We often get calls from frustrated homeowners who can't seem to get their lawn looking they way they want it to look. Organic lawn care is really just good gardening. The goal is make the lawn so happy and healthy that the problems go away without the need to remedy a particular issue such as weeds or pests. Grass is a nitrogen hungry little plant that needs to be fed regularly to be able to out-compete weeds and be ready for the Fourth of July picnic. Here is what we do to maintain gorgeously deep green lawns that you'll feel safe allowing your children and pets to play on.
Mow high and often--this can be as often as every 5 days in warm spring weather. This is a very common mistake--never remove more than 1/3 of the grass blade! A longer blade length (1.5”) will feed the roots better allowing the roots to grow deeper and stronger which will provide better drought resistance in July and August. Longer grass also discourages weeds and moss. Leave clippings on lawn whenever possible, even if you don’t have a “mulching mower”. A biologically active healthy lawn will devour clippings in no time. Sometimes in the spring the clippings are too long and wet and need to be raked removed. Anytime you remove clippings from the lawn you should fertilize to replace the nutrients you removed by feeding (fertilizing).
Compost (is magic!)
Fall or early spring is a good time to apply 1/2” of light screened compost. Devil’s Lake Rock Co. has a good fine compost available. Especially important to do if your lawn is on sand. Best to do this annually, but once every other year at the minimum. You can over-seed at the same time if necessary. It will look like you've destroyed your lawn after you've down this, but just wait, you'll be shocked at the beauty in less than a month!
Summer Drought (dormancy)
If you are not irrigating your lawn regularly you can expect it to “go dormant” the end of July and August. This does not hurt the lawn as it's part of it's natural cycle just like maples losing their leaves in the fall. It does mean you have to tolerate a brown lawn for a month or two in the summer. However, if it is exceptionally hot and dry, it is a good idea to give the lawn about 1/4” of water once a week to keep the crowns alive. This is historically not necessary at the coast due to ambient moisture, however, I'm seeing the need for this more and more. It is fine and even admirable to save water by letting your lawn go dormant, but if you start to water too much after your lawn has browned you may break it’s dormancy and so will need to continue to provide consistent water or it will be wasting energy. It isn’t good for the lawn to go in and out of dormancy more than once a year. This is all complicated further when going grass in sand and I would suggest adding topsoil if that is your lot in real estate and life : )
There are many good organic options these days, however, not so many are locally available. The best locally available option we've found is available at most Ace Hardware stores:
Milorganite - Organic Lawn Fertilizer
36# per 2,500 sq. ft.
5% nitrogen, 2% phophorous, 4% iron
Slow release organic fertilizer that only works when soil temperatures are between 55 and 85 degrees. For best results, apply 3-4 times per year, but spring and fall are most important times to fertilize. If you leave your grass clippings to mulch on the lawn, don’t bother with summer fertilizing. Each time you remove clippings from the lawn you will need to replace these nutrients somehow.
Dates to fertilize:
Memorial Day (or when soil temp is 55 degrees+)
Fourth of July
Iron--”Moss Out” or “Ironite”
Our soils are naturally deficient in iron. Iron will help kill moss safety. Be sure the only active ingredient in the product is iron and not another toxic substance. Available as pellets or liquid to apply through a hose-end sprayer. I use the pellets for ease of application. Apply in late spring or early fall when lawn is wet, but temperature are in the 60’s or 70’s. Milorganite contains iron, but sometimes more is needed as an initial moss treatment. Also good garden bed amendment for rhodies and most plants.
Pelletized or “prilled” is easiest to apply and doesn’t make such a mess. Lime feeds the lawn and also reduces moss. Apply in fall and/or spring.
Why not reseed any bare spots from pulling out a dandelion as they appear? Mix the seed with compost and keep watered. In fall or spring you can “overseed” the entire lawn with fresh seed. I use the lawn seed from TCCA farm store in Cloverdale as it is a good mix of grasses for the coast. If you applied iron to kill the moss--wait two wks, then rake out moss and sow grass seed. Apply 1/2” compost if you can to over the seed.
If you have a lot of weeds its because the culture isn’t calibrated correctly for growing grass. Is is too wet or dry? What kinds of weeds do you have and what sorts of deficiencies do they indicate? If you have a lot of dandelions you need iron & lime-- try hand pulling and overseeding. Next year there will be fewer dandelions--pull a few more and keep up the regime. In a couple of seasons, you won’t have dandelions. Why not leave the clover as it feeds the grass nitrogen, stays green, and flowers. Dutch white clover is an excellent low-growing choice for blending into a lawn.