How to Maintain Natural Lawn Care
Natural lawn care will require some simple changes, and may even include some sacrifices. But growing grass unsustainably creates a huge negative impact through its use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides or excessive water usage.
When the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, it may be that they take better care of it there. - Cecil Selig
Are Lawns Sustainable?
Perhaps the biggest waste of any suburban or urban yard is a large expanse of unused grass. Grass in nature has a natural cycle of dying off and growing back, feeding ruminants (animals that eat primarily grass) and using their manure as its fertilizer. Organic lawn care, while maybe not feeding animals, should still work in harmony with Nature.
Grass in our urban or suburban yards is often kept growing in otherwise dormant periods and usually has little in the way of natural lawn care amendments, often requiring huge inputs of water and fertilizer. Most grassy areas lay untouched except by a mower and can be put to use in more sustainable ways, such as with attractive natural landscape and wildlife habitat, a xeriscape (low-water) design or edible gardens that feed you or others.
U.S. homeowners spend approx. $40 billion a year maintaining their lawns! Think what that could be spent on instead?
However, there are purposes for smaller areas of grass: play area for children or animals (although it's just as likely they'll play in a garden, as the grass), habitat for beneficial insects and one small part of a larger ecosystem. Also, in more rural areas, removing or converting the natural grassy landscape could negatively affect the biodiversity of an area.
If you do have a desire or need for a lawn, consider carefully how much is necessary and how to maintain a natural lawn care regimen. Keep in mind that large grassy yards are generally unused and unnecessary, as well as expensive to maintain. Save yourself and the environment resources with careful, considerate planning.
Think Local, Act Natural
It's important to embrace your local climate and its ability to support organic lawn care or not. Dry climates will generally not support grass at all. Bermuda is a widely adaptable grass but can easily take over garden areas, so it's generally avoided unless surrounded by concrete to contain it. If there is not an indigenous option for grass, consider other options such as a sand box for kids, a picnic table for families, or a mulched area for animals.
If your climate will easily support a lawn, keep these natural lawn care ideas in mind:
- Assess Your Real Needs:
Don't overdue it on how much grass you think you need. Figure more conservatively with area to expand if truly necessary.
- Climate-adapted Grass:
Contact your Master Gardener's office or community extension and learn about indigenous grasses found naturally in your area. Replace your lawn with these to provide and support natural habitat. These grasses will be more acclimated to local rainfall levels and temps, as well.
- Non-Traditional Options:
Ground covers, such as clover, are a sustainable alternative to resource-guzzling grasses. Clover is a nitrogen-fixer, as well, and will feed the soil and surrounding areas.
- Use a Push Mower:
Non-electric mowers work by rotating a blade as the wheels rotate. They use no gas or power (except human power), offer exercise over riding mowers, reduce noise pollution, are lighter-weight and thus easier to push, are less expensive, do not pollute your breathing space and leave grass clippings on the ground as an organic fertilizer.
- Leave Grass Clippings Down:
With organic lawn care, grass clippings decompose quickly and will give your lawn all the amendments it needs.
- Don't Cut Too Short:
The shorter the lawn is cut, the more water is lost to evaporation and the less habitat it provides for beneficial insects. Keep your grass lawn cut to approximately 3 or 4 inches.
- Allow Natural Dying Back:
Naturally-grown grasses go through growth periods. In warmer climates, grasses should be allowed to die back in summer when temps reach their highs. Don't interfere with this cycle unless you suspect disease.
- Natural Disease Care:
Through natural lawn care practices you should not encounter this problem, but if you do it is most sustainable to solarize the area to kill any pathogens (as well as grass) and reseed the following spring. Solarizing can be done easily with plastic tarps or plastic painters sheets kept in place with bricks or other heavy objects. Soil testing can be done to ensure effectiveness. Solarizing is also effective for eliminating detrimental nematodes. It will also kill beneficial insects and their larvae, so do not solarize unless needed.
- Allow Natural Reseeding:
In the late fall, allow your grasses to grow and go to seed. These seeds will lie dormant throughout the winter and provide you with less inputs of purchased seed or energy in the spring when they begin to grow again.
- Avoid Sprinklers:
Let Nature dictate its growing cycle with seasonal rainfall. If you live in a climate where lawns can only be grown with sprinklers, then grass should be allowed to die and replaced with more sustainable options. If you do end up watering, be sure to water deeply with something low-tech like a garden hose water sprinkler timer.
- Weed Sustainably:
Pulling weeds out of a small area of grass is a cinch. Corn meal can also be applied before weeds sprout. White vinegar and salt will kill weeds but also grass, so use carefully only in problem areas. And remember that many weeds are actually medicinal and edible.
- Get A Backyard Chicken:
Nothing says natural lawn care like chickens! As in nature, chickens will supply your organic lawn care needs through cutting down on the need for pesticides and herbicides by chasing down every last insect or weed they can find. And depending on the type or amount of lawn and the number of chickens, they may even keep it sufficiently mowed for you. Their small amounts of manure should not burn grass and within a week, the area will be growing lusher than before. "Chicken tractors" (movable chicken pens) make it easy to keep your chickens on the lawn and out of the garden. And they'll give you eggs to boot! Goats are another lawn mowing option, with the added benefit of milk and cheese from their grazing.
Most importantly with natural lawn care: use the lawn you create and don't let it go to waste!