Organic lawn care is desired by people who want a more environmentally friendly managed lawn. Concerns about the impacts of pesticides on humans, pets, wildlife, pollinators, and the environment, including the Chesapeake Bay, are the driving factors behind the wish to make a change. But, what is organic lawn care? And what should the expectations be?
What is organic lawn care?
The working definition of an organic lawn care program is a lawn managed without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. However, it does not mean discontinuing basic lawn care maintenance practices like fertilizing and overseeding. Research shows that a very low-maintenance approach, just mowing what you have and doing nothing else, is not necessarily the most environmentally sound practice (Ervin, 2011). This approach may lead to areas of bare soil, soil erosion, and runoff. Organic lawn care, like conventional lawn care, requires an investment of time and money for best results. If you decide you need help, contact organic lawn care companies and conventional lawn care companies with organic programs to learn more about organic approaches and pricing (more information below under When to call in the professionals).
Another consideration is reducing some of your lawn by planting a lawn alternative. For example, a groundcover should be considered for areas where grass doesn't grow.
Dealing with weeds
Weed control can be challenging in an organic program, especially if the goal is a turfgrass lawn with no evident weeds. Interestingly, before the use of herbicides became standard for lawn care in the 1950s and 1960s clover seed was a desired part of a home lawn seed mixture. Clover and dandelions are an important source of pollen for early season pollinators!
Certain weeds like nutsedge and wild violets are indicators of problem areas such as poor drainage or shade. Learn about Conditions that Favor Lawn Weed Growth. Foxtail is often an indicator of low soil pH. If the underlying reason why a weed is present is not corrected, controlling that weed in the long-term is really not possible even using a conventional herbicide. But, one should be able to accept a certain percentage of weeds in an organic lawn. However, the aim should be a thick, healthy stand of grass as this is the best defense against weed encroachment.
There are organic/biorational herbicides labeled for lawn weeds with active ingredients like botanical oils, soaps, iron HEDTA (a selective herbicide but can temporarily darken grass blades), or acetic acid. They are non-selective (meaning they will also kill the grass) and are used to spot-treat problem plants. Research has shown these products are less effective than chemical herbicides and typically need to be applied more frequently. Organic products kill or weaken the green part of the plant, but perennial weeds with taproots, rhizomes, tubers, or bulbs such as creeping Charlie, bermudagrass, and nutsedge will keep returning.
Corn gluten is often mentioned as an organic lawn preemergent herbicide but is not recommended for use on Maryland lawns for weed prevention because the recommended rate for weed control would exceed the amount of nitrogen allowed by the Fertilizer Use Act of 2011 (Maryland's Lawn Fertilizer Law).
Organic lawn care guidelines
- Perform a soil test every 3 years. Maintaining proper pH (6.0 - 6.8) and soil fertility levels are necessary for healthy turf growth.
- Improve the soil before planting a new lawn or when doing a lawn renovation project by mixing compost into the top 4-6 inches making sure it is well incorporated. Soil improvement after a lawn is established is difficult because to comply with Maryland's Fertilizer Law, the amount of compost that can be applied (topdressing) has to be dictated by a soil test and a compost analysis. You can also work with a lawn care professional who is a certified professional fertilizer applicator if topdressing is desired. Usually, this is not necessary for an established lawn where soil organic matter has increased over the years through the addition of grass clippings, leaves, and dead plants and microbes, as compared to the soil in a newer development that was stripped of topsoil during construction.
- Plant turf-type tall fescue. It needs a minimum of 4-6 hours of sunlight (moderate sun). Refer to publication (PDF) TT-77 Recommended Turfgrass Cultivars for Certified Sod Production and Seed Mixtures in Maryland for a list of recommended cultivars to look for on the label of the grass seed you are purchasing. We also have information about growing grass in shady conditions.
- Overseed in the fall if your lawn sustained summer damage from drought, disease, or has bare spots.
- Fertilize according to the University of Maryland Extension recommendations for home lawns. Organic lawn fertilizers are composed of ingredients like alfalfa meal, Chilean nitrate, corn gluten, feather meal, and cottonseed meal. To comply with Maryland's lawn fertilizer law look for a product that contains zero phosphorus - the middle number of the fertilizer analysis or grade (0-0-0) unless soil test results indicate the need for phosphorus and homeowners may not apply lawn fertilizer between the blackout dates of November 15th and March 1st. Research done at the University of Maryland Paint Branch Turfgrass Facility showed that compost tea applied to foliage had little effect on turf growth.
- Combination 'weed and feed' products are not part of an organic lawn care program. They often contain unnecessary pesticides and advise applying fertilizer at the wrong times of the year.
- Hand pull or use a weeding tool to remove weeds. Doing this after rainfall makes the task easier. Spot treat weeds with an organic lawn herbicide labeled for lawns. Some products will have the Omri® (Organic Materials Review Institute) seal on their label assuring you that the product is for use in organic programs.
- Insects are rarely a problem of healthy lawns. Routinely applying insecticides to lawns to manage a wide-range list of harmless and beneficial insects such as ants, wasps, spiders, and beetles, should not be part of a lawn care program. Doing so has a negative impact on pollinators and natural enemies that keep insect populations in check. There are other ways to manage pests like ticks and mosquitoes.
- White grubs can be an occasional problem on tall fescue lawns. But applying a grub control product is recommended only if you have areas of weak or dead turf and find 8-15 grubs per square foot in the soil. Look for the active ingredient chlorantraniliprole in grub control products. This active ingredient by itself, while not “organic” is considered a “biorational” and has minimal affect on pollinators.
- Mow high, grasscycle, follow the 1/3rd rule and keep mower blades sharpened.
- Established tall-fescue lawns can go dormant during the summer and very rarely need to be watered.
- Managing your lawn using University of Maryland Extension recommendations found on the lawn care section of the website will help to prevent disease problems eliminating the need for fungicides. Fungicides are not part of an organic lawn care program. Brown patch can be a problem in fescue lawns but most tall fescues lawns will recover with proper l fertilization and the return of rainfall.
- Instead of raking and bagging your fall leaves break them down into smaller pieces by running over them with your lawnmower a couple of times. The smaller pieces will filter down through the grass blades and decompose without causing problems to your grass. It is best to do this when the leaves are dry.
The next time you are in the market for a lawnmower or outdoor power equipment consider the electric and battery-powered options. Gasoline-powered equipment is a large contributor to greenhouse gases.
When to bring in the professionals and what questions to ask
When looking to hire an organic lawn care company ask about their approach and practices, especially regarding fertilization and pest management. Some suggested questions and answers:
How does your company prevent crabgrass and manage other weed problems?
The emphasis should be on cultural practices that keep your lawn thick and healthy, planting a lawn alternative where grass doesn't grow, and knowledge about the pluses and minuses of organic herbicides.
At what mowing height will my lawn be mowed?
Lawns should be mowed on a regular basis during the growing season and maintained at 3-4 inches. During the hottest, driest part of the summer when cool season grass (tall fescue) is dormant they should not be mowed.
When would you apply insecticides or fungicides? Which ones would you use?
Routine use of lawn insecticides and fungicides should not be part of an organic lawn care program. Fescue lawns that are fertilized, mowed, and overseeded (when necessary) according to University of Maryland recommendations have few pest problems.
Will you do a soil test?
A soil test should be part of any lawn management program (required to comply with Maryland's lawn fertilizer law if applying products containing phosphorus). Proper pH (6.0-6.8) and soil fertility play a large part in achieving a healthy lawn.
What kinds of organic fertilizer will be applied? How often and in what amounts?
Alfalfa meal, Chilean nitrate, corn gluten, feather meal, and cottonseed meal are some examples of organic fertilizer used in the industry. Lawn companies have to comply with Maryland's lawn fertilizer law. Employees hired to apply lawn fertilizer need to registered by the Maryland Department of Agriculture and work under the supervision of a certified applicator. Lawns have to be fertilized according to University of Maryland recommendations which give guidance on the amount and timing of applications.
You can also request to see the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS - a document that lists details about the safety and hazards of a product) and product labels for the materials to be applied to your property.
Refer to The Maryland Department of Agriculture publication (PDF) "Ask Before you Hire- Choose a Lawn Care Company that's Right for you and the Chesapeake Bay" for more tips.
Written by Debra Ricigliano, CPH, HGIC Consultant
Reviewed and edited by:
Charles Schuster, Senior Agent, UM Extension Educator, Commercial Horticulture
Geoff Rinehart, Lecturer and Turfgrass Management Advisor, Institute of Applied Agriculture, UMD
Jon Traunfeld, HGIC Center Director
Christa Carignan, CPH, and Digital Horticulture Education, HGIC