Organic Lawn Care for the Cheap and Lazy

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Lawn care in a nutshell:

Must do:

  • Set your mower as high as it will go (3 to 4 inches).
  • Water only when your grass shows signs of drought stress and then water deeply (put a cup in your sprinkler zone and make sure it gets at least an inch of water).

Optional:

  • Fertilize with an organic fertilizer in the fall and spring. I recommend the Ringer brand.
  • Have the pH of your soil professionally tested. Add lime if it is below 6.0 and gardener’s sulfur if it is above 7.0.
  • How much top soil do you have? See how deep a shovel will go into the soil. How deep can you dig a hole in one minute? Four inches of topsoil will make for an okay lawn. Eight or more inches of topsoil will make for a great lawn.

Now for the verbose details on lawn care:

A little knowledge makes it so damn near anything can qualify for the "cheap and lazy" label. Including lawn care. Organic is just a bonus. grass vs. weed competition

The key to the lawn care game is competition. You want to make things favorable for the grass and unfavorable for the weeds so the grass will choke out the weeds. Naturally.

lawn care must do: mow high

There is a fight for sun. If the grass doesn’t shade the weed, the weed will shade the grass. Sun is food. Food is strength and life. Shade is weakness, disease and death. Grass will shade the weeds only if it is tall enough. The shade of tall, dense grass turf will prevent essential light from reaching most weeds and, will aid in the destruction of new baby weed seedlings (such as the notorius dandelion).

lawn care mow high one week later MYTH: "If I mow short, it will be longer until I have to mow again." False! Wrong! (SLAP! SLAP! SLAP!) Your grass needs grass blades to do photosynthesis (convert sunshine into sugar) to feed the roots. When you whack the blades off, the grass has to RACE to make more blades to make sugar. It then grows amazingly fast. This fast growth uses up a lot of the grass’s stored sugar, and weakens the plant. It is now vulnerable to disease and pests! Tall grass is healthier and can use the extra sugar to make rhizomes (more grass plants) thus thickening the turf. Have you ever noticed that short grass in the summer is always riddled with dead brown patches?

If you have a serious weed infestation, consider mowing twice as frequently as you normally do. The sensitive growing point for grass is near the soil. The sensitive growing point for most weeds is near the top of the plant. So when you mow, it’s as if you are giving your grass a haircut and cutting the heads off of the weeds.

Finally, when mowing, be sure to leave the clippings on the lawn. It adds organic matter and nutrients back into the soil. If you don’t leave the clippings, your soil will begin to look more like "dirt" than soil. Soon it will be a form of cement that nothing will grow in and you will have the world’s most pitiful lawn. Some people are concerned about "clumping" – that only happens when you mow too short or when you don’t mow often enough.

Mowing higher gives the following perks:

  • more shade to the soil leads to less watering
  • deeper roots which leads to less watering
  • thicker turf which leads to fewer weeds
  • slower growth which leads to less mowing

Check out this pic. Someone started to mow and then I convinced them, as an experiment, to set their mower higher. This pic was taken about six days later as summer is setting in. Can you see the difference? mow high!

lawn mower

My lawn care mower of choice? The "Scott’s Classic" manual mower. When you mow high, it doesn’t take much effort to mow. It is easier with a manual than a heavy, noisy, stinky gas mower. The Scott’s Classic is the only manual mower that I know of that can mow three inches. The others top out at 2.5 inches or less. It’s at amazon.com.

Update!

A recent series of wacky events led me to try a cordless electric mower. Wow! Exceptionally lightweight and quiet! I definitely prefer it over the manual mower. Despite the higher price, I bought one! I like it that much! There is a bigger one with more whizbangery, if that’s what you’re into.

It is my opinion that when it comes to lawn care, mowing high is, by far, the most important thing.

There has been a lot of discussion about this in our forum. Visit the thread about lawn mowers.

lawn care must do: water infrequently

This will force your grass roots to go deep into the soil. Deeper than most weed roots. As the top few inches of soil becomes bone dry, the weeds and weed seedlings up there die while the grass still enjoys moisture from a little deeper.

Shallow, frequent watering encourages "thatch" (the grass propogates with above-soil runners (like strawberry runners) rather than rhizomes under the soil – there gets to be so many runners that they weave a mat that chokes out water and air). Since the roots are in the top inch or two of soil, a hot day will quickly dry the soil and much of the grass will brown. Weeds and weed seedlings looooove a daily watering. It’s just what they need for a good start.

Two methods to tell when it is time to water:

  • The grass will start to curl before it turns brown. When it starts to curl, that is the best time to water. Anything after that is time for "intensive care watering" (water half an inch, wait three hours and water an inch).
  • Take a shovel and stick it into the soil about six inches. Keep the sun to your left or to your right when you do this. Push the handle forward. If you can see any moisture, wait. If it’s all dry, water. If you can’t get your shovel to go into the soil this deep, you need more soil.

The first method is the best – especially if you have not yet trained your grass to make deep roots.

Watering on a schedule does not help in the war on weeds.

A tip for lawn care experts: If you have a good feel for how often your lawn needs watering and it is almost that time and there is a rain shower – maybe a quarter of an inch – that is the BEST time to water your lawn and give it that other 3/4 of an inch. Remember, the grass roots are down deep and most weed roots are near the surface. The idea is to keep the top three inches of soil as dry as you can for as long as you can. That quarter of an inch might make it so that your top three inches is well watered but the lower 9 to 20 inches is on the edge of being pretty dry. This gives the weeds some advantage over your grass!

Another thing about lawn care watering: I have discovered that if you are going to water an inch, it is better to water half an inch, wait 90 minutes and then water another half an inch. Maybe do this once a month. Sometimes when the soil gets really dry, it will repel water. This is called "superdeflocculation" (I think Mary Poppins would be impressed with this word!). If you put a little water in first, wait, and then put more, the soil is better prepared to take in more water.

Imagine a dry sponge – so dry it is stiff. And another sponge, slightly damp – soft and well wrung out. Now pour a cup of water onto each. The water runs off of the first sponge and all over the table. The water is soaked into the second sponge, not a drop is lost.

Remember: water has a strange and powerful attraction to itself. It would much rather stick to itself than disperse through the soil.

Another perk: every time you water, you wash away soil nutrients. So the less you water, the more fertile your soil!

One last point about watering deeply: If your topsoil is only two inches deep, laying down an inch of water is a bad idea. An inch of water is good for watering 12 inches of soil. Further, an inch of water will effectively carry a lot of soil nutrients down deeper. So if your soil is only two inches deep, this rinses away a lot of your soil nutrients! So deep watering should be done only in conjunction with deep soil.

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