Switching to organic lawn care practices can save you time and money while creating a safe, attractive, environmentally-friendly home landscape. Here are seven DIY organic lawn care tips you can start putting into practice today!
Do you know what the largest irrigated crop in the United States is based on total acreage? Corn? Soybeans? Wheat? Nope.
Answer: Grass lawns. There are about 102,000 square miles of lawn in the US, an area 3x larger than any other irrigated crop.
Can you guess which land use practice uses more synthetic pesticides and fertilizers per acre, conventional farms or lawns? Answer: lawns.
In fact, the US Fish and Wildlife Service states: “Homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops, and they spend more per acre, on average, to maintain their lawns than farmers spend per agricultural acre. During a rain, the pesticides and fertilizers you put on your lawn can be carried by runoff and end up contaminating a stream or wetland dozens of miles away. Contaminants can also be carried for long distances through the air and deposited on land and in water by rain or fog. Such examples of pollution are called “non-point source” pollution.”
As we’ve written about elsewhere, the standard American lawn is a relatively modern invention and it’s not a particular sensible one from the standpoint of economics, environmental stewardship, or human & pet safety. Thankfully, there are better lawn care management practices that allow you to still have an attractive grass lawn without the downsides.
Our top 7 DIY organic lawn care tips
1. Set your mower to 3″ – 4″.
Your lawn is not a putting green, so don’t cut your grass to a nub! Instead, when you cut your grass keep it between 3″ – 4″.
- You’ll help your grass develop longer root systems that can better source their own fertility and water from deeper in the soil.
- Taller grass helps better shade the soil surface, thereby moderating soil temperatures. This reduces water evaporation, thus reducing/eliminating the need for irrigation.
- Taller grass shades out weeds and helps keep weed seeds from germinating.
2. Water your grass less and deeper (if at all) early in the morning.
In many areas of the country, supplemental irrigation of your grass lawn is actually completely unnecessary. In fact, by overwatering your grass, you can cause fungal diseases to proliferate or create anaerobic soil conditions that cause your grass’s roots to rot.
It’s also important to note that even if you go through a summer dry spell and your grass begins to brown, that doesn’t mean your grass is dead or you have to irrigate. Your grass is just going dormant to conserve energy and water, but it will go back to green once water returns.
When, how much, and how frequently should you water your lawn?
- Water your lawn early in the morning or just before dawn. Don’t water during the day or you’ll be burning money as most of the water evaporates. Don’t water in the evening or at night or the wet grass will be more likely do develop fungal diseases.
- In the summer, if you’re NOT getting rainstorms once every couple weeks, water your grass for 1 hour once per week. This deep watering encourages deep-rooted grass, whereas watering frequently in small quantities encourages shallow-rooted grass that won’t tolerate drought and high temperatures as well. In the winter, you shouldn’t have to water your grass at all.
3. Choose your primary grass species wisely and consider growing a winter “cover crop.”
If you live in Maine, you don’t want to plant St. Augustine grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum) in your lawn. That’s because St. Augustine grass grows best in hot humid climates like Florida. There are countless species of turf grass to choose from, so select one acclimated to grow well in your climate region with minimal maintenance. (Google is a good starting point.)
Where we live in Greenville, SC, our primary Bermuda grass goes dormant in the winter, but we sow an annual ryegrass that keeps our lawn green from fall through spring. The rye grass dies out as the weather warms in the spring, right around the same time that our Bermuda grass breaks dormancy. Why do we do this?
For many of the same reasons that organic farmers use cover crops…
We think of the grassy areas of our yard as a solar panel that also:
- captures rainwater,
- cleans/breaks down pollutants,
- feeds the beneficial soil microbes living beneath via root exudates and decomposed cuttings, and
- adds biomass to the soil that then becomes humus (plant energy reserves).
Dormant grass doesn’t serve these functions nearly as well as actively photosynthesizing green grass does.
Another interesting benefit of growing ryegrass in our cold season lawn: it helps prevent weeds. Our neighbor constantly battles weeds like henbit (which is actually an edible weed) from December through March when his grass is dormant, so he asked how we managed to keep those weeds out of the grassy spots in our adjacent yard.
I then explained to him how rye grass is allelopathic, meaning it releases chemical compounds into the soil that inhibit weed seed germination and growth. Nope, it doesn’t hurt our already established Bermuda grass — it actually helps it (more on that below).
Last thing we’ll say about annual ryegrass: it boosts our spirits to see a vibrant green lawn on a dreary grey winter day, and that’s a valuable psychological benefit for us as well!
4. Leave those grass clippings in place!
Every time you haul off a bag of lawn cuttings, you’re not only removing massive amounts of fertility, you’re also making it easier for weed seeds to germinate in your lawn.
That’s because those clippings are decomposed by microbes and worms in your soil, which then excrete them in the form of bioavailable nutrients in the rhizosphere helping your grass grow. This is similar to how trees in a forest make their own fertilizer via soil microbes eating their fallen leaves.
The other benefit of leaving your grass clippings in place is that they form a temporary thatch layer on the soil surface beneath the grass blades that then helps prevent weed seeds from germinating or growing. “Temporary” because that thatch layer is soon broken down into fertilizer, rather than building up.
5. Utilize biodiversity.
Nowhere in nature will you find a healthy ecosystem consisting of a single species. Why should your lawn be any different?
Instead of aiming for uniformity because of a peculiar cultural norm, embrace nature’s efforts to bring a bit of biodiversity into your monotonous patch of green grass. In fact, if you really want to geek out, you can learn to read your weeds. The different types of weeds in your yard indicate specific types of nutrient deficiencies that the plants help to fix. Many of these weeds are also edible.
You can also do what we do and intentionally sow weed seeds like low-growing perennial white clover in your lawn.
We then get to enjoy turning our lawn into clover honey, along with our beekeeping neighbors! Clover has another benefit as well: with the help of symbiotic bacteria, clover converts atmospheric nitrogen into plant bioavailable nitrogen which ultimately helps feed your grass as well. Yes, you can grow your own lawn fertilizer!
6. Replace (or don’t use) synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Fertilizer runoff from lawns is a major pollutant that wreaks environmental havoc, such as triggering fish-killing algae blooms. Using the tips in this article, you may never have to fertilize your lawn again. (We’ve never fertilized our lawn.)
If your lawn is unhealthy or needs a burst of fertility, skip the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Instead opt for either:
- OMRI-listed organic lawn fertilizers, or
- spread a thin layer of worm castings or compost over the surface of your lawn once per year in the spring, then irrigate for one hour (or apply before predicted rain).
7. Consider edible organic landscaping (aka “farmscaping”).
Just because you have some grass lawn in your yard doesn’t mean you can’t also have an attractive edible organic landscape as well. Nope, planting rows of corn in your front yard probably won’t make your HOA or neighbors happy, but there are plenty of edible plants that can be added right into the beds next to your grassy patches in your front yard.
There’s an indescribable joy we get from walking out our front door and picking perennial foods such as elderberries, chestnuts, blueberries, grapes, serviceberries, persimmons, prickly pear cactus, aronia, strawberries, and more.
We also tuck lots of edible seasonal annual plants into our no-till mulched beds: kale, sorrel, peppers, ground cherries, and countless others, depending on the season.
Some additional recommended reading if you want to learn more about edible landscaping:
- Fruit, herbs, and veggies that grow in shade
- The basics of edible landscaping (article on our sister site, GrowJourney)
- How to have your butterfly garden and eat it too (also GrowJourney)
- Book: Edible landscaping by Rosalind Creasy
- Book: Edible landscaping with a permaculture twist: how to have your yard and eat it too by Michael Judd
We hope this article helps inspire you to transition to organic lawn care practices. We also hope it helps you go a step beyond…
Ultimately, we think it’s high time we all break down the arbitrary distinctions between farm, yard, and wilderness area. Why can’t your yard grow food and serve multiple other ecosystem services as well? Why can’t your yard be as safe a habitat to pollinators and other critters as a wilderness preserve is? It can if you design it accordingly.
Perhaps this seems like a challenging paradigm shift that will require knowledge and effort. As with all things worth doing, it will.
But we assure you from our own experiences that your health, happiness, pocketbook, and dinner menu will all benefit from making your yard an edible, multifunctional oasis. Perhaps we can even start a trend together: designing yards and cultivating neighborhoods that are as good for the environment as they are for the people who live there.
Regenerative home landscapes and hyperlocal food grown a few steps from your front door — wouldn’t that be delicious? Please start today and hit us up with any questions as you get growing!
Other articles to help get you growing in the right direction:
- Expert interview: 10 tips to help you reduce lawn pollution
- The new American yard: monoculture grass farm or organic food farm?
- How to start a garden today: top 10 tips
- How to start and maintain a no-dig garden
- Building healthy soil explained in a single photo
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Jared C SeeryJune 7, 2021 at 9:41 am
BTW, annual ryegrass is a different species than winter rye. I think only winter rye is allopathic.
Aaron von FrankJune 8, 2021 at 2:18 pm
Thanks Jared! I’m certainly not a grass or rye expert. After a bit of digging, sounds like what we’re using is annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) not winter rye. Article updated accordingly. Beyond our multi-year anecdotal experiences where we see a clear delineation between weeds in our neighbor’s winter and spring yard (mostly henbit) and no weeds in our yard with rye, it does look like there is broader recognition in the scientific literature showing annual rye having allelopathic effects on other plants. Thanks again for catching the name mixup!
Bridget M.February 27, 2021 at 4:42 am
I love reading your blog. I have four ducks-all different breeds: Pekin (female), Cayuga (male), Khaki Campbell (male), Mallard (male)…all orphaned at a week or two. They’re now 7-8 months old and my babies LOL. My poor Shih-Tzu-Maxx has some jealousy there even though they’re outside ducks now and we’re having to convert our duck house into two since the Khaki Campbell & Cayuga act like MMA fighters as soon as they see one another. I hoped reading this article it might help me get my backyard to look like a yard instead of a giant mud pit. We live in Louisiana and our fall and winters are very wet and our ducks had a blast in a very large mud pit. I can see bits of grass trying to protrude out in some areas but not others. Can I fix my backyard? Let me add I currently have 11 eggs incubating (14 days till hatch), started with 17 but 6 were quitters. My female is a Pekin and wasn’t interested in sitting on them during the day and two of the drakes would sit on them at night LOL. Any advice is appreciated?
Aaron von FrankFebruary 27, 2021 at 7:09 am
Ha! Your home sounds like a lot of fun. 🙂 I’m a little surprised your single female duck doesn’t have any injuries given the ratio of males in the flock.
Can you fix your backyard? Yes. But with as many ducks as you have and are planning to have via hatched eggs, the likelihood of you having a backyard with green grass or tender annual plants is exceedingly low. Your ducks won’t allow it.
Instead, consider using triple ground mulch (easier on duck feet) to cover the ground, prevent mud pits, and form beds. Fill the yard with larger perennial plants — shrubs (example: blueberry), trellised vines (example: grape), and short trees (example: dwarf Asian persimmons) in attractively arranged beds that allow you to utilize the “fertility” your ducks produce and convert it into food for you via plants your ducks can’t destroy.
Another possibility is to build taller raised beds (too tall for ducks to access) to grow more traditional garden plants. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, etc in the warm months and crops like lettuce, chicory, kale, broccoli, etc in the cool months.
The main thing with ducks is mud prevention, and mulch is really key to accomplish that. However, if the mulch is too rough on their feet, you’ll end up treating bumblefoot injuries.
Hope this helps! Please let me know if you have any followup questions, and best of luck with your yard and growing duck flock!
Sarah KruegerJanuary 27, 2020 at 8:38 am
I love the “eye-sore” (wildflower garden) I put in years ago near the street in the front. I love to see monarch caterpillars, black swallowtail caterpillars, and iridescent-blue wasps (no clue what the species is) in that garden.
The only unwelcome visitor I’ve had is neighbors’ dogs walking through it, but I’ve only observed that once or twice.
Aaron von FrankFebruary 13, 2020 at 7:37 pm
Right on! Keep up the good work with your wildflower garden/yarden, Sarah.