10 tips for or­ganic lawns

Carol Buck­nell on how to get the best lawn on the block, with­out her­bi­cides, pes­ti­cides and chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers.

NZ Gardener - - Con­tents -

Get a great lawn with­out pes­ti­cides, her­bi­cides and chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers

get rid of the lawn. That’s the ad­vice or­ganic gar­den­ing pun­dits of­ten like to dish out to would-be gar­den­ers. Their mantra is that vel­vet green grass lawns are ar­ti­fi­cial con­structs that do not de­serve a place in the or­ganic gar­den. It makes sense when you con­sider how much pes­ti­cides and ar­ti­fi­cial fer­tilis­ers the av­er­age lawn lover would use to main­tain that lush green sward, not to men­tion the wa­ter re­quire­ments and the fi­nan­cial cost of all this.

But lawn lovers should not de­spair. You can grow very nice lawns with­out the use of chem­i­cals and hun­dreds of litres of wa­ter.

Th­ese lawns may be a lit­tle more labour in­ten­sive to main­tain and not quite so uni­form in com­po­si­tion, but they’re much safer places for the kids, pets and wildlife to hang out. And of course there are no chem­i­cals flow­ing into our streams and oceans be­cause of them ei­ther.

1Work with na­ture

If you sow grass seed that suits the con­di­tions of your area, your lawn is less likely to need pam­per­ing – con­stant wa­ter­ing, feed­ing, pes­ti­cides and so forth. For in­stance, if your area has very dry sum­mers choose a drought-tol­er­ant grass mix. This makes sow­ing grass seed a bet­ter or­ganic op­tion than lay­ing turf as you can choose the seed mix that suits your spe­cific re­quire­ments. An in­de­pen­dent seed sup­plier such as Spe­cial­ity Seeds (spec­seed.co.nz) can ad­vise on cul­ti­vars that do well in a wide range of sit­u­a­tions from shade, heat, cold, soils with low fer­til­ity to ar­eas lashed by salt winds or sub­ject to heavy use.


If you find sow­ing grass seed hard work, try us­ing a lawn mat (like Wool­gro). In this en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly prod­uct, grass seed is em­bed­ded in mats of un­scoured sheep dag wool, re­cy­cled jute and pa­per fi­bres. Th­ese re­lease nu­tri­ents in the soil and hold mois­ture, which im­proves seed ger­mi­na­tion and re­duces the need for ir­ri­ga­tion.

2View weeds dif­fer­ently

As the old say­ing goes, a weed is just a plant grow­ing in the wrong place. Learn to live with a lawn that is a mix of turf grass and smaller weeds. Some, like clover, add ni­tro­gen to the soil and pro­vide nec­tar for bees.

Put your en­ergy in­stead into the hand re­moval of large in­va­sive weeds such as dock and dan­de­lion (al­though many or­ganic gar­den­ers like dan­de­lions as they at­tract ben­e­fi­cial in­sects to the gar­den). Some gar­den­ers rec­om­mend sim­ple, old-fash­ioned tools such as a screw­driver or Won­der Weeder for removing deep-rooted lawn weeds or you could go for one of nifty new tools on the mar­ket such as the four-prong weed puller from Fiskars (fiskars.co.nz).

3Im­prove aer­a­tion

Badly drained soils mean lit­tle air is pen­e­trat­ing into the soil, in­hibit­ing grass growth and en­cour­ag­ing fungi and moss.

A sim­ple so­lu­tion is to aer­ate the ground with a gar­den fork, mak­ing a series of holes around 8-10cm deep in the sur­face of the lawn. For re­ally heavy or hard soils, in­vest in or hire a hol­low tine or core aer­a­tor ma­chine and sweep sand into the cores you take out. Even for mod­er­ate soils this process will im­prove lawn health, es­pe­cially if you add com­post and top soil to the holes. For best re­sults, do this af­ter rain when ground is soft.

4Rake out moss & dead grass

Moss thrives in most lawns par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the wet­ter, cooler months. Re­sist the urge to spray it, just take to it with a rake. If you spray, you still need to rake to re­move the dead moss any­way, so why not take the chem­i­cals out of the equa­tion?

Rak­ing the lawn (also called scar­i­fy­ing) helps re­moves thatch, a buildup of grass rhi­zomes and stems that is so thick it doesn’t break down.

Thatch can quickly build up in be­tween the soil and grass, pre­vent­ing wa­ter and air from pen­e­trat­ing into the soil.

You can buy pow­ered moss rak­ers (that also scar­ify) on the mar­ket if you’re phys­i­cally not up to the job.

Moss prefers shady ar­eas, so prune back trees where moss in­fes­ta­tion is par­tic­u­larly bad. † TIP Thatch­ing can be the cul­prit if your lawn is thick and spongy, or turns brown quickly in sum­mer. Scar­i­fy­ing in spring and au­tumn will help. 5 Sweep out the fungi If you spot toad­stools, mush­rooms, puff­balls and other fungi pop­ping up in the lawn, don’t worry they won’t dam­age the grass. Their pres­ence is an in­di­ca­tion of de­cayed or­ganic mat­ter such as dead tree roots or a stump in the soil. An­i­mal waste is an­other pos­si­bil­ity. Some­times fungi can ap­pear if the lawn has been over­wa­tered or is badly drained.

Re­duc­ing the fre­quency of wa­ter­ing can help as will removing thatch and im­prov­ing aer­a­tion. Removing old tree stumps is an­other op­tion al­though this can en­cour­age the de­vel­op­ment of fairy rings, an­other type of fungi. Prun­ing or thin­ning sur­round­ing trees to al­low more sun onto the lawn will also re­duce the shady, damp con­di­tions fungi loves and en­cour­age grass growth.

For an im­me­di­ate fix to stop fungi from shed­ding spores, sim­ply grab a stiff broom, sweep them off and suck up the de­bris with the lawn mower. While you’re at it, sweep up worm casts too. If they’re left on the grass, they can cre­ate muddy patches. Do this on a fine day and use a straw broom to spread the worm casts over the lawn as a top dress­ing. 6Thicken up your grass As we all know, a thin sparse lawn is a mecca for weeds. To com­pete with th­ese in­vaders your lawn grass needs to be as thick as pos­si­ble. Spring

or au­tumn are the best times to thicken up an ex­ist­ing lawn (or sow a new one) as the soil should be warm and moist for bet­ter seed ger­mi­na­tion.

Mow the lawn first. Then when the ground is damp, rake it well to re­move thatch and break up the sur­face to around 1cm. This will help the seed make good con­tact with the soil. Add a layer of weed-free top­soil or lawn mix, then scat­ter the seed and wa­ter gen­tly. Feed and wa­ter as for a new lawn.

Use the same method in au­tumn for worn or bare patches that may ap­pear over sum­mer.

7Mow high

Set­ting your mower high (7-10cm) gives your grass a head start in the nev­erend­ing com­pe­ti­tion with weeds. Both want sun to thrive but tall dense grass can pre­vent light from reach­ing many weeds. Taller grass also has deeper roots that can choke weed growth and shade the soil more so the lawn will need less wa­ter.

Mow­ing a lawn higher doesn’t mean you have to mow it more fre­quently. Quite the op­po­site in fact. Mow­ing your lawn shorter re­duces the num­ber of grass blades to pho­to­syn­the­sise and feed the plant. For its own sur­vival the grass must put on more growth as fast as pos­si­ble af­ter mow­ing. This ac­cel­er­ated growth uses up stored food and weak­ens the plant re­sult­ing in dead patches.

Longer grass grows more slowly and uses its stored sug­ars to pro­duce more rhi­zomes, which means a thicker, health­ier lawn. † TIP Reg­u­lar mow­ing dur­ing the grow­ing sea­son helps re­duce weeds and cre­ates a finer sward. How­ever, the golden rule is to never cut more than a third of the length of grass at a time.

8Leave clip­pings on the grass

There are dif­fer­ent schools of thought on this sub­ject, with some lawn ex­perts ex­tolling the virtues of leav­ing clip­pings on the lawn so they can add nu­tri­ents (mostly ni­tro­gen, phos­pho­rus and potas­sium) and or­ganic mat­ter to the soil, re­duc­ing the need for fer­tilis­ers. They also ar­gue that the clip­pings act as a mulch pro­tect­ing the soil from ex­tremes of tem­per­a­ture and hold­ing in mois­ture.

Oth­ers warn that leav­ing clumps of mown grass to pile up acts as a thatch and can kill off the lawn un­der­neath. To avoid this, only leave clip­pings on the ground af­ter mow­ing when the grass is less than 7cm high as they will de­com­pose quickly. If the grass is any longer the clip­pings won’t break down eas­ily and they’ll sit on top of the grass, ef­fec­tively smoth­er­ing it.

Mow­ing the lawn when it is damp can also make grass clip­pings form clumps. A mulching mower will help cut the clip­pings into shorter lengths.

9Re­duce wa­ter­ing

Wa­ter only when your grass shows signs of drought stress and then wa­ter deeply. Even when it’s dry the lawn will quickly re­cover af­ter rain or wa­ter­ing, and if it con­tains other plants be­sides grass it will have more drought re­sis­tance than a pure grass lawn.

Wa­ter­ing deeply forces grass roots to go deeper into the soil than most weed roots. There­fore when the top few cen­time­tres of soil stays dry, weeds and weed seedlings die.

Shal­low, fre­quent wa­ter­ing en­cour­ages thatch­ing and if the grass roots are only in the top 2-5cm of soil they’ll quickly dry out on a hot day.

Wa­ter­ing also washes out soil nu­tri­ents so the less you do it, the more fer­tile your soil.

10Feed in the grow­ing sea­son The key to all healthy, pest-re­sis­tant plants is to keep them well fed. Feed lawns with an or­ganic fer­tiliser in mid­sum­mer or au­tumn, then again in spring. Many ex­perts rec­om­mend fer­tilis­ers that con­tain blood and bone such as Nitrosol or Yates Dy­namic Lifter Or­ganic Lawn Food.

Wa­ter in well if con­di­tions are dry and make sure you spread the fer­tiliser evenly over the lawn.

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