organic lawn care

what lies beneath…

When Jim and I moved into our home on Shadowlawn Avenue, our front lawn was less than lush. We knew we were fighting an uphill battle, because at that time we had five mature oak trees in our front yard. They didn’t call it “Shadowlawn” for nothing.

Research suggested that the best way to fix our stressed lawn was to core aerate, put down mushroom manure and over-seed. We learned we would need to complete the project before the trees leafed out, so the emerging turf seeds would have some sun to aid in germination. Several weeks after we completed the chore, our neighbor, a master gardener, came over to tell us the lawn had never looked better. Seems the former owner had worked hard with all sorts of products but had not achieved the same success. Hmmm.

I learned something that spring. If you cooperate with Mother Nature, you can get her to do the hard work for you. Turns out the real action is under the soil where the worms and microorganisms do the good work. Organic methods draw them; chemical methods repel them. But why in the world do worms and microorganisms matter to our lawns??

Worms and microorganisms aerate the soil and allow nutrients and water to flow directly to plant roots. The best way to keep the worms and microorganisms happy is organic gardening.
Worms and microorganisms aerate the soil and allow nutrients and water to flow directly to plant roots. The best way to keep the worms and microorganisms happy is organic gardening.

Think of them as little underground gardeners moving around under the surface of the soil creating little byways and passageways that allow air, water and nutrients to flow directly to the root zones of the grass. That’s good right? Get this: if we feed those worms and microorganisms, they come fast, because, after all, who doesn’t like to eat? Good food, like mushroom manure, which is already partially decayed and ready to be consumed, brings those little guys running. The worms consume it, and it comes out the other end as worm castings. Or they simply drag it through the soil where it decays and becomes a soil amendment. Worm castings are the most nitrogen-rich product Mother Nature manufactures. All that beneficial action, and you haven’t even used fertilizer.

What else is great about mushroom manure? It has a neutral pH of about 7, which is perfect for germinating and growing grass; it is loaded with micronutrients, and is a great soil amendment. In other words, it’s perfect for your lawn. Admittedly, it takes a little more time, but is infinitely worth the extra effort.

Did you know that when you baby your lawn with frequent applications of chemical lawn fertilizer per season, you are actually harming your lawn instead of helping it? It turns out grass plants are very proficient in their use of nitrogen and can even be considered “fuel efficient.” Too much chemical fertilizer may actually reduce that natural efficiency. Millions of microorganisms, worms, mites and insects live in the first few inches of your turf, and they are harmed by excessive fertilizer use. Worms, microorganisms, mites and insects are the champions of the garden. These unsung heroes quietly create healthy soil structure, deliver nutrients directly to the root zones of plants and open up the soil, which combats soil compaction. Killing them with chemicals upsets the efficiency of grass plants. Simply put, you are growing your lawn to death.

Now, let’s think about this logically. You may not know that when chemical fertilizers are applied to the lawn, the nutrients remain at the surface of the soil, meaning that as much as half the application is washed away—down the sewer and into our water supply. The roots don’t have to dig deep to find nutrients when chemical fertilizers are available at the soil surface. Consequently, a very dense layer of roots congregates at the soil surface, and this causes compaction, making it very difficult for anything to penetrate the soil surface. Without intervention such as core aeration, the air, water and nutrients cannot seep into the soil and benefit your turf.

Furthermore, the natural tendency for grass is to have a deep, expansive root system, so frequent chemical applications actually work against nature. This is why in the heat of the summer, your chemically fertilized lawn will die without a lot of watering. And chemical fertilizers can acidify the soil and kill beneficial biological processes.

A seven-year study at the University of Kentucky showed that increasing chemical fertilizer drastically decreased pH. The remarkable lesson learned was that the lawn with the least amount of fertilizer had the lowest levels of thatch. At the highest levels of fertilizer, there were 65 percent fewer earthworms than at lower levels because of diminished calcium, which is important to the earthworm’s metabolism.  And this explains why my Nana, the original organic gardener, threw calcium-rich eggshells in her compost pile. Earthworms are natures de-thatching agents. If we let them, they will consume the decaying built-up turf and dead roots and convert it into worm castings.

Compost—a natural fertilizer
Compost—a natural fertilizer

Organic methods, such as using mushroom manure and organic fertilizers that take time to break down, encourage healthy soil. As the nutrients break down, they feed the roots and allow production of carbohydrates—an energy source for plants as well as for people. The goal of fertilizing is to build up this reserve of carbohydrates for times of stress, and to keep the plants growing steadily and healthily. The fertilization cycle prompted by chemical fertilization starts with a spring application of a high nitrogen fertilizer to encourage lawn growth. This high-nitrogen application, commonly called “Green Up,” causes the grass to have a growth spurt, which not only requires mowing of the lawn more frequently, also requires the lawn to draw upon its carbohydrate reserves. Every time the grass is mowed, the lawn draws again on its carbohydrate reserves to help heal its wounds from the grass cutting. Those carbohydrate reserves are used up very quickly and the grass gets “hooked,” just like other addictions, making it dependent on more fertilizer.  The roots don’t develop as they should, so when the hot weather comes, they are unable to dig deep for moisture.

In late spring or early summer, another high-nitrogen application may keep your lawn looking good. This, however, increases the respiration of the plants, again reducing the carb reserves. The grass weakens. By the end of summer, you will have to re -seed and use a fall fertilizer to get the lawn growing again. And before you know it, winter will have arrived. The lawn goes into this dormant period without adequate reserves of carbohydrates to take it to spring, and the cycle begins again.

A better solution? Simply put organic methods work in conjunction with Mother Nature and allow her to do the hard work of building healthy soil structure, naturally fighting disease, and supporting sustainability, creating a lawn that in time will need less and less intervention to remain healthy.