December 3, 2023

Lawn Care with a Conscience: Organic Solutions Create Healthy Lawns & Prevent Groundwater Problems

June 9, 2004
Have you ever been concerned about the use of fertilizers and pesticides on your lawn?  Tests conducted at many universities have repeatedly shown that they really do leach into our ground water and find their way into our lakes and streams.
How does this problem affect you?  If you have well water, you could be drinking unsafe levels of nitrates and chemicals.  If you have lake shore property or have a lawn anywhere near a lake or stream -- which is pretty much anywhere in Northern Michigan -- you are hurting the quality of our waters. 
Consider this: one pound of phosphorous, a primary ingredient in lawn fertilizers, can grow up to 700 pounds of lake weeds.  Those beautiful manicured lawns can impose a terrible toll on our lakes and streams. 
But don’t give up, there is a better way.  You can have a beautiful lawn, and you can do it without harming the environment.  Below are some tips that can help you.

First of all, proper watering is essential for a healthy lawn.  Do not over water.  If you have an automatic irrigation system, set it to come on early in the morning every other day.  When it rains, shut your irrigation off.  Continuing to irrigate your lawn after a natural rain is not only a waste of water but contributes to leaching and runoff problems.
Lawns need about one inch of water per week, with more required on sandy well-drained soils.  Put cans out under the sprinklers and time how long it takes for an inch of water to accumulate and then set the timers on your irrigation system accordingly. 
During periods of hot dry weather, set your irrigation system to come on again at noon to gently syringe the turf.  Set each station for no more than two minutes.  This will cool the turf and reduce the evapo-transpiration rate in the plant (the amount of moisture lost due to evaporation), preventing burnout.

Raising your mowing height to three inches will help your lawn in several ways:  Longer grass blades are stronger, prevent weeds from sprouting, allows the plant to develop a healthy root system, and prevent the soil from drying.  Keep your mowing blades sharp.  Dull blades damage the plant causing stress and opens up the grass to disease.  When mowing your lawn, don’t pick up the clippings.  The clippings contain a lot of nutrients and organic matter your lawn needs.  However, because of the light sandy soils we have in Northern Michigan, clippings alone are not enough.  A healthy lawn needs to be fed the proper nutrients in the right amounts consistently through out the growing season.  In order to do this without harming the environment, you need to choose a natural organic fertilizer.

You do not want to use the synthetic fertilizers that most people buy at the local garden center.  Another fertilizer that is even more harmful to the environment is the liquid formulations used by all the big name lawn care companies.  Both of these types of fertilizers will quickly green up your lawn and create a flush of growth that gives you a false impression of a healthy lawn.  These formulations quickly and easily leach deep into the soil and end up in our ground water, lakes, and streams.
The nutrients in fertilizers, whether natural organic or synthetic, can still pollute our environment.  The natural organic fertilizers most widely available are poultry manure-based and inexpensive.  The nitrogen in these fertilizers is unstable and can burn plant tissue, volitize into the atmosphere, and leach into the ground water.  They are also high in phosphorous and if not fully composted can contain many viable weed seeds.
Another popular organic fertilizer that has been around for many decades is Milorganite.  It is processed sewage sludge.  There are two negatives to this fertilizer.  First of all, it does not contain any potassium which is essential for a strong wear-tolerant turf; secondly, it does contain heavy metals. 
In recent years, the turf industry has developed some excellent Natural Organic Fertilizers.  The ingredients in these products are food and feed grade materials and natural minerals.  They contain humus that replaces organic matter lost due to clipping removal, and is inoculated with beneficial microorganisms. 

These types of Natural Organic Fertilizers provide a slow release of nutrients in a steady stream throughout the growing season.  This promotes a slow and controlled growth.  Also, these fertilizers can only release their nutrients through biological activity in the soil and biological activity only takes place when plants are actively growing.  Therefore the turf is able to use all the nutrients before they can leach away.
The microorganisms work to break down the thatch layer, relieve hard compacted soils, and add humus to the soil.  This improves the soils water and nutrient holding capacity, and encourages deep root growth.  These fertilizers build up the natural defenses of the turf by feeding and increasing a wide assortment of soil organisms that are essential components of a healthy turf ecosystem.  What you are actually doing is fertilizing the soil and let the soil fertilize the plant.
These advanced Natural Organic Fertilizers do not contain offensive odors, weed seeds, heavy metals, or undesirable microorganisms common to manure and sewage sludge based products that are labeled “natural/and organic.”

Having a healthy vigorous lawn is the best way to prevent weeds, disease, and other pest problems although on occasion pesticides are needed to treat a pest problem.
What can homeowners do to reduce pesticide use to protect the environment and ourselves from exposure to these chemicals?  Although there are few reliable organic pesticides, there are more responsible earth-friendly ways of applying (or not applying) pesticides.  Frequent monitoring of your lawn provides the opportunity to catch potential problems before they become serious.  If you find a problem, you need to determine if the problem has reached the threshold of damage that requires the use of chemical pesticides. 
All landscapes are inhabited by a diverse array of organisms most of which are beneficial to the health of your lawn.  Only a few are plant-eating pests.  Over-applying pesticides can kill off all these organisms, good and bad.  This destroys the predator/prey relationship and leaves your lawn with no natural protection against damaging pests.
If you determine that your pest problem has reached a threshold of damage that requires the use of chemical pesticides, only treat the infested areas, not the entire lawn.  Traditionally, pesticides are applied in a liquid broadcast spray leaving every blade of grass on your lawn covered with a chemical residue, exposing your family and pets.

Weeds are by far the most common problem on home lawns.  The best way to rid your lawn of weeds without using large amounts of herbicides is to use a hand-held or backpack sprayer and apply a small amount of herbicide to each individual weed.  This process takes time, but it is much safer to the environment because you are using only tiny amounts of herbicide by targeting only the individual weeds.
Once your weeds are under control, there are some natural and organic ways to keep them from coming back.  Experiments done at the University of Maryland resulted in statistically equal control of crabgrass by mowing at 3 ” as compared to treatments using four different crabgrass herbicides.  There is also a natural organic product called Corn Gluten that works extremely well as a preemergent for both crabgrass and weeds. 
Corn Gluten is a natural organic material that releases a substance as it decomposes in the soil preventing roots from forming on germinating seeds.  Unfortunately, it is indiscriminate and will kill newly planted grass seeds as well as germinating weed seeds.  Corn Gluten is best used in controling annual weeds in established lawns.  It also contains ten percent natural organic nitrogen making it a good source of nutrients for existing plants.
There is added cost to using high quality Natural Organic Fertilizers, and it does require more thought, time, and effort to use or not use pesticides in a manner that will help protect the environment and ourselves.  Nevertheless, it is well worth the peace of mind you will gain knowing that you are doing your part to help protect the environment and your family’s health. 
About the author: Jim Balamucki is the owner and operator of Earth Friendly Lawn Care.  He has over 20 years of professional experience in the turfgrass industry and has a degree in Turf Grass Management from Michigan State University.  If you would like more information regarding Organic Lawn Care, Jim can be contacted at 231-929-3578.




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