Growing a Healthy Turf—Easily and Organically

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Enrich your soil, ditch the pesticides and switch to natural fertilizers.

Growing a healthy lawn that is safe for people, pets and the environment should be motivation enough to transition to an organic turf management program. Add in the benefits and cost savings of lower water usage, less mowing, reduced toxic pesticide and herbicide use, and the fact that it isn’t difficult to do – and you’ll see why organic turf management is the answer.

 

So what is an organic turf management program exactly? Well, it involves taking a slightly different approach towards managed lawn care than the conventional methods. Instead of revolving around force feeding the grass plant with high levels of synthetic nutrients, an organic turf management program looks beyond the grass itself and considers the eco-system as a whole. The focus is about building healthy soil, which in turn will naturally feed the grass. The organic philosophy is built on three simple, yet fundamental principles:

  1. a basic understanding of soil biology
  2. the proper use of natural, organic products
  3. attention to usual maintenance requirements

 

Where to Begin?
It all starts with the soil. Healthy, organic soil is teeming with life. While you’ll find naturally occurring elements such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K)  in most soils (these are the big three found in most fertilizers), healthy organic soil also contains billions of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria, protozoa, fungi and nematodes along with larger creatures such as earthworms - all helping to build the soil’s structure. In an organic turf management program, it is precisely these microorganisms and creatures that will be fed through applications of natural fertilizers and soil amendments such as compost, mulched grass clippings, and compost teas.

Build Healthy Soil, and Healthy Turf will Come
6 Healthy Turf Tips to get you started

Healthy Turf Tip #1: Switch to natural fertilizers. Organic fertilizers are made from naturally occurring plant, animal or mineral sources such as alfalfa, corn, bone meal, manures, limestone and sulfate of potash. These fertilizers become a food source for all the beneficial organisms in soil that in turn excrete digested material as new food available for the grass plants. Don’t expect your lawn to get that instant, emerald green look the way it does with most synthetic fertilizers though. Synthetic fertilizers force feed the grass plants too quickly with more nutrient levels than they really need. Turf greens up quickly, but the effect is short lived. 

With organic applications, it takes time for these microorganisms to digest the organic material, but once they do, the lawn will retain its color longer and more uniformly throughout the season. The USDA BioPreferred online catalog (www.biopreferred.gov) and the Organic Materials Review Institute (www.omri.org) both contain detailed listings of agricultural and landscape products that will qualify for an organic program.

Healthy Turf Tip #2: Mow high, water deep and aerate soil as needed. Mow grass on the long side (3” – 3 ½” is recommended) using a sharp mower blade. Longer grass will naturally block out light that weed seeds need to germinate as well as encourage a longer, deeper, more insect and drought resistant root system. Leave clippings on the lawn as food for the soil (rake out any clumps) and refrain from mowing while the grass is wet. Turf only needs about 1 inch of deep watering per week. Water early (5AM – 8AM is suggested) and for concentrated periods. Frequent, light watering will foster a shallow root system that leaves the lawn more susceptible to disease, insect pests, weeds and drought stress. Hard, compacted soil initially may need help with mechanical aeration in order to loosen up any clay materials. Well aerated soil is important for water retention and drainage as well as nutrient dispersion deep into the grass root zone. As soil becomes healthier, aeration will be done naturally by microorganisms, earthworms and birds.

Healthy Turf Tip #3: Ditch the pesticides and herbicides. Nothing kills insects and weeds (and soil) faster than toxic chemicals, but with some determination and patience, you can rid your lawn of these problems naturally. As an organic turf program becomes established, many of the problems of weeds and pests go away naturally. Weeds, once eradicated or minimized to one’s visual liking, can be controlled by simply keeping your lawn mowed at the higher recommended height. Think of it like a rain forest; the higher and denser the canopy, the more difficult it is for other sun-loving plants to become established. Taller grass also encourages longer, stronger root development. Stronger roots will naturally be able to withstand and recover from any damage done by grubs or other chewing insects thus eliminating the need for pesticides.

Healthy Turf Tip #4: Test your soil. While not mandatory for a successful organic lawn care program, getting a soil test can save you time and money on purchases by recommending the nutrients needed. Test results will show what your soil’s strengths and weaknesses are (such as soil pH and N, P and K levels) and based on the test results, you can decide which natural fertilizers and soil amendments you actually need to add to improve your soil’s health. You can purchase DIY kits for quick, but limited results. Or, go online to find a reputable soil test lab with full testing capabilities to send your soil sample to for a more thorough and detailed report. 

Healthy Turf Tip #5: Condition the soil. Nutrients from added compost, liquid seaweed, and compost teas are very beneficial in helping to build healthy soil. They generally do not contain enough nutrients on their own though to sufficiently feed the soil so they are often included as organic additives to supplement natural fertilizer applications.

Healthy Turf Tip #6: Overseed. Often overlooked in any lawn care program is the task of overseeding. It is important to understand that a grass plant does not live forever. Overseeding compensates for the natural reproductive slow down of grass by injecting a shot of youth to your turf via the addition of new seed. It ensures that the lawn stays thick with grass plants of different ages. Generally done in the fall when nights are cool, overseeding can be done manually with a hand spreader and rake or mechanically with a slice/seeder. Do not scrimp on this step – always purchase high quality grass seed that is recommended for your growing region and sun/shade needs. Consider adding clover to your seed mix as well. Clover fixes nitrogen from the air providing free nitrogen for the surrounding grass plants. It also adds to the greenness of your lawn, is drought tolerant and is both disease and insect resistant.

Patience Is a Virtue
Results from the transition to an organic turf management program are not something that will happen overnight. However, knowing that your lawn is instantly a more natural place for people, pets, your community and the environment will make the transition worth your time. Once the program is in place, an organically managed lawn is both beautiful and sustainable, and will reward you with less cost and required maintenance than its conventionally managed counterpart.

Article courtesy of OSM, Inc.
Photo credit: P.  Tukey