If you think having a weed-, insect-, and disease-free lawn, without using a lot of chemicals, is beyond your expertise, you may be in for a surprise. In fact, what is best for the environment is also what is best for growing grass, and may mean you spend more time enjoying your lawn than working to maintain it. The key to natural lawn care is quite simple: creating conditions that are ideal for grass growth and less than ideal for weeds, disease, and pests.
It is important to understand what kind of soil is underneath your grass. An Electric Soil Tester is the easiest, most accurate way to do this. Testing kits are also available, but they tend to be less accurate. Pay special attention to your soil’s pH level. Grass’s ideal pH level is about 6.5-7.5. If it is below that range (too acidic), you’ll need to add lime to raise the pH and make it more alkaline. If it is above that range (too alkaline), you’ll need to add sulphur to make it more acidic.
Soil should be full of organic matter, a place where worms and microorganisms thrive and moisture and nutrients are retained. Adding organic matter — compost, manure, peat moss, grass clippings — to your soil will do more to improve your lawn’s appearance than any fertilizer alone will accomplish. If your topsoil is very thin in some places, it is worth it to start over, spreading a cover layer of at least four to six inches of good quality soil with plenty of organic matter mixed in. Tilling up he old lawn first will break down the sod, and allow nutrients and moisture to reach deep down. Tilling sod is tough work, though, and not every rototiller is up to the task. The DR Roto-Hog Power Tiller is an ideal option if you need to till up the sod in a significant portion of your lawn. If your soil requires less extreme repair than total replacement, and for periodic refurbishing, you can add a top dressing of soil mixed with organic peat or compost to your lawn, either by broadcasting it over the surface and raking it in, or by aerating the turf and sweeping or raking the mixture into the holes. Grass will thrive with the added nutrients, and it will choke out most of the weeds.
Don’t throw out nature’s fertilizer!
Grass loves nitrogen, and one of the best sources of nitrogen is grass clippings. Unfortunately, many people go to the trouble of removing grass clippings from their lawns, either by raking or by using a bagging mower, and then composting them. Leaving the clippings on your lawn to decompose and fertilize is a much easier alternative. Contrary to commonly held belief, grass clippings on your lawn will not cause thatch.
It’s easy to be tempted to mow short, thinking that this might buy some time until it is necessary to cut the grass again. The opposite is actually true. Mowing your lawn on the high side, 2-1/2″ to 3-1/2″, will mean healthier grass, fewer weeds, less disease, and less frequent waterings. Mowing grass short actually encourages it to grow faster in order to produce the blades it needs to make sugar (photosynthesis) to feed itself. The rapid growth robs stored sugar from the grass plants, which in turn weakens them and makes them susceptible to insect damage and disease. A good rule of thumb is to avoid cutting more than one third of the height of your grass each time you mow.
Cutting too short also contributes to thatch problems. When lawns are cut close or scalped, grass plants react by producing growth above ground, rather than below it in the soil. This growth eventually becomes dense enough to choke out nutrients, air, and moisture, damaging the soil you’ve been working to improve. To add insult to injury, weeds thrive in the poor soil and exposure to the sun you’ve created!
Water less often, but water deeply.
To create conditions that favor grass growth and discourage weed growth, avoid the temptation to substitute frequency for quantity when you water. In other words, water less frequently, but more thoroughly. This will force your grass roots to grow deep so that when the top layer of soil dries out, the shallow-rooted weeds will dry out and die, but your grass will be fine.
When to water depends on a number of factors. Generally it is best to do just after your grass starts to curl, but before it turns brown. This means the top two to three inches of soil are dry, inhibiting weed growth, but it’s still moist enough below that to keep your deep-rooted grass healthy.
Try natural fertilizers and pesticides.
Conventional, heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides can destroy healthy soil and with it your grass. Still, many of us need to provide nitrogen and other nutrients beyond what even good soil and grass clippings can supply in order to have healthy lawns. “Bridge” fertilizers are one option. They are a combination of some chemical fertilizers with larger amounts of organic fertilizers and are a good alternative for those seeking natural lawn care. The chemicals feed the plants, but not to the extent that they are harmed, while the organic fertilizers feed the soil. Pesticides, used to control or kill bugs in your lawn, are also available in organic form. If your lawn is basically healthy, bugs probably won’t pose a significant problem. If they are, however, identify what is causing the harm and choose an organic pesticide to target that species and avoid harming beneficial insects, bugs, and parasites.
Chemical herbicides can be used to control weeds, but they do not address the reason that you have weeds in the first place. Keeping your soil healthy, mowing your grass high, and watering well but infrequently will do more to control weeds on your property than chemicals can. You might also try to mow a little more frequently when they’re flowering to prevent them from going to seed.
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