What is organic lawn care?

A lawn can be a source of pride in the United States. A modest level of “husbandry,” or stewardship, can transform our “personal grassland” into the beautiful verdant sod we enjoy as lawn.

A lawn full of lush Kentucky bluegrass that has been under organic management for 4 years. Credit: J. Heckman

The grass in your front lawn is, biologically speaking, related to the grasses animals eat on farms and ranches. That grass, by itself, can grow just fine, with no human help. But, Americans like to manage their lawns. Sometimes this is fine; sometimes it leads to unhealthy soil, fertilizer getting in watersheds, and other possible side effects. How can you minimize those?

When you plan the purpose of your lawn in relation to your overall landscape goals, you might be able to cut back on the use of chemicals – and go “organic lawn care” in the process.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed the National Organic Program to certify food products. However, the organic lawn care initiative is an independent program. Several organizations, including Rutgers University, have developed educational programs in organic land care with standards modeled after those for organic crop production.

Around the world, grass thrives on fertile soils. Grassland soils that are left natural (and often used for grazing) typically are very fertile soils. They are among the most productive and agriculturally important land areas. Under the right conditions, growing grass naturally builds humus-rich fertile soils, and you can do this at your home without using livestock!

Cool season grasses, especially the improved cultivars of Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and tall fescue, are capable of producing a dark green dense sod on most soils of the Northern United States. A key factor is creating the right soil conditions before seeding or establishment to allow these grasses to grow and express their natural genetic potential.

One of the fundamental principles of organic farming that relates to lawn care is to create good soil fertility conditions. On farms, it optimizes the biological and physical conditions of the soil. Farmers look at nutrient levels, and the appearance of pests and diseases. You can do the same with your lawn.

  1. In organic farming, the main function of growing grass is the feeding of livestock such as cattle. But in the case of an organic lawn, the mechanical lawn mower displaces the living grazing cow. On pasture grazed by herbivores, roughly 80% of the plant nutrients derived from the soil are returned to the soil as manure.  This local nutrient cycling goes a long ways towards sustaining soil fertility. In the case of organic lawn care, the practice of mowing and leaving clippings, wherever possible, serves essentially this same function. This is called the law of return.
  2. If you don’t want to leave the grass clippings on your lawn with each mowing, create a compost pile. And, in the fall, if you have many leaves, mulch some of them into your lawn, and then add the leaves to your compost pile (to learn more about composting and other amendments, visit https://www.soils.org/discover-soils/soils-in-the-city/community-gardens/amending-soil).
  3. Encourage biodiversity in your lawn by accepting some “weeds” in the landscape. Plants we might consider weeds, such as clover, are actually good for the soil. They are part of the legume family that pull nitrogen from the air and put it into soil. Other weeds like dandelions help break up compacted soil with their long, extensive roots. These roots make channels for rain to soak deeply into the soil.
  4. Grasses need air and water to thrive, and a well-aerated, uncompacted soil is crucial to create these conditions. If you cannot drive a rod into your soil easily to a depth of 6”, it is worthwhile to invest in a “deep tilling” of your lawn. On a very small lawn, one can use a spade or other hand tool to break up soil compaction.  For larger areas one can hire a professional landscaper with machines as shown.
This spading machine is used to break up compacted soils to prepare it for lawn establishment. Credit: J. Heckman

By treating your lawn landscape as a whole living system, you will improve your lawn, the environment around your house, and save yourself some time. Mother Nature created a good system with prairie grasses; following a similar system with your lawn will pay off in many ways.

(Read more about Dr. Heckman’s work with organic farming: https://www.soils.org/discover-soils/story/farming-lessons-mother-nature).

Answered by Joseph Heckman, Rutgers University

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This blog post is based on a story that originally ran in The Soil Profile newsletter. To read the full story, visit: https://njaes.rutgers.edu/pubs/soilprofile/sp-v21.pdf. For more reading, visit http://njaes.rutgers.edu/organiclandcare/.

3 thoughts on “What is organic lawn care?

    1. Joseph, thank you for writing the blog post – and good luck with this publication you are citing! SF

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