This is a Q&A blog series on healthy organic turf. If you have a question for Good Sweet Earth's lawn guy, Steve, shoot him an email at steve@GoodSweetEarth.com, and include "Ask the Lawn Guy" in the subject line.
I got this question via email last week: Give me one good reason why I should have an organic lawn. Modern science has given us tools to have a green lawn without weeds, why shouldn't I use them?
I can do better than one good reason, I can give you three.
First, healthy grass comes from healthy soil. Synthetic chemical fertilizers kill your soil, which in turn kills your turf and makes it overly reliant on chemicals. Dead, sterile soil is also a breeding ground for weeds and disease.
Organic fertilization focuses on feeding your soil and developing a healthy ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, worms and other life below the surface of your yard. We use vermicompost (nutrient-rich compost made by earthworms), microbial tea (a liquid rich in microbes to help break down organic matter in your soil), and all-natural slow-release fertilizers.
Modern science may have convinced us we can only grow a healthy yard with synthetic chemicals, but nature itself has given us the most effective ways to grow things: water, microbes and organic matter. We've only had synthetic chemicals for our lawns for about 60 years, but things grew just fine for billions of years before that.
Second, many people in the United States have made the switch to buying organic produce, yet continue to dump chemicals on their lawn and garden. There's a real disconnect there. If you're concerned with how your food is grown on a farm, you should be even more concerned with how your grass (and garden) are grown in your own yard. If you don't want your family exposed to chemicals on the foods you eat, why would you want to expose them to chemicals in your yard?
Third, synthetic chemicals are destroying our ecosystem. These chemicals leach into our watersheds, they kill the life found in our lakes, rivers and streams, they cause algae blooms, and ultimately introduce poisons into our environment.
Organic soil management practices can reduce the effects of climate change by helping soil hold on to carbon more effectively. This type of healthy soil management doesn't have to be limited to farms, it needs to start right in each of our yards. In fact, lawns cover more acreage in the United States than any other crop. That means the management practices adopted by homeowners could have a larger impact on our nation's soil and climate than the actions of our farmers.
If you live in Kent, Ottawa, Allegan or Muskegon Counties in West Michigan, and you'd like to learn more about organic lawn care for your own home, give us a call at 616-594-0693 or email us at office@GoodSweetEarth.com.
Since autumn is just around the corner, that means your lawn’s growing season is just around the corner as well. You may have noticed your grass slows down during the summer months—it doesn’t grow as fast, which means less mowing, and it often takes on a brownish hue, some might even call it “crispy.” This, of course, is completely normal for Michigan lawns. The hot summer months are the dormant period for cool-weather grasses.
But as the daytime temps dip into the 70s more regularly, and precipitation picks up, you can expect your lawn to start “growing and greening” again. With that, there are some things you can do to make your lawn healthier and thicker.
1. Fall is a great time to fertilize. Good Sweet Earth applies organic fertilizer (an alfalfa blend fertilizer) twice a year: in spring and fall. If you were going to only apply fertilizer one time a year, I recommend fall over spring. Why? A few reasons: First, fall fertilization gives your lawn some nutrients before the long, harsh winter. This will make it less distressed when spring rolls around. It also adds organic matter to your soil to help insulate the roots a bit. Second, if you’re applying slow-release organic fertilizer, it won’t break down entirely before winter sets in, which means there will likely be some semi-composted product still on your lawn in the spring; it’s sort of an early spring meal for your lawn which will help green it up early and get it growing strong. Finally, there are less weeds germinating in the fall, which means the nutrients you put in your soil will be more available for your grass, instead of those nasty invasive plants you’d rather not be fertilizing. If you're interested in having us apply some alfalfa blend fertilizer to your lawn, get in touch.
2. Fall is the ideal time to overseed. Like fertilizing, you can overseed in either spring or fall. I prefer late summer/early fall because your grass seeds won’t be competing for space with weed seeds as much. Those gaps in your lawn where grass isn’t growing are prime real estate for weeds. But as your soil gets healthier from organic lawn treatments, those gaps will fill in with grass—unless weeds get there first! In the fall, there are less weed seeds looking for a home, so putting grass seed down in late-August or earl-September (you could do it as late as the first part of October, especially if we have a warm fall) will ensure the grass has a head start over the weeds come spring. To overseed, first, mow your grass lower than you normally would; if the clippings are especially long or clumpy, rake them up so the seed can fall easily to the soil below. Second, buy a sun/shade mix and apply it with a spreader or scatter it evenly by hand. The rate you should be applying is typically 4-6 pounds per 1000 square feet (a 10,000 square foot turf space should be overseeded with about 50 pounds). For bare spots in your lawn: Mix the seed with a little potting soil (soil + compost) and apply it directly as a patch. If rain’s not in the forecast, water it regularly. Every year you do this will mean thicker and less weedy turf.
3. If you’re going to aerate your lawn, do it in fall. Summer is a bad time for aeration simply because you don’t want to distress your lawn any more than you have to during its dormancy. In fall, the grass is growing strong and can recover better from the aeration process. If you’re going to aerate, either hire a company to do core aeration (pulling plugs of soil out of the ground), or rent a core aeration machine and do it yourself. Do NOT succumb to the idea of putting spikes on your shoes and walking around your yard. That simply compacts the soil further. To properly aerate, you need to pull plugs out of the ground so that water and air can get in. Poking holes with spikes won’t do that. That being said, aeration is typically only necessary once every few years, and usually only with over-chemicaled yards. When soil is healthy, full of microbes, worms, bugs and organic matter, it doesn’t need core aeration—the worms and bugs and microbes aerate it for you.
A couple weeks ago, I taught a class at Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids on eco-friendly lawns.
I have to say, preparing to teach a class on your life’s work really helps you organize your thoughts and mission. I came out of this experience with a clearer understanding of, not just how I approach organic lawn care, but why I do it the way I do.
I’ve always thought of myself as a “lawn guy.” I’m certified in lawn care management through the University of Georgia, I’ve joined the National Association of Landcare Professionals (NALP), and I help people get their turf strong and healthy. That would fit most people’s definitions of “lawn guy.” But after doing this class at Meijer Gardens, I realized I’m not so much a “lawn guy” as I am a “soil guy.”
But the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
If you’re a lawn guy without also being a soil guy, you’re potentially doing long-term damage to the turf (not to mention the planet). If a lawn guy is simply interested in getting your lawn green and weed-free in a matter of days, with no concern for the health and fertility of the soil below, your lawn’s going to suffer. Applying synthetic chemical fertilizers and herbicides kill the soil, plain and simple.
But as a lawn guy, who’s also primarily a soil guy, I’m more interested in creating healthy soil—full of microbes, worms, beetles, organic material, nutrients that don’t leach away—than I am in making your lawn instantly green and weed-free.
Healthy soil will give you healthy turf. Dead soil will give you, well, dead turf.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m still interested in giving people a lawn that’s green and relatively “weed free,” but there’s no magic instantaneous potion that can do that while NOT killing the soil, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And that’s why I am so passionate about feeding the soil, rather than the grass. That’s how nature’s been doing it for millennia.
Soil damaged by synthetic chemicals will ultimately give you weak turf and “dead zones” where weeds pop up and grass just doesn’t grow… and then the chemical lawn guys will tell you how much you need them to get your lawn looking good again. And it’s true, in a twisted way—through chemicals, they’ve created a lawn that is wholly dependent upon more environmentally-damaging chemicals for its survival.
But what your lawn really needs is healthy soil. Healthy soil will give you healthier, stronger turf. Healthier, stronger turf will push out those pesky plants we know as weeds. And that’s why my focus is to give our customers healthy soil—by feeding your soil with microbes, compost, natural fertilizers like alfalfa and kelp.
So when I work on a lawn, I’m doing it as a “soil guy” first and foremost. And when you take care of the soil, your lawn is actually sustainable and healthy, not dependent and weak.
If you'd like to have Good Sweet Earth give you a healthier lawn by improving your soil, get in touch with me at Steve@GoodSweetEarth.com or call us at 616-594-0693.
You might not know its name, but chances are you’ve dealt with Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) at some point in your yard. I call it the Devil Weed, because, man, it is just straight-up evil. Thorny, persistent, invasive—those are just a few of the adjectives you could use to describe the Canada thistle (I have a few R-rated adjectives as well, but I’ll leave those to your imagination).
Canada thistle has an extensive and winding root system that can grow quite deep. It’s got green leaves that are lobed and covered in spikes, and it grows in a low pinwheel along the ground. If it goes to flower, it produces a cluster of purple balls that will eventually turn white like a dandelion head and disperse fluffy seed across the landscape.
A new plant is often able to grow from even a tiny piece of root left in the soil. And because of this, there is no quick and easy way to get rid of Canada thistle, especially without chemicals. Taking care of it organically is going to be a process. But it is possible.
Step one in getting rid of Canada thistle is to make your yard and garden a hostile place to this Devil Weed—and that actually means making your soil more fertile. While Canada thistle can actually grow anywhere, it thrives in less fertile soil and in open spaces without ground cover.
We’ve been dealing with an infestation of Canada thistle for the past three years at the Good Sweet Earth homestead. Just before we moved in, a new septic system was installed, which meant a whole lot of fill dirt being added to our front yard. Our first summer had us scrambling to figure out what to do with this wide-open area of bare soil. We settled on installing a large country garden, with new turf around it. Unfortunately, before we could really install the stuff we wanted (plants, flowers, grass seed), some real nasty stuff installed itself—including a large amount of Canada thistle. I mean, this area was prime real estate for this stuff: low-fertility fill dirt in an area with no ground cover.
So over time, we’ve begun making a dent in eliminating this nasty, thorny weed from our yard—but that’s the thing: it takes time. We’ve amended the soil, we’ve installed ground cover (both organic and non-organic), and we’ve been attack the plants themselves (without chemicals, of course).
And here’s how you go about attacking Canada thistle: Your first instinct might be to pull this thing out of the ground. But I’m here to tell you that pulling it is the wrong way to go about it. First of all, your fingers will pay the price for grabbing onto this thorny plant—even gloves are no match for the nasty pickers of the Canada thistle. Second, when pulling a Canada thistle out of the ground, you risk splitting the root; doing so will not only bring this nasty plant back, he’ll bring a friend—two will now grow in the place of the original.
Instead of pulling, I suggest cutting. Get a pair of scissors and cut it off at the ground level. Every few days, cut any new growth. By doing so, you’re forcing the plant to use its energy reserves to re-grow itself, but you’re cutting off the part of the plant that actually builds up new energy (the leaves). Eventually, you’ll see your Canada thistle population go down. It might not be quick, in fact, it’ll take a while, especially if you’re working on building up your soil’s fertility. But eventually, this Devil will be gone.
One of the biggest problems people face with their lawn is weeds. And it’s one of the easiest to combat.
First, let’s define what a weed is. There is no official botanical classification of “weed;” whether a plant is considered a weed depends upon the context. Simply put: A weed is any plant that is growing where it is not wanted. Clover, for instance, is something some people consider to be an unsightly addition to their lawn. Other people, however, embrace clover.
That being said, there are some plants that are more prone to sprout in your lawn without you wanting them to. And don’t those nasty things just seem to sully your lawn year after year after year?
Here’s the thing, though: Most of those weeds invading your lawn are annuals. That means they germinate, do their thing, and then die all in one season. Which is good, because it means your lawn isn’t actually doomed to support the same weed plants every year– if you start taking proper care of it.
So the question you ask yourself shouldn’t be “How can I get rid of these nasty weeds?” Rather it should be “How can I prevent these nasty weeds from germinating in my lawn?”
Here are five simple things you can do to make your lawn less attractive to weeds.
Stop using chemical fertilizers. Chemical fertilizers like Scotts, are toxic to soil. Those chemicals kill beneficial micro- and macro-organisms living in your soil (bacteria, fungi, beetles, earthworms, etc.) which kills the soil itself. Turf doesn’t grow well in soil that’s been stripped of all life. But there are plants that do thrive in dead soil– they’re called weeds. Ugly, nasty plants that no one wants in their yard. If you stop killing your soil with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, healthy turf will abound, and healthy turf always wins out over those nasty weeds.
Instead of chemicals, use organic fertilizers to feed your lawn and apply microbial soil drenches to replenish the microorganism population.
Mow your lawn higher. Set your mower up to the highest setting, which will give you a longer, thicker turf. The longer turf will make it harder for the weed seeds to get the sunlight they need to germinate and grow.
Water less frequently. If you water your lawn everyday, the weed seeds that are present will have an ideal environment for germination. Full-grown turf doesn’t need as much water to thrive, but seedlings need constant water. If you cut back to a longer, deeper watering once every seven to 10 days, your grass will be healthier (deeper roots), and there won’t be as many weeds germinating on your lawn.
Fill in the gaps in your grass. If there are gaps on your turf, holes where grass has died or weakened, fill them in with seed. The ideal time to do this is late summer or early fall (mid- to late-August all the way to mid-September). Early spring is less ideal, but you can do it then too. Use a mixture of cool weather seed– Kentucky Bluegrass and fine fescue are a nice mix. Spread a thin layer of topsoil over the gaps, put some seed down, then cover it with a soil/Worm Compost mixture. For further help on when and how to overseed your lawn, give us a call at 616-594-0693 or email Steve at steve@GoodSweetEarth.com.
Pull the weeds. Every week go around your lawn and look for unsightly weeds growing, then pull them up by the roots. Staying on it early in the growing season will mean you won’t have as many weeds to pull later in the season. Effective weed control really can happen without chemicals. And remember this: Your lawn doesn’t need to look like a TPC golf course or the outfield at Comerica Park. If your yard looks good from your front porch, or from the street, then it’s good. No one is gonna be out there penalizing you for any tiny plant that doesn’t conform with the turf around it.
So if you live in west Michigan, and you’re interested in controlling your weeds organically this year, give us a call at 616-594-0693 to set up an appointment with Michigan’s only 100% organic certified lawn care manager. Or shoot an email to Steve@GoodSweetEarth.com. Here’s more info on the lawn services Good Sweet Earth has to offer.
Steve & Corey Veldheer are organic yard & garden specialists in west Michigan.