Looking out her kitchen window one day, Libby Scancarello watched as her three kids, two dogs, and one cat all gamboled happily together on her lush, green lawn—and freaked out.
“I just kept thinking that the chemicals we had sprayed on it every year probably weren’t the best thing for them to be playing in,” says Scancarello, who lives in Troy, Ohio. So she decided to do something about
it. She fired her lawn-care company and hired PureLawn Organic Lawncare, a Cincinnati-based company that uses only chemical-free fertilizers and biological pest and disease control. “I haven’t looked back since,” says
Scancarello, adding that her yard looks as lush as ever.
If the numbers of natural lawn-care services and products hitting the market are any indication, a lot of homeowners would like to do the same. To many of them, a mere glance at the “Keep out of reach of children” labels on most pesticides and herbicides is reason enough.
The underlying philosophy behind organic lawn care is this: Healthy, chemical-free soil begets robust lawns that can virtually take care of themselves. After years of being inundated by chemicals to fend off grubs, eradicate weeds, and green up the turf, the natural capacity of the soil to perform these tasks itself has ceased operation, practitioners say. Cut it off from the chemicals cold turkey, and you’ll get things running again—naturally. And once the soil’s healthy, you might never have to deal with pesticides, herbicides, even fertilizers again. “That’s the thing about going organic,” says Eileen Gunn of Beyond Pesticides, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group. “Not only do you get a nice, safe, healthy lawn, it is also a more sustainable one over the long term.”
The Road to Recovery
The first step in going the organic route with an existing lawn is beefing up weakened soil, which means starting with a soil test. That way you’ll know which nutrients are lacking and which organic amendments you’ll need to incorporate. For example, soil with a calcium deficiency can be top-dressed with gypsum; and soil low in magnesium might need a healthy dose of the mineral langbeinite. You will need to dig up samples from several different areas of your lawn (2 cups of soil total), and mail them off to a lab to be analyzed. Call local nurseries and university extension offices to see if they offer soil tests (both should provide soil-sample boxes).
Once you know which amendments you need, you should prepare the lawn by mowing the grass down to about 2 inches, pulling up weeds, removing thatch (dead grass and roots that accumulate on the surface), and aerating (a power aerator that pulls up plugs of soil can be found at most rental yards). This will enable your soil to fully absorb any amendments you add.
Whatever the test results, you’ll also want to spread a half-inch of compost on the lawn to add essential organic matter to the soil. Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual, and founder of Safelawns.org, sees compost treatments as the basis for all organic lawn care. “It’s almost like a blood transfusion,” he says. “It improves soil structure—especially in clay or sand-heavy soil—and is full of beneficial organisms, including bacteria, algae, fungi, and nematodes, that keep your soil healthy.”
Look for compost that is made up of decomposed organic plant material, similar to the stuff you find on the forest floor. You can buy it at nurseries, or collect your own yard waste in a backyard bin. Many municipalities have composting programs, which provide information on how to compost and, sometimes, discounted composting bins. Tukey also recommends speeding up your lawn’s transition to organic by brewing your own compost tea and spraying it on your lawn once a month with a backpack sprayer or a watering can.