Care for your lawn organically and on the cheap

May 19 |

This post syndicated from Hipster Housewife.

When my husband and I started talking about buying a house, I had a major hangup: lawn care. It actually affected how we looked at houses; we wanted a home without a ton of lawn. Less lawn meant less water, less time, and fewer chemical applications.

We ended up scoring a house with almost zero lawn. Yes! But I still wasn't stoked. Yes, I am that much of a crunchy that I didn't want to buy a house because it had a lawn.

I wanted this house bad, though. I had to find a way around the lawn care issue. One night I sat down to Google and spent a few hours learning about organic lawncare. I expected to find information about spendy herbicides and fertilizers and complicated maintenance schedules.

Instead, I found a system that made so much sense to my ecosystems-loving brain.

The overall gist is simple: make it easy for your grass to be the most competitive plant. Use tactics which cater to development, growth and success — conserving your fescue or bluegrass' energy and making conditions difficult for unwanted grasses and weeds. The fact is, the way most people care for their lawn makes it very difficult for the grass to hold its own. Really!

Give your grass the competitive edge

  • Mow high.
    Your mower should never go below four inches. When grass is cut short, it wastes energy trying to shoot back up to a healthier height. It needs that blade of grass to act like a solar panel! Cutting grass too short means other weedlings also get more sunlight and therefore, more energy. 

  • Water infrequently. 
    Grass can send its roots deep in search of water, but they'll stay shallow if you water too often. Weeds like crab grass and clover have shallow roots, so in times of drought they're stressed much more than a fescue or a bluegrass whose roots have gone deep. Wait until the grass starts to wilt, then water and water hard — about an inch in each area. 

  • Use organic fertilizer
    A slow-release jobbie with no salts. Harsh stuff damages the ecosystem of invertebrates and bacteria, and it doesn't contribute to a healthy overall soil composition. Plus, it all goes down to the river. I had some trouble finding an organic fertilizer at a good price, but I ended up running into a $10 pound bag of Milorganite at a True Value Hardware. No salts and made of human poop. Yes.
  • Never ever fuck with the life in your lawn. 
    Slugs, earthworms, itty bitty bugs and birds should all be happily scheming out front. This means: NO HERBICIDE. And no pesticides, either. When you make your lown friendly for birds, they'll take care of grubs.

We started green lawn care last year, and it's going well. I can already see the difference: where our property butts up to the neighbors', their lawn is being overtaken by clovers while my grass is holding its own. There is a visible line between the two. My lawn has naught a dandelion, though they've taken over all the lawns around. I do spend some time pulling crab grass each week, but I expect the need to lessen as the soil and grass recover from the lawncare service it was accustomed to.

If these aren't enough to keep your grass happy and balanced, you need to learn about pH and topsoil, and work on those areas if they're lacking. But dollars to donuts, these four things will keep your lawn happier than most others, with less work. 

  1. Living in an extremely dry climate, I have learned some additional things about keeping a low-environmental impact lawn. One of the best things I have done was to mix in non-grass items into my lawn. This wouldn't work if you want an even, perfect putting green, but the clover and low-growing flowers and herbs that fill out our fescue mix lawn do EXCEPTIONALLY well and require less water. Additionally, clover is a natural nitrogen fixer.

    We used a product called Envirolawn, available from a company called OutsidePride.com.

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    • We've been letting the clover take over our lawn. It's going to stay green way longer than the grass does, plus you just can't fight that stuff. People with OCD (like me) should take a look at it some time–it'll keep you busy for hours trying to untangle the maze that one square foot ends up being.

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  2. This is amazing advice. Thanks for doing all the research! I love the idea of thinking practically about not just the house, but the property that comes with it. This also goes along with the earlier discussion about getting to know the rules of the HOA BEFORE you buy. What do you do if you're not allowed to keep your lawn higher than 1.5 inches?

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    • OOH. That's a good question. Were I in that position, I'd go before the people who make the rules and lobby for longer lawns.

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    • If you can't get around your grass height, you CAN circumvent the whole gasoline/oil/air pollution beezwax with a reel mower. I can attest, I used to have a fairly sizeable yard, but a reel mower absolutely tackled it without a problem. I even had tree roots to contend with and Lil' Greeny took our lawn without a problem. I was actually able to mow the lawn WAY faster with that than a gas-powered mower.
      We never had a problem with invasions from neighbor's lawns because our lawn was fairly shady and we took other steps to ensure invaders weren't growing crazy.
      The hitch is when things DO get long, the reel mower won't really mow it down. It just sort of bends it over. In that case, a scythe or a gas mower comes in handy.

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      • What kind of mower do you have? It turns out our new lawn is too thick for our reel mower and my husband is considering a gas mower. I really dislike gas mowers so I'm trying to convince him we just need a better reel mower.

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        • We have a Black and Decker electric lawn mower that's going strong after 6 years. The new models are even cordless. I like it because it's quieter and lighter than gas mowers, in addition to not using gas and polluting the air in our yard.

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        • I can't for the life of me recall the brand. We actually got it off Craig's List for $60 with a sharpening kit. My ex-fiance Googled the model pretty extensively before he picked it up. There will always be a handful of negative "REEL MOWERS SUCK. USING THIS SUCKED." reviews for every reel mower, but the good models usually have TONS of good reviews to outweigh those.
          Our lawn was sort of random in spots. The middle was quite thick with very tough grass (PLENTY of crabgrass) and the edges of the lawn were shaded with thin, very soft grass. There were times when I was mowing the middle that my feet would be TOTALLY covered in grass clippings every step of the way, and it handled it beautifully.

          After searching a bit, it definitely looked like this one: To Amazon! but I can't say for sure.
          I WILL say that every time I was having a hard time mowing the lawn, a quick greasing and sharpening of the blades solved everything. So if you haven't tried it, I recommend giving it a go.

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        • We also have an electric mower (which being the Tim Allen American I am, I was a bit skeptical at first) that works really well, actually. Of course you have to watch the extension cord, but my husband doesn't seem to have a lot of trouble. I have to admit, though: our lawn/weed field is pretty tiny so even though our particular (inherited) electric lawnmower looks and feels pretty much like a children's toy, it's not up against much…

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      • had you used one before? i've never used one nad want to buy one but not sure how to tes it and how quick it goes dull. is it a pain in the buttocks to sharpen?

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        • I'll probably be writing up a review soon — maybe I'll throw it in for next week?

          I did a TON of research, and since my bar was set at "must mow at 4 inches", selection was slim.

          I ended up buying a Fiskars 5 Bladed Reel Mower. LOVE. There are downsides: must wipe down with WD-40 after each use, must find a place to sharper, can't mow too-long grass. But I love it anyway.

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    • This book is our bible. We did everything you can think of WRONG our first year of lawn care. Since buying this book we're definitely seeing a difference!
      It's all about the soil, baby!

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  3. Great summary of what to do (and what not to do). My only reservation is with the use of milorganite. You should not use it on vegetables, or anywhere you plan to grow vegetables in the future. The human poop isn't particularly a problem, but the sanitary sewer system also takes industrial waste so milorganite (and similar products) tend to be contaminated with heavy metals (among other things) which can build up in your soil. I prefer composted manure for both lawn and garden.

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    • Mmm, good info. They do say on the bag that it's fine for vegetables, but I took that with a grain of salt.

      I know that fertilizer at all isn't ideal, and my eventual goal is to have a large enough stash of compost to do the job.

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  4. We just seeded our front yard 2 weeks ago. I felt really, really weird about it. I have two kids and really need a soft place for them to play, but we live in New Mexico and I felt huge eco-guilt over having a lawn. After researching, we found a drought tolerant grass that claims to only need to be watered about once a month (and like you said, a deep watering at that time.) This grass can shoot roots 2+ feet into the ground. We also engineered the rest of our yard to be almost water-free xeric in order to compensate. We used compost for fertilizer and saved our fall leaves to chop up and lay on top to hold in moisture during germination. Its been about 10 days and we've got sprouts everywhere! I'm ridiculously excited and glad we decided to do our research and put the lawn in.

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    • Yeah, I live in the Denver area, and I had eco guilt about installing a sprinkler system. We did reduce the lawn area in front and replaced bluegrass with a low-water fescue mix, and this summer, we're replacing the bluegrass/weeds in the back with buffalograss and flower/vegetable beds. Still…

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      • We used the dwarf fescue. I have no idea how well their claims of low mowing and low water usage will pan out, so if you have any wisdom there, I'd love to hear it. I think we're going to do a native grass and flower mix in our back eventually as well. Did you get it from High Country Gardens? I'd love to know how that pans out, too.

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  5. What a perfectly timed post-I just finished mowing the lawn & cursing the rain that has sprouted the dandelions & weeds. Any advice for areas that get excessive rain?

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  6. Clover is weed?

    I love me some clover in the lawn. It's so much softer and nicer to sit on than grass.

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  7. I went a little nutso when we got our first lawn. Ended up going to a free seminar at a local gardening center about native species. Natives rarely require lots of water, feeding or care. Specifically, they fellow recommended several different sedges in place of grass. Sedges grow a little bit taller than grass (3-4 inches maybe? If I recall correctly) but are really low maintenance. He recommended gradually replacing andy dry patches of lawn with sedge, or if you want to be more aggressive, you can leave cardboard over the grass and then replace with sedge. Also recommended shredding your leaves and using as mulch – serves the same function, really only need to shred for looks actually. The fellow – who actually works at "Garden in the Woods" in Framingham (amazing – check it out if you can!) also talked about the use of rain barrels and actually digging a reservoir at the bottom of a slope (if you have that sort of yard) to capture run-off and all of the pesticides and whatnot. You can then recycle the water from the reservoir back into your yard. A bit more than I wanted to get into, but I guess I can dream:)

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  8. I've been wondering for a while – what does crunchy mean in this context? I keep seeing it on Offbeat Empire sites, mainly Offbeat Mama and it never made sense to me.

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  9. Another easy-easy way to help your lawn: Don't bag clippings after mowing. Let 'em lie – they break down fast and return the nitrogen back to the soil. Free extra fertilizer!

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    • If your neighborhood association has complaints (or you just don't like how it looks) go ahead and bag your clippings, then lightly sprinkle clippings all over the lawn. That way it's not all clumpy and yellow.
      Or, there's always composting!

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      • Our mower has a 'mulch' setting, which actually chews up the clippings and spits them back out, and does so well enough that it looks NO different than if we had bagged them. I was worried about dead clumps of grass on the lawn, but there are none. Also, we do compost, but that much grass is not really good for the compost 'ecosystem'. Anyone who does have the 'mulch' option on their mower should definitely give it a try!

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        • That sounds pretty awesome – will definitely keep an eye out for that function if/when we buy a mower!

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  10. Awesome read, thanks! We can't use pesticides, herbicides or most fertilizers on our lawn because it caused one of our dogs to have seizures! I'm glad to hear there's other methods to combating weeds. We have a big lawn (.43 acres) and we've been struggling since day one. We just tried a new seed this year (Tifton 9 Bahia Grass) and I'm going to start suggesting we don't mow lower than 4" from now on!

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  11. My parents' solution to lawn care is to not care at all. They'll mow it once they start losing their cat in the grass but that's it. It's mostly chickweed and crab grass at this point but it still looks fine and they never have to bother with watering or chemicals.

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  12. I just learned from a friend that they are actually trying to replace their entire grass lawn with clover… it's great for the soil, chokes out other weeds, stays green in drought and you don't have to mow it. Don't think I need anything else to convince me otherwise, not to mention clover seed is WAY cheaper than grass. Now, so avoid having my chickens dig holes in the ground… a different problem entirely.

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  13. THANK YOU for this post! I am a professional organic gardener. Before I took a job at a fancy hotel to be the gardener for a 10,000 sq. foot edible garden I did "mow, blow and go" for a variety of clients as long as they also needed fine gardening care.

    SO MANY people think they need to do these horrible things to their lawn when in reality the simple things you have outlined in this post and in the comments will do the trick. I cut out my front lawn when we bought our house but kept our back lawns for our (future) children to play in. Lawn can be a wonderful addition to any garden landscape offering a place for the eye to rest along with a place for sporting activities.

    It's not the lawn that's the problem!

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  14. I grew up just mowing whatever we had for a lawn. We never sprayed or fertilised or watered. As I look at my parent's lawn these days, I see crabgrass, dandelions, clover, these weird purple/blue flower things, and strawberry. All your standard native species around here. I grew up in the country, so the difference between the hayfields and the lawn was how short you mowed it. At the place my wife and I are currently trying to buy, my plan is to till under 70% of the lawn,and use it for garden and then disc in the hayfield (seriously neglected), lime it, and run 3 plantings of clover. The rest of the lawn will get the same treatment as the hayfield.

    One other thing that works well for Dandelions (especially here where we get alot of rain and the grass grows really fast) is to use a reel mower (I have a large one for my tractor) and set it very low for 2 weeks. When you cut off most of the flower heads, you don't get the seeds, and then you get a reduced number of the dandelions.

    On the whole mower thing, I have found the old 2 wheel walk behind tractors made by Gravely work well and are very fuel efficient. My Model L that was built in 1949 has cut 5 acres of loose hay on about a gallon and a half of gasoline. It also doubles as a rototiller, a snowblower, a brushcutter, a lawnmower (rotary and reel), and a haymower. Plus it's super simple to work on and keep running and wasn't made to be disposable. It's also fun to use and everybody looks at you like you are crazy.

    Paul

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  15. Any ideas on how to get rid of ant infestations in the lawn without using pesticide? The entire backyard of our new house is riddled with ant hills, almost to the point where it looks like the ground is moving. I don't want to resort to chemical warfare, but it is war.

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    • You should try sprinkling the anthills with corn gluten meal. The ants will eat it and then drink water and they pop. No pesticides, so it's safe for animals. Also, you could spread some diatomaceous earth around the outside perimiter of your home to keep them from coming inside.

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  16. My dad owns one of those big lawn care franchises, so I've learned a lot about grass over the years. Lawn height is something that SO MANY people get wrong. Another thing to be aware of which nobody mentioned is the best time of day to water, which is early morning. Watering in the evening means the lawn doesn't dry fully before sundown, which provides ideal conditions for fungus (and I'm talking lawn-killing stuff, not cute mushrooms). Early morning gives the water a chance to seep in before the air gets hot enough to evaporate it.

    I was surprised at the fertilizer that contains human poop. I thought only grazing animals excreted stuff that helps grass grow, which makes sense when you think about it. (The organic fertilizer my dad uses is dried cow pee.) But hey, I'm not an expert so I could be wrong!

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    • Thanks for the additional tip about watering in the morning!

      I only knew to water when it's cool (morning or evening) for things like roses and other plants to avoid boiling them alive. ;-)

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  17. Milorganite comes from the sewage treatment plants. They do cook the slurry to kill harmful microbes, but all the contaminates that go down the drain are still there. Pharmaceuticals, paint, paint thinner, cleaners, petroleum products, etc. Most of the drugs people take end up going down the toilet and into the sewage. I wouldn't put that on my lawn.

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