Organic Lawns Success
There is no doubt about it; cultivating an organic lawn is one of the most significant challenges faced by any gardener.
After all, lawns entirely devoted to grass do not exist in nature – they are human-made
features, the product of not just mechanical cultivation but also chemical intervention.
We can all see the perfect greensward in our mind’s eye – smooth and level as a billiard table, probably with parallel stripes.
It is weed and moss-free, and its surface is as crisp and even as a new fall of snow.
To achieve this effect is nigh on impossible for the organic gardener who has no recourse to lawn herbicides, moss killers, and the like.
So, is a good-looking lawn out of the question for those of an organic persuasion? Not a bit of it. You might have to compromise a little, that’s all.
During my youth, a lawn patch was de rigueur at the center of any domestic front
or back garden.
It could be a square or a rectangle – in the pocket-handkerchief gardens fore and aft of terraced houses; there was no room for the sweeping curves of more generously proportioned country estates.
Then, as an apprentice in the local parks department, I found myself mowing bowling greens and recreation areas, and the creation of stripes became ingrained.
To this day, I love that sort of neatness and symmetry, unfashionable though it may be now, with the current preference for prairie planting.
I still get a kick out of mowing – it allows my mind to wander – and I enjoy the contrast between the neat lawn and the billowing chaos of my beds and borders.
I have been an organic gardener for over 30 years now. Though I always allowed myself one indulgence – a spring application of ‘weed and feed’ to the lawn.
That is, until about five years ago when, a day or two after applying the mixture – which killed moss as well as weeds.
I saw a mother blackbird heaving a worm from the blackened surface to take back to her young.
It was an epiphany. It occurred to me that I wouldn’t let my children walk on the lawn for a week or two after the weed and feed was applied, let alone eat anything that had come into contact with it.
Surely my love of nature – of the birds and beasts and insects that populated my garden – was more robust than my love of a fair lawn?
There and then, I vowed not to use the stuff again. From that moment on, I gave myself the challenge of cultivating a fair-looking lawn without the use of chemicals.
It has not been nearly so disastrous as I thought it would. My lawn is still even and
green; it still has stripes in summer, and it still shows off the beds and borders that lie
That it is not composed entirely of grass is something I have learned to live
with, which is the key.
If you are planning on going ‘lawn organic.’ now is an excellent time to begin. And to spur you on your way, it is worth remembering that chemical solutions are not quite the one-stop solution they at first may seem.
You can apply a preparation that will kill moss. It will turn it black.
But you still have to rake out the dead stuff, and next year you will have to go through the process all over again because the chemical treatment is not long-lasting.
If you have to rake out the moss anyway, why bother to kill it first? Rake out the moss now and, if the surface of your lawn is poorly drained, go over it with a lawn aerator or a fork, perforating the surface to a depth of 8 to 10cm.
A hollow-tine aerator can be used on heavy soils, the cores removed from the body, and sharp sand swept into the vertical drainage channels.
This process alone will help reduce the incidence of moss, which likes damp
(Moss also loves shady spots, so pruning nearby trees will help to let in more
light and encourage grass growth.)
That said, moss grows well in almost any lawn through the autumn and winter, regardless of the cultivation regime employed.
Resign yourself to this annual raking as part of your fitness routine, and if you don’t have the strength, then a powered lawn raker will make life much easier.
You’ll be astonished at the amount of moss and dead grass that it removes – enough to stuff a large mattress.
Dump it on the compost heap, mixing it in with other material. Your lawn will look pretty threadbare once the moss has been removed (especially if you’ve used a powered raker).
Don’t worry. You’ve created more space for the grass to occupy, and, come the warmer weather of April and May, you can feed your lawn to encourage that to happen.
I use a wheeled distributor for an even application, and my lawn feed of choice is… good old blood, fish, and bone meal. Grass loves it. It is less likely to scorch than much inorganic lawn feeds, but it’s worth watering it in if there’s no rain within a day or two.
(Watch the forecast and apply it just before the rain to save yourself the job.) You’ll notice that the effects of the blood, fish, and bone are not quite as instant as those ‘overnight’ greening products, but they tend to be long-lasting in my experience.
Another application during a damp spell in midsummer will be all your lawn needs to stay well-fed and healthy.
All of which is fine and dandy, but what about the weeds? Well, many of them you‘ll
learn to live with.
Provided they are green and fine-leaved, they’ll become an integral
part of the low-growing botanic garden that is now your lawn.
Having an organic lawn requires an adjusted mindset, but it’s given me a clearer
conscience without affecting my garden’s beauty. And Mrs. Blackbird is happy, too.
Steps to success with organic lawns
- Remove large-leaved weeds, such as dandelions, plantains, and daisies, so they
don’t get out of hand. Use an old-fashioned daisy grubber (and a padded kneeling mat!). It’s actually a satisfying job on a warm spring or summer’s day.
- If you want stripes, use a rotary mower with a large rear roller. Cylinder mowers
don’t much like cutting plants other than grass, and the effect they produce on
organic lawns are not as good as their rotary counterparts.
- Rake out moss annually without using chemicals. Improve surface
- Improve surface drainage by spiking with a fork or using a hollow tine aerator and reducing shade to cut down the moss.
- Sweep off worm casts on a dry day with a birch besom so that they are fine soil acts, in some small way, as a top-dressing.
- Always remove lawn clippings – leaving them on in great clods will do nothing to improve matters and kill off grass rather than encourage it to grow.
- Mow at least once a week in spring and summer when the grass is growing
rapidly. Regular mowing produces a finer sward, even on organic lawns, and helps
to eliminate many weeds.
- Sweep off fungi, fairy rings, and other toadstools with a birch besom or stiff-bristled
broom and then suck up with the mower. Few chemical treatments are available to the amateur anyway.
- Don’t bother to water your lawn, even in dry spells. It’ll soon recover in the
the first shower of rain and, because an organic lawn contains plants other than
grass has extra drought resistance.
Thicken up your lawn
If your lawn is very thin and sparse, it may be worth overseeding the entire area after scarifying.
- By far, the best time to overseen your lawn is during April and May, when the earth has warmed up a little, but before the hot, dry weather of summer, which hinders grass seed germination.
- Go over the soil surface with a traditional rake (rather than a springtime rake) while the soil is damp, as the seed will need a bit more surface cultivation than that created by raking off moss and dead grass. Concentrate on the bare patches of earth to break up
compaction of its surface. You need not cultivate very deeply – 1cm is plenty, but it will allow the seed to germinate and take root more readily than if it were scattered onto flat, hard ground.
- Scatter the seed over the lawn’s entire area at the rate of two clenched fistfuls to the square meter. Then go over the lawn with a rake again, gently working the seed into the surface. You will not cover it all over, but don’t worry; there will be sufficient seeds in contact with the soil to ensure germination.
- Lay twiggy pea sticks flat upon the surface afterward to discourage birds from eating the seeds and from having dust baths. They will always take some, but sufficient seed will be left behind to thicken up the greensward before you mow the lawn a few weeks later. Make sure you wait until a month after sowing before you apply any feed.