Organic Lawn Care

Bypass the toxic pesticides and synthetic chemical fertilizers with these tips for a beautiful green and environmentally-friendly lawn.

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    Aerate the soil first, this will improve drainage and let oxygen, water and nutrients move through the soil.
    Photo by Adobestock/irianashiyan
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    Ryegrass greens a field somewhere in Arkansas.

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There is no substitute for grass as recreational surface for play areas, parklands and ball fields. It is infinitely superior to concrete, and even Astroturf. As a low foreground feature or a distant carpet of green, lawns are a vital aesthetic component of almost any landscape design. They also play a positive environmental role by moderating temperatures and purifying air.

But there is a dark side to this verdant love affair. By 1984, the United States applied more synthetic chemical fertilizers on its lawns than India applied on all its food crops. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, an estimated 65 million pounds of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides were applied around homes and gardens, with another 165 million pounds used on industrial, commercial and government landscapes—much of this on the nation's lawns, playfields, parks and cemeteries. Other studies indicate that urban and suburban residents are now subjected to more pesticide exposure than their rural counterparts, in spite of the heavy use of pesticides in agricultural areas.

All in all, lawn management by both homeowners and professionals is now a leading cause of environmental contamination. To keep from poisoning our love affair with grass, it may behoove us to practice a different, more healthful kind of lawn care instead.

To most academic or professional turf managers, the idea of ecological, organic lawn care is heresy. After all, a synthetic-based turf management program typically includes four or more applications of a strong, high-nitrogen fertilizer and 10 or more doses of various pesticides—a money-intensive regimen. Yet before World War II, splendid lawns (and gardens) were kept without the heavy synthetic chemical inputs taken as gospel today. Many of the classic lawns and gardens of England, for example, are more than three or four centuries old and still as pure and lush as green velvet.

Happily, more and more people are again growing lovely lawns ecologically. Examples? Since Irwin Brawley turned to organic vegetable-raising techniques, he has maintained the 100 acres of lawns at North Carolina's Davidson College without using any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides—for over 15 years. This includes the school's heavily used athletic fields.

Golfers have to make reservations ahead of time at the popular Sagamore-Hampton Golf Club in southern New Hampshire. There is hardly a more demanding turf than a golf green, yet general manager Peter Luff has maintained all of Sagamore-Hampton's lawn areas organically since the mid-'60s.

Gloria Sargent
10/2/2012 7:18:51 PM

I've just inherited a really bad lawn, so we aerated it (plugger) and overseeded with Rebel Fescue. Nice rains brought up the seeds nicely. We're hoping the fescue will establish itself before spring, we're in NC and they say it will grow all winter. It we get a hard freeze, I'll top dress with the free compost from the county. Otherwise, quarterly dressings with Milorganite should keep it healthy, the free compost load we mulched with had some earthworms. I'm trying to find a source for fish emulsion, I think an early spring spraying should make for a great growing season. I think the country sprays their compost, it's a dark, almost black color. They only take leaves and branches, so I think they use an accelerant to hasten decomposition. My seeds did germinate faster in the bare areas I used the compost to cover them. This is probably s 3 year project to rehabilitate the lawn, but it's a large lot so tilling and reseeding would have made more of a mess.

2/5/2008 8:30:10 PM

a very informative article. I do miss the hint that even in a nice lawn there can be blooming plants like low growing blooming plants. I planted red and white clover and a few others, the bees and bumblebees love it. On the sides and the bed I let some California poppies grow wild among other bloomers and there also is heavy bee traffic. The green stuff is going dormant during our hot summers, I want to save water and it works just fine.

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