osborne says. “Grass doesn’t need a lot of water unless it’s in a drought situation.”

“Organic lawn care seems a lot more complicated than conventional,” Nadeau sayss. “But once you understand the basics, it’s much simpler. In time, you can back way off on the inputs.”

He says within five years of converting to organic lawn care, most of his clients don’t apply any fertilizer. They simply apply compost tea four times per year, leave grass clippings on the lawn, and mulch leaf clippings back into the soil in the fall. “No crabgrass control, no insects, no diseases.”

What’s not to like about that?