ORGANIC LAWN CARE
maintaining a lawn organically, it is important to focus on the
health of the plants and the soil. Prevention is more important
than quick fixes. Weeds, insects, and turf diseases are symptoms
of an underlying problem with the soil - malnutrition. Here are
steps you can take to have a healthy, attractive lawn without
pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.
Set mower blades at 3 inches. Cutting grass higher shades weed
seeds and keeps them from growing. Mow regularly; never cut off
more than 1/3 of the grass blade at once, otherwise the grass
will be stressed and more susceptible to disease. Keep your lawn
at 3 inches,
and cut when it reaches 4 inches. This may require midweek mowing
during the fastest growth periods. Leave grass clippings on the
lawn as mulch. In healthy, organic soil they break down quickly.
This will return nutrients and organic matter to the soil, reducing
the need for fertilization and watering.
* The last mowing of the season
in fall should be short, to prevent winter damage.
Test Your Soil
Check the pH balance of your soil. Soil test kits and pH meters
are available commercially at garden supply stores. Keep your
soil as close to 6.5 as possible. Long Island soil is likely to
be more acidic (less than 6.5).
* You can also test your soil
for mineral, nutrient, and organic matter content. Private testing
labs can do this, as well as the Cornell Cooperative Extension
(Nassau 454-0900, Suffolk 727-7850).
Compost has been called: "the
magic soil," it can be put down any time of the year. When
applying compost: spread it 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick, then rake it
into the turf. Compost is especially important if chemicals have
been used on the lawn. It will re-establish important micro-organisms
that the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers kill. Compost can
be acquired at municipal
composting facilities. (See page 19.) Compost made by homeowners
is usually not well balanced enough for use on lawns. Homemade
compost may be used in gardens. Compost will reduce the need for
fertilization, aeration, and lime.
* Liquid compost and compost
tea can be easily applied with a sprayer, and have most of the
benefits of compost.
Compost should also be spread under trees and shrubs to prevent
insect infestations. Remember these are indicators of stress in
the plant, usually due to inadequate nutrition in the soil.
If your soil has a pH of less than 6.5 it is too acidic, add lime
to raise the pH. Lime also adds calcium to the soil discouraging
dandelions. Turn lime 2" deep into the soil before establishing
a new lawn for optimum root growth, although this is not practical
for established lawns. Look for pelletized lime, it is more effective
easy to apply.
* Applying a quarter dose
of lime 4 times through the season will prevent swings in your
Rock dust adds trace minerals that are important for plant growth.
This can be spread any time of year, even in the winter. The first
year, apply 4 bags per acre, the second year only half as much
will be needed.
Fertilizer is much less important with organic lawns than it is
with chemically-dependent lawns. The excessive, quick release
nitrogen found in synthetic fertilizers cause growth spurts which
weaken the grass plant and increase the risk of disease. If your
is very low in nitrogen, consider an organic fertilizer.
* Although organic fertilizer
can be applied at any time of year without fear of burning your
lawn, the fall is the best time. Always wait one week after applying
lime, before fertilizing. Choose an organic fertilizer with low
water soluble nitrogen. The amount of water soluble nitrogen should
be listed on the back of the bag (7% or
less is good). Organic fertilizers will have much lower N-P-K
numbers than synthetic fertilizers.
* Rock phosphate (4% water
soluble phosphorus, 32% total phosphate) will add phosphorus which
is important for root systems and should be added in the fall.
Water deeply. You should wet the soil down to the full depth of
the root zone, 6 to 18 inches. In the sandy soils of Long Island,
that means applying about one to two inches of water. If you don't
know the precipitation rate of your sprinkler you can determine
it by placing a coffee can within its range and measuring the
water collected in the can after an hour. Do not water in the
middle of the day, when evaporation loss is greater.
* Proper watering is very
important. More lasting damage can be done to a lawn by improper
irrigation than by drought. Healthy soil with sufficient organic
matter will do more to help your lawn through summer than an irrigation
system. Soils that have been sterilized by chemical application
and have little soil life and organic matter are much more susceptible
to drought and "browning out." Drought resistant grasses
such as fescues will also reduce the need for watering.
* A healthy lawn will not
die of thirst in Long Island's
climate, but it may go dormant and turn brown in the height of
summer. Water only when necessary. Some experts advise watering
only when grass begins to wilt. The grass will turn a dull, grayish
color, and will not spring back, leaving footprints after you
walk over it.
* Do not water too early in
the season, and do not water frequently and lightly. Light, early
watering encourages shallow root growth. These shallow roots will
dry out quickly in dry hot weather.
Do not over-water. Yes, it is possible to over-water, soil saturated
with water will deprive the roots of oxygen, suffocating the turf.
Overly wet conditions can also encourage disease.
* Be aware of local restrictions.
Nassau County prohibits watering between 10 am and 4 pm, and allows
watering only every other day. Houses with odd street numbers
may water only on odd numbered days, and even numbered houses
only on even days.
Let autumn leaves remain around shallow rooted plants such as
maples, azaleas, and rhododendrons. Removing leaves will slowly
starve these plants. Leaves also keep roots from drying out and
prevent winter burn.
Aeration and Thatching
Lawns with ample organic matter, that do not get heavy traffic
should never need aeration. Microbes and earthworms keep the soil
from becoming compacted. If you have a high traffic area were
soil becomes compacted even after organic matter has been
established, consider core aeration. Core aerators, which remove
small plugs of soil to increase air circulation to roots and decrease
compaction, can be rented. It is best not to aerate in the spring,
because it may bring up weed seeds that are more likely to germinate
and grow in the spring. If you do core aeration in the spring,
follow it with a top-dressing of compost, and overseed to cover
and crowd out any weed seeds. The best time to do this is between
April 15 and
May 15, before crabgrass begins to germinate.
* Most organically maintained
lawns will not have a problem with thatch because the organisms
in healthy soil break down the thatch. If you have a thatch problem,
a light top-dressing of compost, or Ringer Lawn Restore, will
add micro-organisms that break down thatch.
If You Have a Weed
or Pest Breakout
Do not use chemical pesticides (including insecticides, weed killers,
and fungicides) or synthetic fertilizers, these will kill the
beneficial organisms in the soil, and undo the benefits of any
previous organic care.
* Weeds can take hold in bare
or thin patches. Overseed where grass is thin or stressed. A fescue
blend of grass seed is suggested as best for Long Island, as fescue
has deep roots and is drought and
acid tolerant. It also creates a thick mat which resists weeds.
* Small outbreaks of weeds
can be weeded by hand or killed with hot water. Cover larger patches
of annual weeds with a mixture of lime and compost then overseed.
For lawns with wide-spread weed
infestations, corn gluten applied early in the spring will offer
significant control. Corn gluten can be expensive, use it only
where you have a tough weed problem. Timing is important, the
best time to apply corn gluten for crabgrass control is right
when the flowers of forsythia bushes first open. Never apply corn
gluten when you are
seeding, it will prevent the grass seed from growing.
* Fleas, ticks, mosquitoes,
and most other pest insects can be repelled with garlic oil. You
can buy garlic oil concentrate in lawn and garden stores. Or,
to make your own, crush a handful of garlic cloves and soak them
in a gallon of water for a day. Strain out the garlic before putting
the water in a sprayer. Spray around your
property. Do not spray flowering plant, or bees will not pollinate
them. If you are having a barbecue or outdoor party, spray a few
days before, the garlic will have a strong odor until it dries
(about a day). Garlic can keep pest insects off your property
for three to four weeks.
* Hot pepper wax, available
in lawn and garden stores will repel insects from your bushes,
flowers, and vegetables.
* Remember weeds, insects,
and diseases are indicators of an underlying condition. If you
only treat the symptom and not the cause, they will recur. The
underlying cause is usually malnutrition of the soil and the plant.
Remember to feed the soil.
you to Steve Restmeyer of Eco-Logical Organic Landscaping (345-6040)
and Jeff Frank of the Lyceum (288-2834) for helping with this