Here’s a great way to improve the health of our local waterways and the wildlife depending on them: ditch the lawn chemicals and practice natural lawn care.

Ladd Smith, Co-Owner of In Harmony Sustainable Landscapes, is an expert in natural lawn care who believes that maintaining healthy waterways begins with home landscaping. Smith has been involved in organic gardening for nearly 40 years. In 1994, he founded In Harmony – the Puget Sound area’s first sustainable landscaping company – with Mark Gile. The company was founded on a “shared passion for protecting the environment and a belief that it was not only possible, but essential, to offer environmentally responsible landscaping services”

Smith said if done correctly, natural lawns are thick, green and chemical-free. They also provide a natural weed barrier and absorb rainfall to reduce storm water runoff.

Keys to a natural lawn

Natural lawn care tips from In Harmony.

A healthy natural law begins with the right type of grass. While Kentucky Blue Grass is popular and has a nice ring to it, perennial rye grasses and fescues are much better suited for the Pacific Northwest. Smith recommended buying grass seed at a local garden store or nursery instead to a big box store. While local vendors will likely have a sun and shade mixes suited for the PNW, big box stores tend to carry the same seed mixes nationwide.

The next key is to mow frequently to a length of 3 inches. This is a little shaggier than most people are accustomed to, but taller grass shades the soil to retain moisture and choke out weeds and mosses, leading to a healthier lawn.

“A lot of short mowing is driven by the male affinity for having the golf course look with short grass,” Smith said. “It’s just not feasible for a natural home landscape. Think of how many people it takes to make golf course grass happy.”

The abundance of rain and large conifers in the PNW naturally acidifies the soil, which suits moss better than grass. Smith said a pH balance of 6.0-7.0 is ideal for grass, and a yearly application of lime will maintain a proper level.

“Just like people take calcium and magnesium supplements for themselves,” Smith said. “I do recommend prilled (pellet form) instead of the powder form.”

Fall lawn tasks

  • Mulch Mow – Mulch mowers have blades designed to cut grass clipping more than once, making a fine mulch. The clippings fall into the lawn and naturally fertilize the soil. If you don’t have a mulch mower, mow over grass clippings to chop up and disperse them.
  • Aerate – The top layer of soil tends to pack down and become dense over time. Aerating pulls up plugs of soil and opens the ground to air and moisture. Most lawns need this annually or every other year. Aerate between the first of September to mid-October to avoid overly dry or wet conditions.
  • Overseed – Broadcast a layer of rye/fescue mix over the aerated lawn to thicken up the existing grass and remove space for mosses and weeds to move in.
  • Fertilize – Use an organic, slow-release fertilizer to add organic matter to the soil. September is an ideal month to fertilize. Smith recommends locally made products from Hendrikus Organics and Walt’s Organic Fertilizer Co.

What about moss?

Moss dominates in shady, acidic lawns with dense soils. It can be kept at bay with natural lawn care, and while it seems to be the bane of PNW yard warriors, it’s more a cultural problem than an environmental one.

“For every person here yelling about moss being in their lawn there’s a person in Asia yelling about grass creeping into their moss patches,” Smith said. “Moss is probably a better plant than a suffering lawn.”

Moss only becomes an environmental problem when it’s treated with chemicals like iron sulphate.

“These products turn the moss black and injure it by dehydrating it, but if it’s not removed it will come back,” Smith said. “Iron also acidifies the soil, so if the injured moss isn’t removed it will return with a vengeance.”

Speaking of chemicals…

Smith said homeowners have been programmed through the years to believe the only way to achieve a nice lawn is through chemicals. However, these chemicals have lasting impacts to our health, waterways and wildlife.

“We don’t see the damage in front of us, but our tax money is going to cleaning up something we’re creating in our backyards,” Smith said. “We’re finding now that individuals homes are contributing as much or more pollution than big industries.”

Smith said the Environmental Protection Agency decides only if a certain product’s benefits outweigh its risks, not if they are safe or unsafe. It’s often the case that the risks are identified after years – if not decades – of widespread use.

Less is more in fall landscaping

Leave the dead foliage around perennials like these daylilies to benefit the plant, soil and wildlife. Photo by Sam Wigness.

While the lawn needs some attention in fall, Smith recommends taking the easy route with raking and landscaping. Instead of piling and bagging fallen leaves, simply rake them into garden beds to cover the soil.

“Mother nature drops her leaves to make a blanket of organic matter,” Smith said. “Kick them into garden beds and natural areas, the soils and plants will benefit from them.”

He also recommended against chopping back perennials like hostas and daylilies. The dead tissue will surround the plants’ crown, insulate it and replenish the soil. It also provides habitat for wildlife. When spring rolls back around, remove what’s left.

One fall chore Smith recommends is mulching on top of the fallen leaves and plant matter. A three inch layer of mulch will suppress weeds and prevent them from germinating during winter.

“Most people think about weeds when the grow in the springtime but by that point they’ve already gotten away from you,” Smith said.

Natural landscapers in the Puget Sound area

Let’s be honest, yard work isn’t for everyone. If you’re unable to maintain a natural landscape, chemicals are not the answer. There are several sustainable landscaping companies like In Harmony, but as always, be mindful of greenwashing.

Smith recommended using EnviroStars to search for a county-approved environmentally friendly business or contacting Seattle Tilth Alliance’s Garden Hotline (206-633-0224) for a referral.

Ladd Smith describing In Harmony’s approach to natural lawn care.

Featured photo: A natural lawn by In Harmony Sustainable Landscapes.