Ecology + Design

Organic Lawn Practices & Maintenance – Westchester County

What does it take to maintain a beautiful green lawn using organic, natural methods and products?

Start in the spring by cleaning-up your lawn. A common mistake many commercial landscapers make is aggressive raking or thatching of the lawn surface. In our area, March and April weather conditions are such that the root system is generally in a fragile state due to freezing and thawing (frost heaving). The lawn may also be soggy and wet. For best results, remove any sticks and debris and lightly rake any matted areas or snow mold. Snow mold is a fungus caused by a lack of air circulation. Usually, it does not kill the grass plant, if treated early. By treating organically, we mean a light raking to stimulate growth with an application of organic fertilizer as opposed to toxic fungicides. I prefer a granular application in the early spring to reduce chances of run-off. This is a environmentally responsible way to help protect our watershed.

An important consideration is the effect salt and ice melt products have on lawns, trees and planting beds along driveways and roadways. Gypsum is a great natural earth product which can help alleviate salt damage when properly applied to these landscape areas. Gypsum is also useful to amend the soil. This is also the time to repair areas damaged by snowplowing or tire ruts. Fill in and regrade these areas with a good quality topsoil or compost/top soil blend from a reputable source to insure it is free of contaminants. This is also the time to inspect curbsides and edges by patios and walkways to determine if is there is sufficient depth to allow development of turf roots. Very often I find the soil depth is to shallow to allow for root development. Use a soil probe or screwdriver to determine depth. 6 inches is a minimum to sustain turf. Keep in mind areas along hardscape surfaces require more water to grow. You may consider using a hardier, tougher grass variety such as a turf type fescue or athletic mix which will perform better, retain color and stay green longer.

If the turf is not dense, crabgrass and weeds are more likely to grow. If you see certain weeds such as purslane or spotted spurge along your walkway, these are indicator species of hot, dry, sandy or poor soil conditions. I often find very shallow soil conditions or even rock in these areas. It isn’t uncommon to find buried concrete curbing or construction debris. Grass will not grow well without adequate soil, water, nutrients organic matter and proper PH. Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Your lawn is very much like the human body. It is made-up of a system of organs, organic components and water (a lot of water!). A healthy lawn consists of mineral components (sand,silt,clay) organic matter and biology. If any of these are lacking it will show in appearance/performance. Lack of organic matter is most likely in our conventionally maintained lawns. This is because organic matter breaks down rapidly (relatively) in the soil and is not usually replaced with grass clipping, leaves and compost.

So to get started in growing a healthy lawn organically…take a sample and get the soil tested. Don’t guess! If your PH is off (usually low in our area) you may need to amend the soil, possibly with calcitic lime. If your organic matter is less than 5% (and it usually is) you may need to add compost. I recommend 1800 lbs (Stone Barns) per 10,000 sq. ft. be applied to start. Older lawns tend to become compact, reducing the air spaces for roots to grow. Grassroots do not grow in soil but in the spaces between where air and water are. A good way to increase these spaces for air and water is core aeration. This can be done in conjunction with compost, gypsum, fertilizer and seeding applications. Bio-stimulants, wetting agents and other natural, organic biologicals can be added to improve drainage etc.. This is the magic of true organics!

Now comes seed. If you want a high quality turf…use a premium seed mix. Ecological biodiversity will yield the best performance when it comes to drought, insect and disease resistance. Using one high quality seed mix/ blend which is ideally suited to your light, soil, site conditions and use/purpose/function is important. For instance, a low traffic fine home lawn with irrigation, high traffic/athletic playground without irrigation etc., the optimum turf is a combination of two or more mixes featuring different turf types/species (ex. perennial ryegrass, bluegrass, fine fescue). This is the difference between driving a high performance automobile and a junker. The junker is not going to become a quality car no matter what gas you feed it!

Now to maintaining your organic lawn; follow these important guidelines. First, lawn mowing; mulch leaves and grass clippings. This is essential to sustaining organic content as well as resource management. Less gas and time will be expended blowing leaves and clippings. Mowing height should be no shorter than 3-3.5 inches. This is to conserve water resources while shading out weed species. The greater the leaf surface above ground the greater the root structure beneath. Mowing blades should be sharpened for each cut. This will help conserve water and reduce injury and disease. Finally watering; lawns should be watered deeply once a week, preferably in the morning. This will allow the surface of the grass plant to dry. Excess heat and humidity are big factors in summer disease problems.

When thinking about lawn installation and maintenance consider whether a lawn is appropriate for your site. Shady areas, slopes, poorly drained wet and high traffic areas may be more functional and sustainable with alternative ground cover, planting beds, gravel or hardscaping surfaces. Less resources may be used, saving time and money in water, gas, fertilizer etc.. Green Landscape Design is ecologically and economically valuable. A Green Landscape will look better if it is healthy. A Green Landscape will help clean the water, air and soil. A Green Landscape is healthier for your family, pets and our entire community.

So Join Us… and…Go Green !

Jay Archer, President


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