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Begin an Organic Lawn This Spring
by Nancy Szerlag - posted 04/30/18


Although lawns have taken it on the chin from environmentalists the past few years, the good news is you can have nice green grass that is chemical free and safe for your kids, cats and dogs to play on. Here are the steps to begin growing an Earth-friendly, sustainable lawn.

Step One
Get a soil test to find out what kind of soil you have and what it needs to grow grass successfully. The test measures the nutrients available in your soil, the pH (acid or alkaline) and the percentage of organic material. Be sure to include lawn as the intended crop and designate organic methods of growing on the soil-test form. The results will include recommendations adapted to the specific needs of your soil.

Most county Cooperative Extension Services offer soil testing or offer links to labs in your state. To find your local extension office, please visit

Core-aerating a lawn loosens soil and encourages grass roots to grow deeper.

Step Two
Aerate the lawn with a core aerator, which cuts 2½-3-inch plugs of turf and soil out of the lawn. Best done in spring or fall, aerating opens compacted soil to allow life-giving oxygen, water and nutrients to penetrate to the roots of the grass. Coring is also recommend to rid the lawn of thatch. If the thatch layer exceeds ½ inch deep, aerating in both spring and fall is recommended. Aeration also is good to do in areas where the lawn gets a lot of foot traffic, which compacts the soil, such as around swing sets.

You may choose to hire a lawn service or rent a machine and do it yourself. For small areas, hand models are available at hardware stores.

Step Three
Set your lawnmower to mow at 3 inches high to produce a healthier, more weed-free lawn. Taller grass shades the soil’s surface, preventing crabgrass and other weed seeds from sprouting. Shaded soil also reduces moisture evaporation, slowing the soil from drying out in hot weather. Longer blades of grass are better able to photosynthesize, which provides more food for the turf. And, longer blades of grass produce a stronger cuticle cover, which is better able to protect turf from pests and diseases.

Research suggests that no more than one-third of the grass blades should be removed at one time to prevent severe plant stress. This is another reason not to use water-soluble high-nitrogen fertilizers that cause excessive lawn growth.

Cut grass high to 3 inches in height to produce a more weed-free lawn.

Step Four
Add organic material to the soil by using a mulching mower and leaving the clippings on the lawn. Recycling lawn clippings in this way mimics Mother Nature’s way of feeding the soil. It provides a much-needed food source for earthworms and other beneficial soil dwellers. A season’s worth of grass clippings is equal to a quarter or more of a lawn’s need for fertilizer, so it’s well worth doing.

Mowing autumn leaves back into the lawn in fall is another excellent way to feed the soil beneath established turf. The shredded leaves also add a thin mulch layer that helps protect the soil over the winter.

Top-dressing with compost in spring or fall is the frosting on the cake. The compost is packed with beneficial organisms, which help bring the soil back to life, and humic acid, which improves its structure and ability to hold moisture. It only takes about ¼ inch of compost to do its magic. Spread it by dumping small piles on the lawn and raking it in with a lawn or bamboo rake.

Step Five
Although television ads and manufactures of water-soluble chemical fertilizers tell us grass must be fertilized as much as four times a year, newer research suggests fewer applications produce a healthier lawn that is more resistant to pests and diseases.

Organic researchers recommend fertilizing with an organic, slow-release fertilizer in spring and again in fall, along with a possible midsummer organic foliar feed as a pick-me-up. That’s all a healthy lawn needs to keep it green and gorgeous throughout the season. As the health of your lawn improves, you can reduce the spring fertilizer application to half and finally do away with it altogether.

Summer fertilizing, especially in warm, dry weather, can do more harm than good to turf, but many homeowners entertain outdoors and want their grass to look good. A light foliar feed using a hose-end sprayer filled with an organic fertilizer, such as a combination of fish emulsion and kelp, will perk up the lawn and help it cope with the stresses of summer weather.

Be sure to read and follow the directions on the fertilizers you use and adjust your spreader or sprayer to the recommended rate. When fertilizing, timing is important. Foliar feeding is best done in the early morning, just as the sun is rising. Never fertilize a lawn when the temperatures rise above 85 F.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of George Weigel.


Nancy Szerlag is a freelance garden writer and weekly columnist for the Detroit News. Contact her at Ask Nancy at