To be honest, I love maintaining a natural lawn… almost as much as I love writing about maintaining a natural lawn.
There’s only one thing makes me feel more powerful than creating the conditions to grow 100 million tiny little plants: telling each of you how to grow 100 million tiny little plants!
According to Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. And a lawn can be one of two things:
- A lush, biodiverse ecosystem where plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi live in harmony
- Or a monocultural façade propped up by chemicals that inhibit and destroy life
….Okay, maybe it can be a few things in between those two extremes. What can I say? Grass makes me dramatic.
Before I give away all my secrets, let’s begin with a few reasons to consider maintaining a chemical-free natural lawn.
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Why Grow a Chemical-Free Natural Lawn?
Reason 1 through 10.9 billion
Less than a year ago, Bayer AG (owner of Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, Scotts, and Miracle-Gro) “agreed to pay as much as $10.9 billion to settle close to 100,000 U.S. lawsuits claiming that its widely-used weedkiller Roundup caused cancer,” as reported by Reuters.
Despite the settlement, Bayer refuses to admit liability for its product and continues to block efforts to mandate a warning label on Roundup bottles.
Neonicotinoids (ingredients in common insecticides) can kill bees… and you all know how I feel about bees! The local wildlife has it hard enough as it is, we don’t need to make life any harder with chemical insecticides.
“Weed and feed” products often do more harm than good. They degrade the soil, pollute waterways, create chemically-dependent grass, and pose significant health risks to humans and wildlife. In fact, they’re regarded as “some of the most toxic substances which are still legal to buy.”
For me, the decision is easy. I have a dog that spends much of his time on our lawn and loves to eat grass. One day I hope to have kids out there with him. Dumping toxic chemicals on Pippen’s salad bar isn’t even an option.
Even if you don’t have pets, or much concern for local wildlife, think about the nasty chemicals you could be tracking into your home. My rule of thumb is to avoid anything that requires disposal at a hazardous waste site. If it doesn’t even belong in a landfill, why would it belong anywhere near my home?
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The secrets to a natural lawn…
Having a natural lawn is all about creating the ideal conditions for grass to be the dominant species (but not the only species). To achieve that, simply do the following:
- Provide warm summers and cold winters
- Maintain loamy soil teeming with microorganisms at just the right pH level
- Provide wide open prairie land with unlimited sun
- Summon lightning storms to bring water and nitrogen oxide into the soil
- Allow large herds of ungulates such as bison, elk, or sheep to graze on your grass and circulate nutrients
Now, since most of us folks don’t have a spare bison wandering around or a direct line to Zues, we end up having to recreate those conditions the best we can with lawn mowers, sprinklers, fertilizers, and soil amendments.
Here’s what that looks like without using chemicals.
(By the way, these aren’t really my secrets. They’re tips from 40-year natural lawn professional Ladd Smith, with whom I spoke for this article. I have had wonderful results following his advice and I absolutely endorse his methods.)
Step 1: Right-size your lawn
Grass is actually pretty picky when it comes to growing conditions. If you have areas that are too shady, too dry, or too soggy, consider turning them into garden space with native plants. Maybe that means giving up on grass altogether by creating a rain garden or a desert landscape to suit your climate conditions.
Forcing the issue is a lose-lose-lose. You’ll end up wasting time, effort, and money; your grass will look like Danny DeVito’s head; and the local wildlife will suffer from the repeated disturbances.
Step 2: Supercharge Your Soil
There are three main ways to amend your soil conditions without harsh chemicals.
- Use an aerator to loosen up dense soil and infuse it with oxygen and water.
- Use a power rake to remove build up thatch (built up dead grass) when it reaches 1 inch or more.
- Spread lime (calcium) to “sweeten” your soil and make it less acidic. Lime is a mineral supplement, not a chemical.
How and when to do these things depends entirely on your lawn and growing conditions, so I won’t go into specifics.
However, I will readily admit that these things aren’t easy tasks! I spent my weekend power raking and aerating and my 29-year-old body was WRECKED for several days. There is no shame in hiring a landscaping crew to do these projects… just ask them not to spray anything.
Step 3: Use a Local or Native Grass Seed
There are around 12,000 types of grass. What are the odds that the mix Home Depot sells all over the country is right for your growing conditions?
Check your local nurseries for a grass seed mix that is specifically suited for your area. (Watch out: you might find some great plants while you’re there!)
If you can’t find a local or native grass seed, that should be a red flag. Is your yard really suited for a grass lawn?
Step 4: Mow High, Water Deep, Fertilize Slow
Take everything you’ve ever seen about lawns in movies, commercials, and golf tournaments and forget it.
- A natural lawn likes to be mowed frequently to a length of 2.5 to 3 inches. Mowing too short exposes the grass’s roots and leads to scorching. Taller grass shades the roots and retains more water.
- Water deep and infrequently (about an inch 1-2 times a week in the PNW) to encourage deep, resilient roots that can reach more nutrients and withstand hot summers and cold winters.
- Use an organic, slow-release fertilizer in fall to replenish nutrients to the soil. Quick release fertilizers are often too highly concentrated and tend to run off before the grass can absorb them. (Imagine you have 5 gallons of ice cream. Would you be able to eat it all in one sitting before it melts into milk soup? Or would you rather eat little bits at a time and freeze it in between?)
What a Natural Lawn Looks Like
With the conditions in place, a natural lawn will be lush, green, and vibrant with life. There will probably be small patches of weeds and moss that can easily be removed by hand or left alone.
In my yard, I have a nice little 2′ by 2′ patch of clover that I don’t plan on removing. Clover is a natural nitrogen fixer, which means it’s actually feeding my grass and the local pollinators! (That’s the magic of biodiversity!)
I’m also blissfully ignoring a handful of dandelions that have popped up because I know the mason bees are snacking on them — although I will plunk off the heads before the seeds form and spread.
Once grass becomes the dominant species, it tends to keep weeds and moss in check, and requires far less maintenance and water then a chemically-dependent lawn. A healthy, natural lawn is also home to a host of wildlife species and microorganisms that keep perform necessary functions to sustain life on Earth.