How you can grow great grass organically

Lawn Care

 

Now that the occasional leaf is turning yellow, and the languorous days of summer have begun their slide into fall, it’s time to think of next year’s lawn.

« September,’’ says Terry Childs, a professional landscaper, « is when you prepare your lawn for spring.’’ Childs runs Nature’s Way Landscaping, on the outskirts of Gananoque, and concentrates on organic lawn care.

Why organic? « Because it’s what I believe in. And besides, the chemicals that I could use scare me, especially when I have two little kids. They’ve tested weed killers in laboratories, but nobody has tested them across the environment, and so no one knows how they’ll react with everything else, all the other chemicals that already are out there.’’

As it happens, Childs is also secretary of the Green Party of Ontario, and so has carried his concerns about pollution into the political arena.

The irony is, he says, that lawns will be healthier, and more durable, if chemical weed killers are not used. The secret is to have healthy soil and the right diversity of seeds, and to know the amount of light and water each area of a lawn requires.

Prepare your lawn in September, he says, to give it the jump on weeds in late spring and early summer of the following year.

Grass seeds planted in September will immediately germinate and grow. And because grass is a perennial — and consequently can survive winters — the new grass will continue to grow in the spring as soon as snow leaves the ground. That gives it four to six weeks of spring growing before a new crop of weeds appears.

With the exception of dandelions, most weeds are annuals, and are killed by the first heavy frost. So their seeds wait until spring to germinate. But germination requires a ground temperature of at least 15° Celsius, which doesn’t happen until late May or early June. That’s what gives the grass its head start on crowding out weeds.

When seeding in the fall, Childs says, you’ll need a range of seeds — varieties that flourish in full light, partial shade, and through droughts, and some that are resistant to disease and to insects. That way, you’ll always have grass.

And you should make sure that your soil contains ample organic matter (carbon). The microbes that convert minerals and plant material into a soluble form that grass can absorb, need carbon as a food source.

Even if your soil is good, it should have a top dressing of good quality compost, or peat moss, every year to a depth of three to six millimetres, Childs says. Or six to twelve millimetres every two years. And, if your lawn has a lot of traffic — in other words if the soil gets compacted — it should be aerated every couple of years, because microbes also need oxygen.

Weed killers will destroy your dandelions, « but what’ll you be left with?’’ Childs asks, and then adds: « You’ll have bare spots with weed seeds in them.’’ Lawn grass never gets a chance to develop its own seeds because it’s always being cut. But crab grass and chick weed grow so low to the ground that their seed tassels don’t get cut. You can kill the weeds, but their seeds will remain, and you’ll have to get out the weed killer again . . . and again.

You can add chemical fertilizers hoping that revitalized grass will move into the bare spots. But chemical fertilizers tend to be high in nitrogen, and « That’s like giving steroids to an athlete,’’ Childs says. « You’ll get fast top growth, but no corresponding root growth.’’ Faster top growth will mean more cutting, and that will be stressful to the grass, making it weaker, and more susceptible to disease and insects.

Even if your lawn is healthy and organic, there still will be some weeds and dandelions that don’t get crowded out. But what the hell, they’re green too, and the grass won’t look like artificial turf.

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