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Organic Lawn Care
From hybrid cars to organically grown food, the movement toward environmental consciousness and all things "green" is on the rise. So it's only natural if you wonder about organic lawn care.
by Trey Rogers, Ph.D.

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From hybrid cars to organically grown food, the movement toward environmental consciousness and all things "green" is on the rise. So it's only natural if you wonder about organic lawn care.

Organic in most cases means using natural products and no chemical pesticides, herbicides and perhaps fertilizers. Unlike most pesticides and herbicides, fertilizer elements that are beneficial to your lawn (nitrogen, potassium, etc.) are present in both natural and synthetic fertilizers.

Use a local grass species
Once you have defined organic, the next step is to evaluate your lawn and how you care for it. If you attempt to cultivate a grass not recommended for your area, you will have twice the challenge (if not more so) to do so organically. Go organic only if you grow a turf-grass species appropriate to your area.

Good lawn-care practices are critical to an organic yard. There will be no such bail outs as a bottle of Round Up or bag of weed-and-feed. The health of your lawn will depend primarily on how you care for it naturally, meaning how you mow, water, feed and otherwise treat your turf. This will be the heart, backbone and soul of your success. In most cases, it is homeowner lawn-care mistakes that result in pest invasion, namely weeds, diseases and, to a lesser extent, insects.

Here's an example of how your lawn-care mistake can play out. If you mow too short, your lawn could suffer from a weed invasion. If you use chemicals to correct this, you can regain control of your lawn quickly. If you mow too short using only natural methods of maintaining turf, you can be dealing with those weeds for some time.

Four keys to success
If you go organic, here are four keys to success:

Mow regularly with a sharp mower blade. Always follow the 1/3 rule; that is, never cut more than 1/3 of the leaf blade in one mowing. Keep your grass as high as possible as this will help crowd out weeds and allow you to go longer between mowing. Return the clippings to the lawn as a natural fertilizer. A mower with a mulching blade is extremely helpful here.

Water early in the day, before 9 a.m. Water only enough to match the needs of the grass. Start with a target of 1 in. per week, and make adjustments depending on rainfall. Obviously, a sophisticated irrigation system capable of delivering precise amounts of water is an advantage. You can make a simple rain gauge from a small tin can.

If you fertilize, you will have to decide on synthetic or natural. The greatest advantage to synthetics is their predictability. They release components into the grass that are optimally used, providing nutrients during times of growth to help create a dense lawn that is capable of warding off pest invasions. With natural fertilizers, nutrients -- particularly the all-important nitrogen -- are often in forms that are unavailable to the grass except in warm conditions. This may or may not be the best time for your lawn to use them.

Natural pesticides can be helpful. The biggest breakthrough has been in weed control. You can use corn-gluten meal as a pre-emergent herbicide. It does an adequate job of preventing crabgrass, for example, from germinating in lawns that have been properly mowed, watered and fertilized. Another helpful product is one that already may be in your yard: sugar maple or red maple leaves. These leaves, mulched in the fall and spread over the turf for two to three years, have the ability to prevent broadleaf weeds, like dandelions, from germinating.


Is organic lawn care possible? Absolutely. Will your level of success depend on good, basic lawn-care practices? Same answer. Interest in organic lawn care continues to grow, so expect new products to come on the market each growing season. But the cornerstone of your success will depend on doing the basics correctly.

Dr. Rogers is Professor of Turfgrass Science at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. For the past eight years, he has been Briggs & Stratton Corporation's Yard Doctor, helping homeowners achieve beautiful lawns through personal visits, professional appearances and by responding to questions via his web site atwww.yarddoctor.com. Rogers is also author Lawn Geek: Tips and Tricks for the Ultimate Turf From the Guru of Grass, which was released last spring.


Handy Video: Fertilizing Fundamentals
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