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A Sustainable Winnipeg

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Organic Lawn Care Home

Nine Methods of Organic Lawn Care

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Mowing

Lawn and gardenMowing your lawn too short and too often will do more harm than good. Home lawns should not emulate golf course greens, the grass species at play in those areas are specialized turfgrasses which tolerate a low height of cut. By mowing too short you are.  "stressing out" your lawn, affecting the plants ability to absorb sunlight and reducing it's rooting depth. This stress makes your lawn susceptible to the effects of drought as well as weed, insect and disease infestation. 

Key Tips for Mowing:

Mow "Green"
Using electric or push reel mowers is a great way to cut down on emissions and noise pollution. 

Mow High
Higher heights of cut allow for a healthier stand of turf. Leave grass approximately 2.5 to 3 inches high during spring and fall, in the summer months allow it to grow to 4 inches.  A good rule of thumb, to ensure you are not placing undue stress on your lawn, is to remove no more than 1/3 the length of grass blades at a time. For example, if the grass blades are 4.5 inches high, then cut them down to 3 inches in height.

Mow Less Often
Mow your lawn only when necessary.

Mowing should be dependant on the vigor of grass growth. In our region grass will need more frequent mowing during June and July. Grasses will slow their growth during the heat of summer, Allow your grass to remain higher during extended drought periods, this allows the root system to extend further into the soil to seek moisture.

Mow Sharp
By mowing your lawn with a dull blade, you will tear the grass blades,leaving them more susceptible to disease occurrence.

Sharpen mower blades at least once a year. If using an electric mower, sharpen blades once a month. Push reel mowers will require some maintenance every year to keep blades sharp and properly adjusted, have an expert look over your mower before the season begins, or better yet, before you store it for the winter.

Mow Dry
Mow the lawn when it is dry for a cleaner cut.

Grass Cycle
Do not bag your clippings. By removing clippings you are taking away stored nutrients, especially if you do so after any sort of growth spurt. The nutrients your lawn has drawn to it's tip should not end up at the landfill. Let your clippings fall, the nutrients will be returned to the soil when they break down. Please note, clippings are not a significant contributor to thatch buildup. Clippings are made up primarily of water, thatch consists mostly of fibrous tissue such as stems and roots.

Grass cycling also provides you with a personal benefit by reducing the physical wear of hauling your bag to the garbage when it fills as well as cutting down on the amount of time the task requires.

If clippings do become excessive, leaving large clumps on the lawn, remove them and put them into the compost

Watering

In most years lawns will not require much in the way of supplemental watering, especially if you plant a low maintenance fescue mix. Yearly rainfall is often adequate to meet the needs of your lawn's growth habit. Winnipeg is in a cool season turf area, most grass growth will occur during spring and early fall. During the summer months cool season grasses naturally slow their growth. During drought periods grasses will induce dormancy, turning brown, but will recover upon the first rain. You may wish to provide some water to your lawn during periods of prolonged drought to ensure that insects that prefer dry conditions are kept at bay.

Appropriate times for supplemental watering are during seed or sod establishment and after fertilizer applications. Seed requires a consistent moisture level to germinate, newly placed sod has yet to establish a root system and therefore must rely on water near the soil surface while fertilizers require water to begin to break down and become available to plants.

When you do water please remember:

Go "Eau Naturale"
Collect Rainwater. Hook up a rain barrel to a downspout on your home to use a free source of untreated water throughout your yard. Watch the weather forecast if there is a forecast for rain within the next few days then there is no need to water your lawn.

Water in the morning
Avoid watering in the heat of midday. Afternoon temperatures will result in losses to evaporation while winds will cause drifting away from targeted areas.  

Water Deep, and Less Often
When starting grass from seed or establishing sod your lawn will require more frequent, light watering until root systems develop. Once established watering too often and too shallow will cause shallow root development, weakening your lawn's defences against drought and weeds; you can also risk scorching roots that are too close to the surface.

Aeration

In Winnipeg, we have heavy, clay-based soil that is prone to compaction. Soil compaction leads to poor drainage, decreased permeability and low oxygen levels, all which inhibit root growth.

Aeration is the process of loosening soil to reduce compaction allowing more water, nutrients, air, and sunlight into the ground which promotes a stronger root system and therefore a healthier stand of turf.

You can aerate using a pitchfork, a garden fork, or a plug-removing machine (which can be rented or you can hire someone to come and aerate your lawn for you).

Aeration is best done during the growing season, either in the spring or in the early fall, and to further benefit the soil should be done at the same time as topdressing.

Topdressing

Topdressing is the process of spreading a soil amendment such as compost, topsoil or sand over the surface of your lawn. Topdressing is the process of spreading a soil amendment such as compost, topsoil or sand over the surface of your lawn. When done after aerating, the topdressing material can be worked into the soil and improve it's texture. A clay based soil with added compost will become more friable which will allow more water, nutrients and organic material to penetrate into the ground.

How to Topdress:

  • Spread compost or topsoil. ¼ inch thick and either rake or sweep it over your lawn.
  • If you are going to seed at this point (either patch seeding or over seeding), then spread the seed over the layer of compost and rake the soil and seed together.
  • Water, and be sure to keep the grass seeds constantly moist until they have taken root.
Composting

Compost binComposting is the natural process of breaking down organic material, such as kitchen and yard waste, to produce a nutrient-rich, soil-like material. The process works with the help of micro-organisms such as bacteria and fungi combined with air and moisture.

Compost is:

  • nutrient-rich,
  • aids in breaking up soils heavy in clay
  • makes weeding and planting easier because soil is less compact
  • reduces soil erosion and run-off due to better drainage an moisture retention
  • has loads of beneficial microorganisms necessary to your lawn's ecosystem
  • diverts green waste from landfills, and cuts down on methane build-up

Make Your Own Compost

Household composting is a great way to cut down on how much garbage your house produces. To make your own compost, use a backyard-composting bin and add grass and kitchen scraps as your "green" layers and leaves/sawdust/newspaper as your "brown" matter.

For more information on Composting please visit www.winnipeg.ca/waterandwaste/recycle/composting.stm

Overseeding

Close up of grass and sky Overseeding your lawn will help to rejuvenate areas with bare or sparse grass cover due to traffic wear, pet damage or environmental conditions. Overseeding can be done yearly to ensure your lawn maintains it's density and vigor.

As mentioned above when overseeding you may wish to consider a low maintenance grass species. If the areas you are having trouble maintaining are under the shade of trees or in high traffic areas, fescues will be a more appropriate choice.

Overseeding should be attempted in cool weather, such as May or September and is easily done in conjunction with topdressing. Make sure to rake seed into compost or topsoil and tamp the seed bed to ensure good soil to seed contact. It is that contact which will allow seed to take in water and begin the process of germination.

Keep overseeded areas moist through regular watering. Most seed varieties take between one to two weeks to germinate and will need to be kept adequately moist throughout that period. Please note, Kentucky Bluegrass can take up to three weeks to germinate. You may notice on bags of seed you purchase a 7 to 10 day germination period, even for mixtures containing Kentucky Bluegrass. That time frame relates to other grasses such as perennial rye that are often part of the mix.

Juvenile grass will need some continued attention while root systems develop. Supplement rainfall shortages with watering to apply approximately 1" of rain per week. Keep traffic off young grass seedlings as they have yet to develop a capacity to tolerate wear.

Fertilizing

Many lawns can be kept healthy without the need of additional fertilizer. Yearly additions of compost will add nutrients and will help to release nutrients tied up in existing soils.

Returning your clippings, rather than bagging and removing them, will help to maintain a cycle of fertility.

Common synthetic fertilizers do provide a quick boost to growth but can have a negative effect on nutrient and biological diversity in the soil.

Make a shift towards organic fertilizers that consist of nitrogen sources such as blood meal or kelp. These fertilizers will break down more slowly and will enhance microbial activity in the soil. These microorganisms help release nutrients tied up in soil, making them available to plant roots, and aid in breaking down thatch.

Turf grasses typically require 3 lbs of Nitrogen per 1,000 sq ft each year. That amount can be delivered in two or more applications. The best time to make an application is prior to a predictable growth spurt such as in early to late spring or at the end of summer.

To calculate the amount of fertilizer required use the analysis on the bag.
Fertilizers carry three numbers, for a typical organic fertilizer you might see numbers in the range of 9-3-4. This analysis represents, in order, the percentage of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium contained within.

The amount of Nitrogen in a 25 Lb bag of 9-3-4 would be (9% of 25) 2.25 Lbs.

If there is no rain forecasted make sure to water in fertilizers to start the process of release.

Fertilizing with organics can be done in conjunction with aerating, topdressing and overseeding.

Spring and Fall Clean Up

Your lawn will benefit from a thorough cleaning twice a year. Raking to remove debris and excessive thatch will help keep your lawn healthy and vibrant. A mechanical dethatching machine, or power rake, can be helpful in removing heavy thatch build up. While thatch is important, providing some wear tolerance and water conservation, too much thatch will effect air and water infiltration into the soil and provides habitat for pest species.

Spring Raking simply entails removing any remaining leaf litter or debris after the snow has melted. In order to prevent snow mold from developing on your lawn, you can break up and disperse any patches of snow that are taking longer to melt.

Fall Raking is the removal of all the heavy leaf cover, and any thatch that has developed to an excess of ¼ inch thick. This is to improve soil ventilation and discourage pests from nesting in the thatch layer Once this debris has been cleared, a ¼ inch of mulched leaves can be re-applied onto your lawn.

Weed Control

When it comes to weeds, a little tolerance goes a long way.  Many plants that are commonly thought of as weeds (like clover, buttercups and dandelions) are actually beneficial to the health of your lawn.

If any weeds become a problem, (and you've passed your tolerance point for them), the best method of control for the organic gardener is to hand pull them. There are now plenty of weed removing tools designed to make the job less daunting and easier on your back!  Always make sure to try and get as much of the root as possible, striving for at least 80%, to prevent weeds from coming back.

For certain situations you can also try using a natural weed killer (see the recipes available from the Manitoba EcoNetwork). Caution should be taken when using these products as they are non selective, meaning they will harm all vegetation they come in contact with- weeds and turfgrass. Use them sparingly by spot spraying weeds. You may need to repair the turf surrounding by overseeding after weeds are killed off.

Last update: September 21, 2017