Organic Lawn Care
In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published and raised the alarm about the dangers of pesticides and herbicides. Carefully researched over 4 years, she showed the long-lasting presence of toxic chemicals and warned, “The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials… The poisons circulate mysteriously by underground streams until they emerge and, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, combine into new forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells…
They travel from link to link of the food chain… These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes, non-selective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil – all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?”
The National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (see resources) advises that pesticides today are produced at a rate thousands of times faster than when Silent Spring was published over 40 years ago. Pesticides contribute more than 50 million kilograms annually to the chemical brew in Canada and 100 million pounds in the United States and this doesn’t include commercial use. Urban lawns, gardens, and green spaces are known to receive far heavier pesticide applications per hectare (acre) than most other land including agricultural areas. Residential use of pesticides is increasing steadily. Pesticides do not stay put, but move through the ecosystem of the entire planet.
Many common pesticides used in the home and garden pose significant human health risks. A study by the Ontario College of Family Physicians states that Canadian children face “undeniable risks” from exposure to pesticides. A National Cancer Institute survey in the U.S.A. indicated that children are six times more likely to get childhood leukaemia when pesticides are used in the home and garden (see resource links for more information about the relationship between the use of pesticides and disease).
Organic garden and lawn care is a safe and responsible alternative to the use of commercial fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides. This method of earth stewardship provides an opportunity to have a living, healthy, and safe yard where your children, family, and pets, can safely play, walk, or lie on. It also provides a wildlife habitat for birds, squirrels, and nature’s other living creatures.
Practical Steps To Organic Lawn Care
1. Rake your lawn to reduce thatch build-up. Thatch is the layer of
decomposing plant material that naturally develops between the grass blades and soil. It is comprised of compacted dead grass, grass clippings, and other debris that interfere with water and nutrients from penetrating the soil and reaching the roots. In the spring or early summer, use a thatcher or iron rake to remove thatch. Earthworms help keep the thatch layer in balance.
2. Water deeply and early in the morning. Deep infrequent watering is the healthiest for the soil. Lawns require about 1 inch (2.54 centimetres) of water once a week. Allow the water to soak in and dry-out before watering again. Watering in the early morning and when it is not windy is best to reduce evaporation. Late day or evening watering may encourage fungal problems due to insufficient time for evaporation.
3. Fertilise with organic products such as seaweed and fish fertiliser.Apply liquid seaweed to your lawns and gardens as it is loaded with trace elements such as iron, magnesium, and zinc that support plant health and root development, and help fight off fungal diseases. Fertilising with a liquid organic fertiliser such as seaweed extract, fish emulsion, or a mix of the two can save a great deal of time and money. These can both be applied with the sprinkler and can be used to fertilise lawns, landscaping, trees, and gardens at the same time.
Grass clippings are a very good source of nitrogen and other nutrients. Leaving the clippings on the lawn will lessen the need for fertiliser. If the clippings are too long, bag and use for mulch under perennials, trees, and in the garden for pathways and mulching around vegetables. Small amounts of clover in the lawn are a great nitrogen source as they are part of the plant family (legumes) that fixes nitrogen from the air. Do not allow too much clover, as it will take over the lawn. (Clover, to replace traditional lawns, is now being touted by gardeners as a more environmentally friendly method for having green space. It is also being grown in conjunction with traditional lawns or to quickly replace areas damaged by roadside salt spraying.)
4. Top-dress with compost. Lawns need the proper balance of nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Adding organic compost to your lawn will greatly support its health by naturally building these nutrients in the soil. To learn more about composting, see Shelly Garner’s article Composting on this web site. If you don’t have compost available, buy composted lamb, cow, sheep, or chicken manure and spread a 1/4 – 1/2 inch (6 – 12.5 mm) layer once or twice a year, June through August. A layer can be spread during late autumn to prepare for next spring.
Compost tea can decompose toxins and restore enough health to the soil to effectively neutralize metals in the soil. It is more or less a liquid version of compost. Take solid compost, soak it in water, and let the mixture sit for a few hours or a few days. Strain out the solid material by pouring the liquid through a screen, cheesecloth, or something similar. The liquid product is compost tea.
5. Aerate your lawn. Aeration, which removes plugs of dirt, helps increase water retention and supports air circulation to grass roots. Aeration, once a year, in the spring, very early summer, or the fall is sufficient. Aerators can be rented at rental stores and some garden centres, or alternatively hand aerifiers are available. Earthworms thrive in healthy, pesticide-free soil, and provide aeration of the soil.
6. Mow high. One of the most crucial steps in improving the health of your lawn is to mow high, 2 – 3 inches (5 – 7.5 cm). Longer grass blades discourage invasion by weeds and insects, shades the roots and prevents drying out of the soil, and leads to lengthening of the grass roots, strengthening the lawn. Keep the mower blade sharp and avoid mowing wet grass.
7. Control bugs naturally. Many methods are available to safely control lawn and garden pests. The following homemade spray will take care of many bugs. All Purpose Non-toxic Pesticide Spray recipe: Fill an empty spray bottle 3/4 full with water, add a few drops liquid dishwashing soap, some hot peppers or hot pepper sauce, and some garlic. Spray. Re-apply after a rain shower. Bird feeders and birdbaths will attract many birds that like to eat bugs. Add 3 tbsp. (45 mL) white vinegar to 1-gallon (3.8 L) water to help control fungus. Spray area affected.
(See Non-toxic Alternatives For Everyday Cleaning And Gardening Chores for more recipes and information,available as an e-book or hard copy book. For more information and to order e-book, click here: Non-toxic Alternatives or hard copy, click here: Books. On this web site is a section entitled Environmentally Friendly Gardening Products and provides information about organic methods and recipes for controlling pests and disease.
8. Weed manually. Improving overall lawn health will reduce weeds so that grass can better compete. Dig weeds by hand or pour boiling water over individual weeds to kill them. There are organic products that can control aggressive weeds, such as dandelion, by way of preventing the spread of feeder roots. Use good tools, such as a dandelion digger, to get all the roots. Overseed and fertilise your lawn in the late fall to give the grass a good spring start and eliminate grass vs. weed competition. In the spring, new grass will crowd out the weeds. Catch clippings when present weeds are going to seed, as less weed seed will germinate this year and/or next year.
9. Overseed. Choose a grass seed that is compatible with your
situation and overseed in the spring and fall. If filling in bare areas, loosen soil, and spread compost, peat moss, or topsoil. Sprinkle grass seed over these areas as well as the whole lawn. This overseeding will help choke out weeds and fill in bare spots. Keep the newly seeded areas moist until the grass shows signs of germinating.
10. Check soil pH. Soil pH may contribute to a lawn’s poor health or weed problems. Most turf grasses, flowers, ornamental shrubs, vegetables, and fruits grow best in slightly acid soils with a pH of 6.1 to 6.9. There are soil-testing meters available from garden centres as well as inexpensive soil testing procedures available from agricultural extension divisions at universities and colleges. Earthworms in the lawn and garden are the sign of healthy soil.