Lawn Care

Non-Toxic Lawn Care

“The pursuit of a lush, green, weed-free lawn leads millions of us to repeatedly ‘treat’ our lawns with weed-killers and bug-killers. But this unnatural approach to a ‘better’ yard carries health risks and hidden costs for our families, our pets and the environment. By taking some common-sense, cost-effective steps, we can have healthier, beautiful yards without expensive, dangerous chemicals. Why take risks when we don’t have to? ~Yards for Nature Campaign

Click here for Natural Lawn Care Factsheet from Safer Pest Control Project

Lawn Tips in Brief:

  •   Mowing – Let it grow! Close frequent cutting stresses grass plants and exposes weed seedlings to the life-giving sun. Leave the grass clippings on the lawn to supply nutrients to the growing grass.
  • Fertilizer – Chemical fertilizers add salt to the soil, kill soil- building microorganisms, promote soil compaction, shallow roots, thatch and fungus growth. Substitute grass clippings, compost and manure to return needed bacteria and enzymes to the soil with nutrients.
  • Plant Earthworms – They’ll eat the cut grass, aerate the soil and provide castings for free fertilizer.
  • Water – During dry periods, allow your lawn to enter a natural dormancy. Or, plant tall fescue, which is adapted to drought conditions and does not require summer irrigation.
  • Dandelions – Cut out by hand at the root, several inches below ground. If you can learn to tolerate them, they only look “bad” twice a year, and a quick mow fixes that.
  • Fungus – A problem only in wet, thatchy, over-fertilized lawns. Drain, dry-out, de-thatch, re-add soil bacteria with compost or manure.
  • Aerate – Compacted soil promotes weeds. Aerate twice a year and add a soil loosener like gypsum or compost. Reseed bare spots.
  • Test – Compacted soil’s ph, composition and nutrient level to determine its condition.
  • Species – Choose the proper grass to plant for your area. Pick varieties that resist drought, disease, need little mowing or fertilizer, choke out weeds and are suited to foot traffic. Switch to groundcovers in hard to maintain areas.
  • Think! – Make America a safer to place to live by beginning in your own back yard.


$956 million is spent on chemical fertilizers annually. Yet grass clippings, left to decompose on the lawn, can contribute about 1.8 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. feet – for free! These clippings will not cause thatch. Grass clippings are 85% water and will begin to decompose in a week or less. Within two weeks, nitrogen from the clippings can be found in new grass. Grass clippings also reduce water evaporation from the lawn and keep the soil temperature cooler.

Don’t turn your lawn into a chemical “junkie” waiting for its next nitrogen fix. Fertilize with organic fertilizers to maintain growth – not create an advertising agency’s version of a perfect landscape! Good soil grows good grass. Improve your soil, then add clover and other nitrogen fixing plants to your lawn seed mix to make your lawn self-fertilizing.

Other organic fertilizer options include dehydrated cow manure, dried poultry manure, bloodmeal, cottonseed meal, fish emulsion and mixed organic fertilizers, all widely available. Since natural fertilizers are not as concentrated as chemical fertilizers you may want to apply them more than once per year. Fall fertilizing is important in this climate, so that grass can build up its carbohydrate level and get off to a good start in the Spring.

When you use natural fertilizers your lawn doesn’t grow as fast. Eliot Roberts, director of the Lawn Institute says “Once you get heavily involved with chemical fertilizers, you’re increasing the growth rate of the plant and growing it to death.” This lush growth caused by excessive fertilization makes grass an easy prey to disease.

Insect and Weed Control

$1.5 billion is spent on chemical pesticides annually. Yet, nearly all of the popular lawn pesticides are suspected of causing long-term health problems. Broad-spectrum weed killers are poisonous to many kinds of life besides weeds – like you, your kids, your pets, your trees and shrubs, your garden plants, as well as birds and other wildlife. Pesticides may remain active for a month to a year or more. Even after drying, pesticides release toxic vapors. And you can have a good looking lawn without these dangerous chemicals!

Eliot Roberts says “The more chemicals you use, the more you disturb the natural biological processes that convert organic matter into nutrients to keep the lawn going.”

Insects shouldn’t be a big problem in a natural lawn. The soil is alive with natural “predators” – the good bacteria and fungi that work to keep disease-causing fungi in check by competing with them for food. Don’t attack the insects that aren’t doing damage to your lawn. Correct any problems at the source, instead of using a “quick-fix” chemical. Water during daylight hours. The more often grass is wet (and the longer it stays that way ) the greater the chance for disease.

Liquid seaweed is good natural disease fighter. Naturally occurring hormones in seaweed act as fungal inhibitors.

Dandelions should be pulled out the old fashioned way – by hand! Despite the ads, most won’t grow back if you cut them out several inches below ground at their root. If you have too many, go out every day after work and do a portion of the lawn. It’s a great stress reliever, and within a few years, you will only have a few dandelions to content with.

As for Crabgrass: Studies at the University of Rhode Island that high mowing alone reduced crabgrass on a test plot to virtually nothing in 5 years. High mowing combined with heavy fertilization eliminated crabgrass in just one year.

Proper Mowing Techniques

Proper mowing is the most important thing you can do for your lawn! Mowing correctly can kill weeds, save water, cure diseases and provide fertilizer. For Kentucky Bluegrass in northern climates, leave grass at 2 1/2″ tall during spring and until summer droughts and hot weather arrive. Then reduce the frequency of mowing and let grass grow to 3″ before cutting. In late summer as temperatures drop and rainfall increases, go back to 2 1/2″ and mow more frequently during this growth spurt. A final mowing of the season could be at 1 1/2″.

By mowing high, you’re reducing stress on the grass. The longer the top growth, the deeper the root. The longer the root, the healthier the grass. It will compete better against weeds. There is a larger volume of roots to store food, withstand droughts and fight diseases.

Make sure your mower’s blade is sharp. And mow often enough so that you cut off no more than a third of the grass blade at any one cutting.

While a weed-free lawn is not practical, weeds are a symptom of problems. Unless those conditions are changed, the weeds will return. Weeds love compacted soil, improperly fertilized plots, areas that are too wet or too dry, shady spots, areas mowed too closely during the grass’s dormant season, heavy use areas and over a half inch of accumulated thatch.

Thatch is a tightly-packed layer of organic debris that develops between the soil surface and the green growth. It can keep water, sun and air from penetrating to the roots. A regular program of aeration reduces thatch and improves soil tilth. Use an aerator with spring-loaded tines which removes plugs of soil and deposits them on the soil surface (allow plugs to decompose naturally). Soil should be moist, but not wet. Do not aerate in hot, dry weather. Damaging turf insects prefer a protective layer of thatch. Reducing thatch controls these pests.

Bagging your lawn clippings is one of the most time-consuming parts of mowing the lawn. Instead of stopping every few minutes to empty the mower, rake, and wrestle with expensive yard waste bags, leave the clippings on the lawn to work their way back into the soil. Contrary to some popular beliefs, clippings do not contribute to thatch build up. The fact is that most thatch is not made up of grass, but roots, dead leaf sheaths, and rhizomes which decompose slowly. Grass clippings decompose rapidly, and can help make your lawn more vigorous and durable.

Clippings contain the nutrients your lawn needs to grow. Every bag of grass clippings contains up to 1/4 pound of usable organic nitrogen. You can reduce your fertilization costs by recycling lawn clippings back into the lawn. If you want to collect your clippings occasionally, use them as a mulch in the garden or in planting beds. Mulching adds nutrients to soil, reduces weed problems, and modifies soil temperature and moisture. Mulch also helps erosion by protecting the soil surface.

However, avoid mulching with grass that’s been recently treated with herbicides which can harm your plants. Chemically treated clippings should be left on the lawn for the first two cuttings after the treatment. Subsequent cutting can be either left on the lawn or put into your compost bin.

Grass converts carbon dioxide into oxygen even more efficiently than trees. The sight of a healthy lawn should give you cause for a deep sigh of satisfaction!

~Presented by the Education Committee of the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County.

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