Originally appeared in the April 2015 issue.
In 2015, when Down East presented the town of Ogunquit with its 33rd annual Environmental Award for its pioneering ban on the use of toxic pesticides and herbicides, some of our readers sought guidance on how they too might transition to organic lawn and garden care. We consulted a trio of experts for advice on going green: Paul Tukey, founder of SafeLawns.org and the author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual; Eric Sideman, crop specialist with Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association; and John Bochert, lawn and garden manager at Eldredge Lumber and Hardware in York. A few things you should know:
1. Organic lawns are safer.
“Every single product you put on your lawn to kill bugs and unwanted plants is labelled caution, warning, or danger,” says Paul Tukey. “Some pesticides stay around for years. So, when, if ever, is it safe for your children and pets to go back out there? Why on earth would you take such a chance for the sake of a dandelion?”
2. Get a soil test.
Good soil is the secret to a healthy lawn and garden. A soil test, analyzed by a qualified lab, will tell you what’s in your soil — and what’s missing. “Spending any money on fertilizer without getting a soil test is just guessing,” says Tukey. He recommends the Maine Soil Testing Service at the University of Maine, which charges $22 for a comprehensive soil analysis, including acidity and nutrient levels.
3. Mow high and leave the clippings.
Taller grass is healthier, provides more leaf for photosynthesis, develops deeper roots, and resists weeds. Clippings serve as natural fertilizer. “Lawns mowed at 4 inches are the most weed free,” Tukey says. “If you only did one thing, adjusting your mower height would be it.”
4. Water infrequently.
“Water only in the morning and just do it once a week if you do it at all,” says Tukey. Frequent watering encourages shallow roots.
5. Plant white clover with your grass.
White clover competes with weeds, and fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere, reducing the need for nitrogen. John Bochert recommends a seed mix of white clover, perennial rye (which germinates quickly), fescue, and bluegrass. Use about half a pound of clover seeds to 5 pounds of grass seed. Five pounds of grass seed covers roughly 1,000 square feet.
6. Spread compost on your lawn.
Compost helps make lawns lush and weed free. “Weeds need light in the spring to grow,” Tukey says. “Spreading compost across a lawn in the spring gives it a dark coating so the weed seeds can’t germinate.”
7. Listen to the weeds . . .
“Weeds are nothing if not messengers,” says Tukey. “Dandelions are telling you the ground needs more calcium. Plantains are telling you the ground is too compact and needs aerating. Don’t kill the messenger.” The vast majority of weeds can be eliminated with the chemical-free strategies described in these nine steps.
To kill weeds on driveways and pathways, John Bochert recommends hard-to-find horticultural vinegar and garden products with the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) label.
8. . . . and to the insects.
Perhaps because they don’t get their soil tested and don’t know the square footage of their yards, many homeowners use as much as 10 times more synthetic pesticides per acre than farmers use on their crops. But there are safer ways to deal with pests.
“Beneficial nematodes are very effective against grubs,” Sideman says. “But the grubs also may be telling you that your lawn is under-fertilized or the pH is too high.” Beneficial nematodes are microscopic worms that eat some 200 different species of insects, including grubs that become Japanese beetles. You can buy 10 million beneficial nematodes for about $30 from organic farm and garden stores. Mix them in water and spray them on your lawn and garden.
9. Stick with it (it’s cheaper in the long run).
The secret to a healthy, beautiful organic lawn and garden starts with creating healthy soil. Getting there may require a bit of an investment up front — soil tests, fertilizers, nutrients, compost — but it pays off in the end. “The first year or two it can cost 20 to 25 percent more,” Tukey says. “Top-dressing your lawn with compost is the expensive part if you don’t have your own compost. But by years four and five, it’s less expensive. The Holy Grail of organic lawn care is you never put anything on it anymore. Let the clover grow, leave the grass clippings, and just mow it. If you want Fenway Park in your backyard, you can get it organically. It’s not more work, and it’s not more money. It’s just a different way of thinking.”