A lush lawn gives your home added curb appeal while allowing you to relax in the summer, but it takes more than mowing it regularly to keep it looking great.
Getting your lawn to a perfect green state often means using chemical fertilizers and herbicides, and watering during hot, dry summers, all of which are detrimental to the environment.
Fortunately, there are organic ways to care for the lawn that are more eco-friendly while still keeping your lawn (as well as your pets and your family) healthy.
Test Your Soil
Organic lawn care means getting away from commercially-sold chemical fertilizers, and a soil test is paramount when first transitioning to eco-friendly methods. The best time to test is either the spring or fall which is when you would normally fertilize and treat your lawn to prepare it for the growing season, or dormancy.
Homeowners get frustrated with a lawn that doesn't thrive no matter how much work they've put into it. While there are many different reasons why your grass might not be healthy, this is the best way to find out important soil characteristics like pH levels and other important nutrients—such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, among others.
Too much or too little of something can harm your soil, not to mention the surrounding environment. An excess of nutrients can also kill off grass and adjacent plants in the area. Simply adding fertilizer to a lawn without knowing why it's suffering can burn the grass, kill beneficial microbes, and throw off levels, potentially fueling more weed growth.
A soil test will tell you what nutrient levels are so you can choose the right kind of treatment, whether that's organic fertilizers, or other soil amendments, and in what amounts. It can also help you choose the right kind of grass seed once you know what kind of soil you have.
Best Soil Tests
There are a few different ways to test your soil depending on how serious you are. For the most accurate results, sending a sample to an accredited soil testing laboratory is recommended.
This can be through an independent professional company, but most state universities offer reputable soil testing, as well. You can find one near you through the cooperative extension service in your county, or with a quick search online.
These tests usually come with recommendations on top of results which can be helpful if you aren't sure where to start. Complete tests sufficient for lawn testing will cost around $40, and a basic one will be even cheaper depending on what you want. If you wanted to test for heavy metals, for example, that would cost around $150.
If you don't want to go through a lab and would rather test the soil yourself there are many DIY kits you can purchase from hardware stores, or online. These will cost around $15, and if you just want a pH test, strips are around $8.
You'll get the most bang for your buck with the tests done through an accredited state university lab, and while it may take a week or two to get results, you'll be sure to have the right analysis and recommendations to move forward.
Reading pH and Nutrient Levels
Knowing a little about pH and nutrients will help you achieve the best organic care possible, since being able to interpret levels and understand recommendations is a key part of organic lawn care.
A lot of people put too much emphasis on the pH level of their soil. These levels not only fluctuate by day, season, or after a rainfall, they will also be very different from one area of your lawn to another.
It's also important to know that pH is not a nutrient level, but means "percent hydrogen" or how many hydrogen atoms are found in the soil. Adjusting nutrients will be much more important than adjusting hydrogen atoms, as most lawns fall within the normal range of 5.6-7.6 anyway.
Even if your soil is lower than 5.6 (acidic) or higher than 7.6 (alkaline) adjusting the pH level can do more harm than good.
Lime, gypsum, and sulfur are all common commercially sold chemicals to alter pH levels, but these do more to disrupt nutrient levels while killing beneficial bacteria and microorganisms (similar to how antibiotics disrupt human gut biomes).
They're also terrible for the environment, as they are non-renewable products that need to be mined.
Building your soil structure with organic material is a much better way to help your grass gain access to important nutrients. After the first year of applying these methods, check your pH level again to see if it's become more balanced.
If the soil is still below 5.6 and you continue to see weeds and moss thriving, adding wood ash will raise the pH level organically without harming the soil structure. If soil is still above 7.6 and weeds are a problem, add more compost or pine needle mulch to lower the pH naturally.
Calcium and Magnesium
A balanced soil structure will have a fairly high calcium content between 65-80 percent and lower magnesium around10-13 percent. Any large deviations from these numbers could be a reason why your soil is compacted.
Compaction happens when calcium levels are low and magnesium levels are high. If they aren't extremely unbalanced, and the soil is only moderately compacted, focus on adding some organic material like compost to help loosen it up. This will also help plants retain water, adding to better soil quality.
Aerating your lawn is a good way to relieve compaction, as is planting nitrogen-fixing legumes like clover that have deep taproots. If you don't want to spend a year planting permaculture plants to fix the soil, aerating and spreading wood ash will add necessary calcium.
The "N" in the N-P-K ratio that you'll see on fertilizer bags stands for nitrogen, which is the nutrient that makes your lawn nice and green! It also promotes strong, healthy blades, providing that thick, lush feel every homeowner strives for.
There are many easy ways to add nitrogen to your soil without commercial fertilizer. Simply leave grass clippings on the lawn to recycle the nutrients back into the soil, and keep your grass cut above three inches; this will help it retain nutrients.
Adding nitrogen-fixers is an excellent way to add this nutrient quickly. Overseeding clover into your lawn was once the standard until clover become viewed as a weed. Organic lawn specialists are realizing once again that clover works side-by-side with grass to keep it green while creating a healthier soil structure overall.
Aerating and adding organic materials will also help your grass retain nitrogen along with the other essential nutrients.
Note that if you've been using commercial fertilizer, it may take your lawn a few years to transition into organic lawn care, so extra nitrogen may need to be added until it can start to retain nutrients on its own.
Phosphorus (P) is another one of the key nutrients in the "N-P-K" ratio that grass needs to stay healthy. It's important for root growth and strength, as well as the transmission of energy between cells.
Grass needs phosphorus for many functions, but can't access it on its own, and needs the help of mycorrhizal fungi to process the nutrient.
The problem with phosphorus is that too much of it is a bad thing, not just for the grass, but for the entire local ecosystem. Phosphorus runoff causes unwanted algae blooms in local lakes and rivers, which is terrible for the ecosystem and creates un-swimmable waters.
Some states like Maryland have imposed laws against adding phosphorus to lawns unless a soil test proves the need for it. There are other ways to naturally increase phosphorus uptake without adding to environmental concerns.
Leave grass clippings and leaves on your lawn as they have lots of phosphorus that can be slowly retained back into the soil. Wood ash, seaweed, and organic alfalfa meal are other good sources. The best thing you can do is promote mycorrhizal fungi health with compost.
Potassium is the last letter in the N-P-K ratio and is also known as potash. This essential nutrient helps your grass absorb the other important nutrients while building strong cell walls that are important in times of stress like drought, or disease.
Potassium also helps promote strong root systems that extend deeper into the ground instead of staying close to the surface. Shallow roots mean soil can be compacted easier, and grass remains flimsy.
If your soil test suggests that potassium is lacking, there are many organic ways to include this nutrient without relying on chemical fertilizers. Adding compost that has been supplemented with banana peels is one easy way, as is adding ash from hardwoods.
Organic potash and kelp meal can be good boosters, as well, just make sure products are certified organic and have been sustainably harvested.
Only Use Natural Fertilizer
The best and only kind of natural fertilizer you need to use is organic material. There are many sources you can make yourself, including kitchen and yard waste compost systems.
By turning these types of combustible waste into compost, you can create the perfect blend of fertilizer for your yard. You can also purchase natural compost from your local gardening supply—but look for organic and sustainable sources.
Some local municipalities also offer free compost at the beginning of the growing season.
The more organic matter that's added to your lawn, the better. Microbial life is key to healthy soil, and these microbes, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes need lots of material to keep them thriving.
Adding organic material and natural fertilizers will help your soil maintain a good consistency with better water and nutrient retention overall, which is beneficial for any part of your yard.
Some other sources of good quality organic material are worm castings, worm compost tea, bokashi compost, leaves (both dead or green for various composting states), and any plant debris and clippings.
Learn more about how to compost so you can have a steady supply readily available for all of your gardening needs.
Learn From Weeds
The weeds that grow in your lawn can actually tell you a lot about the condition of your soil. While a soil test is the best way to understand nutrient levels, weeds can tell you a few things, as well.
The first step in learning from your weeds is to properly identify them. Common lawn weeds are dandelions, crabgrass, moss, bindweed, spurge, thistle, and plantain. There are many more, and species will vary by region.
Once you identify the weed, a little research will tell you why that particular weed is growing in that location. For example, plantain weeds like to grow in compacted clay soil, while dandelions enjoy an extra portion of magnesium.
Remember that many of these so-called weeds can be beneficial to you and your garden. Dandelions, plantain, purslane, and nettle all have either culinary and/ or medicinal benefits to them, so reconsider eradicating every weed you might find, and instead learn more about them.
Some weeds like crabgrass and knotweed aren't beneficial at all, and can even be invasive. Best practice to get rid of them is to either hand-pick with a trowel to get at the root, or cover large areas with a tarp or plastic to suffocate them.
Don't use herbicides if you want to practice organic lawn care.
Selecting Good Grass
The best types of grass to grow for organic lawn care are native species. Most of the fescues that are in commercial seed bags are not native, though there may be some naturalized varieties like creeping red fescue.
If you really want an organic lawn, stay away from the traditional types of grass and look for alternatives that can still give you a lush, green lawn like buffalo grass or prairie dropseed. Native grass species will naturally thrive in your region, and will be easy to apply organic lawn care practices with.
Consider "no-mow" or "low-mow" lawn seed mixes that independent retailers sell specifically for your region. These no-mow lawns are less maintenance overall, and while they may have a mix of native and non-native seeds, they also require far less fertilizing or supplemental watering, meaning you'll have a healthy lawn without chemical treatment.
If you're worried about pests, try these natural solutions for pesticide care, but sticking to native varieties also makes this less of a problem.
Most people water their lawns too frequently, which encourages the roots to remain near the surface instead of digging deeper to find water. These roots are more prone to disease and drought when closer to the surface.
You should water every day if you just planted seeds, but no more than once a week after they are established. Remember that longer, deeper watering in the morning or evening when it's not too hot is the best way to water your lawn.
Supplemental watering may be needed in times of drought, but you can also let your lawn go dormant and dry up in extreme heat. A healthy lawn will bounce back when moderate temps return.
One of the best things you can do to keep a lawn healthy is to remove the thatch at the beginning of spring. While grass clippings are great for replenishing nutrients, thatch is different.
Thatch is dead grass that rests between healthy grass and soil, and can happen at varying grass lengths. Thatch blocks out air, water, and other nutrients from healthy roots and also provides a space for weeds to thrive.
Removing thatch is an easy, organic way to prepare grass for the growing season. A thatch rake can be helpful, but normal rakes can do the job just as well. Make sure you aren't damaging the healthy grass by raking too hard, while also removing all dead material. Any bare areas can be filled in with compost and re-seeded.
While some homeowners are choosing to eschew traditional lawns altogether, others still prefer turfgrass for various reasons. You may simply prefer the look of it over other lawn alternatives, or enjoy tending to your lawn while getting some fresh air.
Grass can also be better for children running barefoot, or pets that need to run around.
The good news is, there are many ways to have your lawn and your eco-friendly badge, too. By following the best practices of organic lawn care, the grass is always greener on your side of the fence.