Perhaps years of environmental consciousness-raising has had a cumulative effect on the public. Maybe it's the thought of the family pet running through a yard recently sprayed with chemicals and pesticides, then licking its paws. Or a parent's fear of a 2-year-old child playing in chemically treated grass.
It is likely that a combination of all of the above is responsible for the upsurge of interest in organic lawn care. And it is no coincidence that the organic approach to lawn management ultimately produces a healthier lawn that requires less work and money to maintain.
The key is to improve the soil and use slow-release fertilizers to create stronger, healthier grass plants.
"Healthier plants are a lot less susceptible to disease, drought and insect damage," said Rob Ringer, spokesman for the Ringer Corporation, a Minnesota manufacturer of organic lawn and plant care products.
There is no such thing as a maintenance-free lawn. Healthy soil needs oxygen and water for the natural microorganisms within to thrive. And those microorganisms are what convert grass clippings and other material to nutrients for the plants.
To allow water and oxygen to penetrate into compacted and neglected soil you may have to dethatch first. Thatch is a buildup of plant material on top of the soil which smothers the microorganisms below and prevents grass plant roots from reaching nutrients. "Grass clippings are not a major part of thatch as people think," Ringer said. "Thatch is 70 percent living roots."
Other plant debris becomes trapped in the roots, creating a haven for insects and disease. Dethatchers can be rented, or you can have it done professionally. The thatch must be raked up and can then be composted.
The next step is for everyone, whether you have thatch or not. The lawn should be aerated in the spring and fall for several years, then once a year thereafter. An aerator cuts plugs from the soil, about one-half inch wide and 2 inches deep, which allow air and water in. The holes also allow roots to start moving through compacted soil. Aerators, too, can be rented or you can pay to have it done.
Now it's time to fertilize. The type of fertilizer used is critical to the soil. "Once a plant takes up nutrients, it doesn't make any difference to the plant where it came from," Ringer said. "The difference is in how it's delivered. Synthetics feed directly to the plant, turn it green and make it grow. Unfortunately, there is only a short-term benefit. Over the long haul they neglect the needs of the soil."
Lawns fed high-nitrogen fertilizers tend to have shallower root systems and build up thatch. Then you're back where you started.
The ingredients list on a bag of Ringer's Lawn Restore reads: poultry feather meal, wheat germ, soybean meal, bone meal, sunflower seed hull ash. "I guess the basic difference is that organic material is not water soluble," he said. "It must be broken down slowly. It's the ultimate slow-release fertilizer."
Ringer's product, he said, also contains a special blend of microbes which help break down the material into nutrients and encourage earthworms. "Earthworms are natural aerators of the
soil," he said.
When your soil is healthy the microorganisms will digest grass clippings, turning them into nutrients for the plants, so raking and bagging should be eliminated. But no more than one-third of the grass blade should be removed at one time or the plant could be stressed and the clippings too long for efficient decay. Besides, taller grass helps shade out weeds, the scourge of many a perfectionist.
Ringer calls weed and pest control "the hole in the armor" of organic lawn management. Poisons are not part of the organic arsenal. "The best way to fend off weeds is to create a healthy, vigorous lawn," he said. "If you already have a weed problem, you won't have much choice but to use chemicals, at least at first, to knock 'em down."
Milky spore disease is effective against grubs. There are organic compounds available in garden centers which kill some other insects on contact but have no residual power.
Though organic products are more expensive than their synthetic counterparts, in the long run a healthy lawn is less expensive and less trouble to maintain.
"Over time, with natural organic products, you lessen management problems with the lawn," Ringer said. "By reducing thatch, you lower the chances of diseases. When you lessen diseases you reduce the need to buy expensive fungicides.
"When you're adding substance to the soil, it improves the quality of the soil. Water penetrates and is retained better. You save money on watering and maybe even the whole lawn in a drought. The more you use organic methods, the less you need," he said.