The lawn that loves you back
WE REACHED OUT TO A few local organic lawn care experts to find answers to some of lawn owners’ most common questions and concerns – from how to safely deal with pests to how to fertilize properly. We discovered that whether you hire an experienced organic landscaper or you do it yourself, maintaining a beautiful chemical-free lawn is an accessible option for everyone.
Kat Munson & Jami Fitch (KJ) represent the Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District (CCSWCD), which has been educating the public about healthy lawn care since 2007. The “YardScaping” practices they advocate for build healthy soil to grow a beautiful lawn without weed and bug killers and with the reduced use of fertilizer.
Rick Tillotson (RT) of Organics Lawn & Landscape in Yarmouth has been doing small-scale organic lawncare for the past 7 years. “I started thinking about organic lawns when I started using compost in my landscape plantings,” he says. “Prior to that, I wasn’t all that motivated [to do lawn care] because of the chemicals that were required. It was an ‘ah ha!’ moment when I realized that by simply adding compost to the soil, good things happen to the plants that are trying to grow.”
How is organic different from conventional?
KJ: Conventional lawn care tends to treat the symptoms, rather than the cause, of the problem. For example, if your lawn has more weeds than you’d like, conventional methods will recommend applying weed killer to get rid of them. Organic or healthy lawn care looks at your lawn as an ecosystem – every plant, animal and microbe is interconnected. The healthy lawn care practices are meant to improve the system as a whole, creating a healthier and more self-sustaining lawn.
RT: It is a paradigm shift. A “conventional” synthetic program is intended to sustain a lawn. Applications are timed so that as the previous application of fertilizer is running out (or off), another application is performed to boost the grass again. This up and down cycle is not in the best interest of the lawn. An organic approach focuses on creating the right soil systems to support the type of plants you are trying to grow.
What advice to you have for homeowners looking for organic lawn care?
KJ: A few things. First, to have a healthy lawn, you need to have healthy soil. Start with a soil test from the Maine Soil Testing Service (kits are free from UMaine Extension or your local Soil & Water Conservation District, and the analysis costs $15/sample) to understand how to adjust nutrient levels, pH, and organic matter in the soil. If doing a soil test, be sure to collect your soil samples before any additions are made to your lawn. Spring is a great time to do so.
In the fall, start making the transition from conventional to healthy lawn care practices. By adding compost to increase organic matter in the soil and lime to adjust the pH, you’ll get a six-month jump start on the transition process. In the meantime, begin this summer by aerating your lawn to reduce soil compaction and allow air, water and nutrients to reach grass roots. Next, top-dress the area with a thin layer of compost, about 3/8”, to help build a healthy layer of topsoil. This will increase your soil’s ability to hold water and add important nutrients.
To help outcompete spring weeds, spread new grass seed to fill in bare spots and thicken your turf. Look for endophyte enhanced perennial ryegrass and remember, grass needs six hours of sunlight to grow regardless of the seed mixture. Spraying compost tea on your lawn once per month will also help with the transition process.
And speaking of the transition process, be patient! There’s a really good chance your lawn is going to look worse before it looks better, because it takes time to rehabilitate your soil. Stay strong – stick with the recommended healthy lawn care practices, and you’ll be pleased with the results during the second growing season.
Another tip: many local hardware stores and lawn and garden centers carry products that are suggested for healthy lawn care. When shopping for these products, do your research first. Just because something is labeled “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe. A good rule of thumb is to look for the warning label on a product. If it says caution, warning or danger, you may want to look for an alternative. (CAUTION represents lower toxicity products; WARNING indicates medium toxicity products; DANGER stands for highest toxicity products)
RT: If you hire out, be sure the contractor you are working with is actually employing organic methods, not just applying a traditional synthetic program while using organic fertilizers. There is much more “science” involved with an organic program – not necessarily complicated, but a different approach.
One of the trickiest lawn challenges to tackle seems to be weeds. What is your approach?
KJ: Weeds and certain fungi can indicate a deficiency in your soil. We recommend doing a soil test and then taking the steps to properly amend nutrient levels. Spot treating for weeds using white vinegar will also help deal with weeds, but beware – vinegar will kill your grass. After spraying an area with vinegar, add compost and new seed to get grass growing again.
RT: The best organic approach for weed control is to have a healthy, thick, lush stand of turf. See the bottom of this article for tips.
What about pests? How do you maintain a healthy lawn without pesticides?
RT: Organically, we aren’t trying to fully eradicate the grubs/pests. If the lawn is healthy to begin with, it will be able to withstand most infestations without much trouble. And if you are transitioning to an organic approach, once your soil biomass rebuilds, your pest problems will diminish and disappear.
KJ: Many people don’t realize that lawns heavily treated with fertilizer, weed and bug killers can be more susceptible to disease and pests. Taking away the weed and bug killers and allowing your lawn to regain its natural strength is the first step in creating a healthy lawn. Compost tea is a great way to improve the health of your lawn naturally, and it can be used on all plants, including fruits and veggies.
In general, homeowners should try to create an environment that is less favorable for pests to thrive. For example, grubs are the larval form of beetles, which lay their eggs on bare soil. Adding new seed to grow denser turf and putting seed on bare spots can help reduce the number of beetles that lay eggs in your lawn.
Grubs are a natural part of all lawns, and you only need to worry about them if you have an infestation. To determine if you have a grub infestation, remove a one-foot by one-foot square section of your lawn. If you count 10 or more grubs, that’s when you have a problem. We recommend using beneficial nematodes, which are microscopic organisms that are the natural enemy of grubs. Nematodes are found in all soils, but Maine winters get so cold that they die off and can’t effectively control grubs on their own. Nematodes are living creatures, so using them in conjunction with other weed or bug killers will have poor results. We recommend only using them if they’ve been properly stored in the refrigerator. Based on the grub life cycle, it’s best to use nematodes in mid- to late July just after grubs have hatched.
Those of us with kids & pets are particularly concerned about ticks. Is there a specific way to keep them out of your lawn?
KJ: Make your yard unfavorable to tick habitat. Ticks prefer cool, shaded areas and can often be found in tall grasses, leaf litter, or wood piles. In addition to following best lawn care practices— including aerating to increase the soil’s ability to take up water—avoid planting tall ornamental grasses, prune trees and shrubs to increase sunlight, and install a three-foot border of mulch between wooded areas and your lawn.
What type of lawn is best for Maine’s climate? How do you create a lawn that requires minimal water?
RT: Choosing a variety of grass that establishes a deep root system is the best way to minimize the need for watering. Proper soil is also important to allowing the roots to penetrate deep into the soil. In Maine, we need to use “cool season” types of grass – which is why when we have hot, dry summers like last year, these lawns can struggle without proper care. If you choose a grass that needs constant attention and inputs to look its best, it may not thrive in an organic program. We have been using a seed mix that employs a good amount of turf type tall fescue. We have found that once established, we get good color, drought tolerance, and it is able to withstand weed and pest pressures.
KJ: We recommend looking for a mixture that is 60-70% fescues and 30-40% rye grasses. These types of grasses are proven to handle cold Maine winters, as well as the heat of summer. Choosing a mix with multiple varieties of each species also allows your lawn to better combat certain pests. All bags of grass seed list the species of grass included in the mix, but a good rule of thumb is to look for a shady seed mix. It will still grow well in the sun, but these mixes have the recommended seed varieties and require less sunlight, water, and nutrients to grow well in Maine. Avoid blends that are heavy with Kentucky Blue Grass, as it requires more sunlight, more water and more maintenance here in Maine.
How often should you water an organic lawn? Is it necessary to water at all?
RT: Depending upon how much rain we get, an organic lawn will likely still need to be watered. However, once established it will not require as much water as a conventionally treated lawn. An organic program focuses on developing the soil and internally developing deep root growth, which gives the grass plant a much better defense against drought.
KJ: Grass in Maine goes dormant in the hot, summer months. If you don’t mind your lawn temporarily turning brown, then you don’t need to water (be aware that your lawn may be more susceptible to weeds when it goes dormant). If you prefer your lawn to stay green, we recommend “watering deeply” once or twice per week. Watering deeply means putting down 1 to 1 1/2” of water in one to two watering session per week. Use a rain gauge to know when Mother Nature has done the watering for you. Also, it is better to water in the morning before 10:00 a.m. so water can soak deep into the ground before the mid-day sun evaporates it. Watering at night can lead to fungal issues on your lawn.
Do you ever recommend non-grass options for planting a lawn/maintaining a yard?
KJ: Yes! Ground covers are a great option for areas where grass simply won’t grow, like in dense shade. Even shady grass seed mixes need at least six hours of sunlight to grow. If your property gets less than six hours of sun, you’re going to fight a very frustrating battle with your lawn. We also recommend that people think about their property and how they use it. If there are areas of the lawn that aren’t used, consider planting a flower or vegetable garden, wildflower meadow, or rain garden, or let it revert back to natural vegetation.
RT: One of the questions I ask a design client is how they are going to be using and interacting with their property. If they have young children running around the yard, then we go with larger lawn areas. If they do not have children living with them, then we include larger planting areas using plants that both provide beauty and don’t require a lot of maintenance.
What makes for a healthy lawn? Is it a perfect shade of green, with no weeds? Or can one come to see that a nice dose of dandelions and other “weeds” make your lawn both healthier and more beautiful?
KJ: The preferred look of a lawn is totally personal – some people love cheery yellow dandelions or purple violets that sprout up in lawns, and others hate (yes, hate) them. Though some weeds can overtake your lawn, others can provide added benefits. For example, adding clover to your seed mix increases the nitrogen in your soil and naturally fertilizes your lawn.
RT: This is purely personal taste. I enjoy a nice green stand of turf that allows us to walk barefoot across it without the worry of pesticides. We also have many clients who like the look of dandelions and clover. There is beauty everywhere. A field with a mass of dandelions and clover just speaks summer and fun to me. Organic lawns, with or without dandelions, have a lot of positive environmental impacts because they focus on creating a healthy ecosystem in your own backyard.
This article appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Green & Healthy Maine Homes. Subscribe today!