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Marin IJ Articles

An all-natural healthy lawn? It’s doable

  • Nanette Londeree
  • Like wiggling your toes in cool, green grass on a sizzling summer day? Playing with the kids or tossing the ball with the dog on a soft carpet of lawn? People really enjoy cut grass and no other material — natural or man-made — is as good for recreational activities or provides the same verdant look.

    However, to keep those expanses pristine, likely lots of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used. Add maintenance with gasoline-powered equipment and you can see this beauty comes at a hefty cost. But it doesn’t have to. You can have your own swath of emerald turf that is gentle on your pocketbook and the environment.

    And it may even be beneficial.

    “Healthy grass provides feeding ground for birds, which find it a rich source of worms and other foods,” reports “Healthy Lawn, Healthy Environment,” a publication of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Grass is also highly efficient at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen, a process that helps clean the air.”

    Kick the chemicals and go natural. “The reasons for natural lawns are many,” says Paul Tukey, author of “The Organic Lawn Care Manual.” “They’re safer for families, pets and the environment. They use fewer fossil fuels, water and fertilizer.” And it’s not that difficult.

    Tukey reflects that an organically maintained lawn “can be less expensive and, in time, require less of your time.” His recipe? “Treat your soil well with compost and natural fertilizers, pick the right grass for your climate and sunlight situation, water well, use the right tools and mow properly with a sharp blade.”

    All pretty doable.

    Growing a lawn organically begins with soil that drains well, is not compacted and contains necessary nutrients. Results from a simple soil test (do-it-yourself kits are available at most nurseries) will indicate the concentrations of the three most important ones — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) present in your soil.

    Chose a type of grass that grows well in your micro-climate, has resistance to pests and diseases, and is suitable for the type of use it will get. Lots of information on grass varieties are available at the University of California’s guide to healthy lawns website at ipm.ucanr.edu/TOOLS/TURF.

    In our drought-prone environment, watering is a key factor for a healthy lawn. It’s best to irrigate only when the grass really needs it and do it slowly, ensuring that water penetrates the top 6 to 8 inches of soil, encouraging roots to extend deep into the soil. Frequent light watering promotes shallow root growth, creating ideal conditions for weeds and disease. Irrigate early in the morning when evaporation and wind are minimal.

    Mow high, letting grass grow taller between cuttings. With more surface area to take in sunlight, grass can grow denser with stronger root systems, enabling the turf to withstand drought, tolerate pest damage and choke out weeds. Use sharp blades on your mower to prevent tearing and injuring the grass. And consider switching to a rechargeable battery-operated mower — heavy duty types are now available that are oh, so quiet and non-polluting. The self-propelled models make mowing a breeze!

    Feed your lawn by grasscycling, adding compost, compost tea or an organic fertilizer. Grasscycling is the practice of leaving the grass clippings on the lawn; as they decompose, they put nutrients right back into the soil. Compost improves the moisture-holding capacity of the soil, adds nutrients and feeds soil microbes. Once a year, place a thin layer of compost (¼ to ½ inch) on the lawn surface and use a broom or rake to spread it out.

    There’s a wide selection of organic lawn fertilizers on the market. While generally having lower NPK levels than synthetic fertilizers, organic types feed soil microbes as they break down, and can improve soil structure.

    It may take a while to transition from a chemically dependent lawn to a natural, organic one, but the benefits are well worth it.