A green, more organic lawn

Autumn is an ideal time to change fertilizing routine

September 30, 2007|By McClatchy-Tribune

Ready to go organic? Now is the perfect time to take the plunge.

Late September to early October is the time to fertilize for fall and winter.

Most of us have more pressing concerns than which fertilizer or weed killer we strew across our lawns, right?

It's worth putting in a few minutes of thought.

If you've been thinking of going organic in the garden, fall is a great time to get started.

Organic gardening is all about the soil. Think about it: You aren't really fertilizing the grass. You're fertilizing the soil. Healthy soil grows healthy lawns.

And then there's the bigger picture: Much of the runoff from these products ends up in water that we depend on for our drinking supply.

Going organic is a little more expensive, at least at first. It's a little more time-consuming. But once you and the soil in your yard adjust, organic lawn care is no more trouble and is roughly the same cost as other kinds of lawn care. Here's how to get started:

Choose a natural fertilizer --Standard lawn fertilizer commonly puts down more nutrients than the soil needs. Basic organic products, however, provide mainly nitrogen in low concentration.

Almost straight nitrogen, plus trace minerals, can be found in corn gluten meal, the organic gardener's choice for lawn fertilizing.

Corn gluten meal became the superstar of the organic lawn world when it was discovered that it not only fertilizes a lawn but also can prevent new weeds from sprouting. It's also far more gentle than standard products.

Corn gluten meal is broadcast in the same way you would fertilizer. It costs about $17 to $22 for a 40-pound bag and is becoming widely available. One bag covers about 2,000 square feet.

Be patient -- Standard fertilizer contains 18 to 34 percent nitrogen in readily available or slow-release form, but organic fertilizers contain only 3 to 12 percent nitrogen in slow-release form. It takes six months to a year for a lawn to adapt to the new lower-nitrogen system. To get the same results as from your old fertilizer, fertilize at least one more time a year than normal, especially at first.

`Pour' on the molasses -- Organic gardeners say synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides can retain important nutrients that should be going to the grass. Beneficial microbes in the soil also can be diminished.

The quickest way to restore microbial activity that breaks down organic matter and makes nutrients available to plants is to add something called dry molasses.

Broadcast dry molasses at 10 pounds per 1,000 square feet of lawn space. Molasses is not a fertilizer. It is a source of carbon that stimulates life in the soil.

Manage weeds naturally --Pull out weeds by hand, if you can. If you need help getting out weeds with deep tap roots, look for a weeder with a long, narrow trough-shaped blade.

Troublesome weeds can be killed by spraying with 20 percent vinegar. Buy it at garden or feed stores for about $15 a gallon. Household vinegar isn't strong enough. Vinegar also will kill surrounding vegetation, so apply it carefully.

Establish a smart watering and mowing schedule -- Weed growth is encouraged by watering shallowly and frequently. Many weeds are shallow-rooted, so it's better to water once a week and water more deeply.

Incorrect mowing also encourages weeds. Mowing too low and too often allows sunlight to germinate the weed seed.

Test your soil -- The best way to know what your soil needs is to test it. Make a note to do it before spring. Testing kits are sold in nurseries and garden centers.

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