Monday, August 21, 2006

Organic Lawn Care from Conscious Choice Magazine

If you think about it, destroying our soils through the use of artificial chemical fertilizers and herbicides makes us much more dependent on big corporations.

I get a weekly newspaper from Sanibel Island on the gulf coast of Florida. Every week there is a red tide report. Red tide is an algae that creates neurotoxins which causes seizures and death in marine mamals and fish - and toxifies filtering shelfish such as clams and oysters. It also kills or sickens sea turtles.

I've read several articles in the Sanibel-Captiva Islander about people becoming sick after harvesting clams or oysters to eat, and some even die.

Red tide feeds on fertilizer runoff from our yards and farms that travels down creeks and rivers down into the Gulf of Mexico.

If healing the Earth isn't a Progressive value for you, dig deeper into this article - because you can save yourself money by not needing chemicals, and cutting the amount of water you need for your lawn almost by half. Not to mention keeping your kids, pets, and selves from exposure to toxic chemicals. Here's how you can be "the King of your own grass" in a way that helps's a lot of little things that add up to saving the planet.

Dan Stafford

Organic Lawn Care in 6 Simple Steps

(Courtesy of Concious Choice Magazine)

By Erica Myers-Russo

Conventional lawn care is a vicious cycle. Since World War II, American backyards have been awash in synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides, all of which wreak havoc on your environment, your health, and (ironically) your lawn. That’s right, typical lawn care practices turn a relatively self-sufficient lawn into a needy wreck with shallow roots, excess thatch, compacted soil, and decreased disease resistance.

The solution is to go green: build and manage a lawn the organic way. It can be done, but it means rethinking the ecosystem from the ground up.

Step 1: Define “Lawn.”

Even a healthy lawn requires maintenance: mowing, watering, and feeding. So evaluate how much lawn you really want. Take that half-acre lot and add a dwarf fruit tree or two, a garden, and a couple of perennial beds and you’ve already decreased the amount of time, money, and energy you’ll be spending on your lawn.

Next, ask yourself if you’re a lawn perfectionist. If you want putting-green quality turf, you might need to change your priorities along with your lawn-care regimen. Without the use of broadleaf herbicides, you’ll have to tolerate the occasional dandelion. And in order to build a lawn with a healthy root system, you’ll need to keep it longer than the crew-cut it has been sporting. Most importantly, developing an organic lawn takes some time. There is no quick-fix weed killer or instant green-up fertilizer.

But before you reach for the sprayer, think about the advantages to a lawn-care approach that allows you to reduce solid waste, toxic chemicals, run-off pollution, and water usage.

Step 2: Start with the Soil

You cannot have a healthy lawn without a healthy soil. Healthy soil is more than just a “growing medium” — it’s a living substance teeming with beneficial microbial life. Horticulturalist Bill Scheffler has built a business, Pure Prairie Organics, in west suburban Wheaton, around this very premise.

“Illinois is a prairie state,” said Scheffler. “If we do nothing we grow grass. But native plants, including turf, require a mature soil.”

Scheffler offered this prescription to fix a lawn:

“Number one, stop using pesticides. The soil can repair itself as long it’s not being nuked, so stop poisoning the soil. Number two, in the Chicago area we have tight clay soil. Gypsum and sugar are terrific soil conditioners.” Yes, he said sugar. “Sugar’s a short-chain carbohydrate, and the microbes just gobble it right up.” Once the microbial life is jump-started, you are well on your way to re-establishing a healthy soil that can support healthy turf.

Scheffler added, “People always ask me, ‘What about compost tea? Mycorrhizal fungi?’ They’re fine; they’re awesome. But why are the existing microbes not active? If we don’t solve that problem, we can add compost tea until the cows come home but it won’t take.”

Step 3: Choose the Right Seeds

It’s a shame ryegrass doesn’t have a name as picturesque as, say “bluegrass.” If it did, more people might plant it.

“Perennial ryegrass is a domesticated form of our native prairie grass,” Scheffler explained. “Bluegrass is native to Europe, where it never goes over 85 degrees. Around here, it’s not even summer until it gets over 85. But bluegrass and fescue stress in that kind of heat, and summer patch disease attacks them, which in turns makes grubs’ favorite food. Planting perennial ryegrass will avoid all those problems.”

But what about shady spots? Is it OK to plant fescue there?

“Even shade grasses need five hours of full sun,” Scheffler said. “If you don’t have that, your grass will always be thin. Don’t even try to grow grass under trees — just do mulch.”

Another alternative to mulch would be to plant groundcovers such as vinca or pachysandra in “problem” areas. They’re attractive and don’t require mowing.

Step 4: Feed the Plants

Once you’ve fixed the soil and planted the grass, it’s time to think about fertilizer. Scheffler recommended Milorganite, an organic fertilizer made of composted “sludge,” or human sewage.

“It took me two years to get used to the idea, but when it’s handled correctly, human compost is the Cadillac of compost. I started using it last year and the microbial response was terrific.”

Milorganite is also high in nitrogen, the element responsible for keeping your grass green. Nitrogen is the principal nutrient people try to provide though conventional fertilizers, but unfortunately, much of that excess nitrogen runs off into our waterways, where it produces hypoxic areas or ‘dead zones’ like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Plants are able to utilize an organic source of nitrogen more effectively. Also, conventional lawn typically has compacted soil, which increases run-off. But a soil that’s well-aerated by earthworms and a healthy root system will absorb rain rather than shed it.

You can supply much of your lawn’s nitrogen needs and reduce your workload simultaneously by leaving grass clippings where they fall. Mulching grass clippings will also increase the organic matter in your soil, which in turn encourages beneficial soil microbes and earthworms, which in turn further improves your soil.

Another easy way to add nitrogen to your soil is to add some Dutch white clover seed to your lawn. Though lawn purists may shudder at the thought, white clover is a low-growing leguminous plant. It responds well to mowing, is non-invasive and — most critically — takes nitrogen from the air and adds it to the soil. Think of it as free fertilizer.

“Clover will choke out weeds, feed the grass, and soften soil. Bacteria around roots of clover actually pull water vapor out of the air. It’s unbelievable how beneficial clover is,” said Scheffler.

Step 5: Leave the Weeds

“I always tell people I do a really good job of growing things. I don’t do a very good job of killing things,” Scheffler said of weeds. “Weeds are nature’s soil-repair system. They re-mineralize the soil for free. Let them do their job!”

However, many people don’t feel as benevolent toward their crabgrass. For those folks, he has some advice:

“Gypsum is a better crabgrass pre-emergent than the chemicals ever will be,” meaning those regular applications of gypsum do double-duty. “And dandelions, with their taproots, are world-class aerators. They wedge open tight clay soil. It’s only the dandelion flower that bothers people, so I tell my clients we just need to get through this month when the dandelions are flowering, and if they bother you that much just mow the heads off. They’re biennials, so all the ones flowering now are going to die.”

After they die, it’s a matter of preventing the new crop from germinating in the fall. Corn gluten meal has gained popularity as a pre-emergent weed control, and Step 6 is helpful, too.

Step 6: Grow it Long:

Scheffler regularly tells homeowners, “Let it grow as high as you can tolerate it.” Practically speaking, this means setting mowers at 3.5 inches or even a little higher. “The longer the grass, the longer the roots. And that means access to more food and water.” Plus, longer grass will shade the soil, preventing weed emergence.

Still not sold on the idea? Scheffler had this persuasive argument:

“The guy mowing at 3.5 inches will have half the weeds and use half the water as the guy mowing at 2.5 inches. It’s an absolute no-brainer: you can cut your watering and weeds in half just by raising the mower.”

As these steps show, if conventional lawn care is a vicious negative cycle, organic lawn care becomes a positive one where each action creates greater improvements.

Erica Myers-Russo writes when the rain falls and gardens when the sun shines.

For more information:

Bio Control Network: Organic pest control company offering “bio-rational solutions for an ever-shrinking planet.” Website offers truly extensive information about all manner of pests, as well as products and consultation., 800-441-BUGS.

National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns: A national organization promoting healthy lawns and landscapes. Visit for information, outreach, and promotional materials (including “pesticide-free zone” signs for your yard).

Pure Prairie Organics: Organic lawn care service. Also check out owner Bill Scheffler’s upcoming speaking engagements and archive of informative newsletters on his website:, 630-510-2483.

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