One 40-pound bag of synthetic fertilizer contains the fossil-fuel equivalent of approximately 2.5 gallons of gasoline, and mowing for one hour with a gasoline-powered mower generates the same amount of pollution as driving a car for 20 miles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
To keep lawns green, we apply about 10,000 gallons of water, which leads to fungal diseases and weeds that attract pests, so we douse our coveted green patches with approximately 67 million pounds a year of synthetic pesticides.
As in any detoxification program, the first step is admitting that you have a problem, says Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual (Storey, 2007). "The organic lawn is not a ton of work-it really isn't-but it requires more understanding."
Photo: Matt Batchelor
Test and treat your soil with natural products like home-made compost.
To aid your organic conversion, many university cooperative extension offices will test your existing soil for organic matter, nutrients and pH for a small fee. Once you know what's in your soil, you can begin to bring it back to life. Lawns prefer slightly acidic soils with a pH range of 6.5 to 7, but flowers, shrubs and trees vary in their pH preferences. Lime helps balance acidic soil, while sulfur helps with alkaline. Other soil improvers such as worm castings, kelp, fish wastes and decomposed organic matter called humates add nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Compost or "compost tea"-liquid compost that more readily penetrates soil-can help restore beneficial microbial life. You can have it applied by an expert in organic lawn care, or purchase organic compost, such as Intervale or Vermont Compost Plus. Bill Duesing, contributor to The NOFA Organic Lawn and Turf Handbook, a publication of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, suggests that you make your own compost using lawn clippings, food scraps and fall leaves.
If you turn to an "organic" lawn care service, remember that there is no legal definition or third-party inspection for organic or natural lawn- and landscape-care. Always ask to see the details about what will be applied including any occupational health warnings.
Step 2: Go Native.
Choose grasses that suit your climate and use.
The amount of shade and rainfall, soil type and temperature ranges, as well as how much time your family will spend on the lawn, have an impact on your lawn's health, so choose a grass that can tolerate those things. Native grasses tend to be easier to maintain, since they are adapted to local conditions. For instance, seashore paspalum, native to the Southeastern U.S. coast, is so salt-tolerant that it can be watered with seawater.
Your grass of choice will also determine how much to take off the top when mowing. Cutting too short creates stress and weakens the plant. Keep the mower blades sharpened and leave clipped blades on the grass as compost; they recycle nitrogen.