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Using organic techniques, you can grow a beautiful and healthy lawn without contributing to pollution. And, once you manage to overcome the negative effects of any past chemical treatments, organic lawn care will be easier, cheaper and certainly more environmentally sound without harsh soluble fertilizers, toxic chemicals and wasteful sprinkler systems.
Most of the information that we see about lawn care, as well as the images of what a "good" lawn looks like come from companies which want to sell us pesticides, fertilizers or expensive mowers and services. They focus on killing beautiful and useful plants like dandelions and clovers, instead of on improving the growing conditions for grass.
The first step in organic lawn care is to take one or more soil samples for testing. With a clean trowel, dig up about a cupful of soil from the root zone (that's the top six inches) from four to six spots in your yard. Mix them together and put about a cupful of the mixture in a clean bag or container. If parts of your yard look distinctly different, take separate samples from each one. Varying vegetation frequently indicates differing soil conditions.
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven as well as the UCONN and Cornell Cooperative Extension Services will analyze your soil and provide suggestions. Check with them for any fees and for the mailing addresses. Be sure to request organic recommendations.
The most important information you'll gain from the test is the pH or acid level of the soil. Grass likes a nearly neutral pH of between 6.5 and 7. Acid precipitation and chemical fertilizers tend to make soil more acid. A pH of 5 or 5.5 is common on unlimed lawns. With the addition of ground limestone, the acid level can be neutralized. Limestone is inexpensive and once you've raised the pH, you probably won't need to add lime for three or four years if you follow the rest of the program.
Once the pH is near neutral, soil organisms (especially earthworms) can thrive. The next step is to increase organic matter and soil organisms by adding compost.
When you are beginning a new lawn turn in the limestone and compost separately because the lime may drive some of the nitrogen from the compost into the air. For an established lawn, the lime and a quarter inch of compost should be spread on top a week or two apart. Lime moves down into the soil at a rate of about one inch per year. Should you need a lot of lime, adding it over several seasons is advisable.
Good compost not only has a rich mixture of nutrients needed for grass in a form which won't leach away, it also is filled with the microscopic organisms so crucial to healthy soil. And, the more compost you add, the better your lawn will be able to retain water and resist drought.
For a new lawn, or a lawn with significant bare patches, you should add a good quality seed mixture which includes creeping fescue, bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. A small amount of white Dutch clover should be added to the seed mix, or spread over the existing lawn. Bacteria on the clover's roots capture atmospheric nitrogen.
After these steps have been taken, many people do little more than mow regularly to maintain their beautiful lawns. Never mow the grass shorter than three inches, and leave the clippings where they fall. Nothing encourages the plants that the herbicide makers refer to as weeds, or puts more stress on the grass, than cutting it very short.
Once your lawn is established, it should need fertilizing only once a year in the fall, with a slow-release organic fertilizer or rich compost.
Now you can enjoy your lawn and your contribution to the environment at the same time.
Of course, limiting your lawn's size, and planting more trees, shrubs, vegetables and fruits produces even greater benefits for your family and the environment.
by Bill Duesing, CT NOFA
First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, April 9, 1999