Growing up, my father ran a sustainable lawn care business. Back when the 3 foot backyard fence was too tall to see over, I’d climb up his John Deere to be able to reach the top and sit on the fence. He taught me a lot about the simple chemistry of our neighborhood. He did not de-thatch the lawns, said that that was next year’s top soil. He didn’t water unless it was a prolonged drought and then maybe once a week. He showed me pictures of grass roots extending 15 and 30 feet into the ground, and told me that well-watered grass got lazy and kept all its roots up top (see the plant on the far left?), making it more vulnerable when (never if, when) the droughts came.
Feeding and care of a green lawn
He did not feed the grass at all, said that a well-fed soil would feed the grass just fine, and he did not feed the soil in the spring. This was in part due to the spring rains in our area, which would race any fertilizer into the streams, and in part because of his theory that the grass grew up all summer and down all winter. He was most concerned about the roots: help the grass grow down and the up part will take care of itself.
Since the soil is supposed to feed the roots, if the soil was poor then my father would spread a thin thin layer of mature compost (a mix of ex-kitchen scraps and weathered manure, or rotated through different sources each fall). The compost would provide the organic material needed to make the soil food web happy. Each spring, as the soil temperature passed 40° Fahrenheit, the soil critters would wake up, the nitrogen converting organisms would get back to work, et voila! The lawn is green. Early spring applications of manufactured plant soluble nitrogen he considered a waste of money: the lawn would flush green for free in another week or two.
Some years he’d mix a calcium source into the fall compost broadcast in order to tip our eastern acidic red clays a little more alkaline. Acidity has everything to do
with which food is available for the plants. Although ashes will also tip pH higher (more alkaline), any fireplace ashes were saved for our personal vegetable garden, especially the squash beds. His clients’ lawns generally got calcitic limestone. He liked the dolomitic limestone a lot, but with our heavy clay soils, the high magnesium content present in dolomite could compound compaction problems, ergo the calcitic (lower magnesium) limestone as the backup plan.
Here’s an interesting detail: my father preferred the calcitic limestone (or the rare foray into pure calcite) to be in larger granule sizes, not powder. His contention was that this made it a slow, steady multiyear process timed out by natural processes, rather than an annual chore run by him. He taught me to look for signs like wild strawberries and wild onion grass. These are plants happiest in soils more acidic than grasses like. It’s not necessary to spray weed killer, just tip the soil pH again so that the grass is pleased enough to out compete the weeds, which are not happy about the pH shift.
Weeds in an organic lawn
The only weeds I ever saw him pull by hand were dandelions. This may have been because my sister and I blew on dandelion seed heads with gusto, giving our yard a steady supply of fresh dandelions each year. Dandelions thrive where there is less competition and there is less competition where the soils are compacted, hence the border of dandelions beside the driveway. Here, they are working, breaking up the soil with those muscle-y taproots and pulling minerals from below up toward the surface. My father would use one of those snake-tongue weeder prongs to pop them out and then seed the area with a fibrous rooted cover crop. Perhaps winter rye? I don’t remember. I do know the ex-dandelion plants went stright to the compost, the better to keep those valuable minerals in play.
Another weed fighting trick he taught me was to set the mower high: 3 inches. Crabgrass won’t grow in the shade, he said, and 3 inches of grass is enough shade.
Part of his ire with weed killers was their negative impact on clover. Clover is one of those ‘nitrogen fixer’ plants, excellent for the health of the grass, as long as it is allowed to grow and do its thing. It used to be considered a thoroughly normal part of a healthy lawn until the 1940s when researchers who were trying to find a broad leaf weed killer for things like crabgrass and dandelions and they couldn’t figure out how to target those plants without killing the clover. The back-up plan? Include clover on the list of weeds their product kills. Simple enough, and, with no clover, people start thinking they need lawn food. (More so if they’ve been taught to de-thatch.)
Annual clovers tend to grow tall by lawn standards, perhaps 8 inches, plus they are annual. Useful for breaking in a new section or using as an intercropped cover crop in the garden, but perennial clovers grow short and are better suited for lawns.
Plant a mixture of grasses and forbs
In addition to scattering a little bit of clover seed, my father taught me about cool and warm season grasses, sun and shade grasses, and the value of winter rye. In the past few decades, there has been increasing understanding about the value of forbs (think ‘wild flowers’) mixtures in a natural grass setting. I need to do more research and come back to you with that information.
In the meantime, ever notice all those lawns that flip to being brown grass mats for the winter as their zoysia grass dies? My father would have “overseeded” them the weekend before Labor Day by broadcasting winter rye grass seed to come up and be green all winter. That was the only one he seeded at that time of year. The others he’d try to time to tossing on top of the last snow of the season (we lived far enough south that each thin snow generally melted away before the next one arrived. His goal was to get the grass seed onto the soil during the period of freeze / thaw action which he swore would work the seed into the ground at just the right depth.
Now I’m the age my father was during those lawn company years. I don’t personally quite understand the lawn cult. I have no joy of mowing and I’m now living out on the prairie, which is so spectacularly far from the monoculture lawns I see in neighborhoods (even neighborhoods here), and so spectacularly beautiful to my eyes that I can’t figure out why people don’t just grow prairies and mow different paths through them each spring. It would certainly simplify the mowing all summer- just dash along those paths, leave the rest to bloom.
But sometimes people want lawns, be it a matter of personal aesthetics, of for playing games on, or as an outdoor carpet for gatherings. This appreciation for useful lawns holds some appeal: if your lawn encourages you to spend more time outside, then by all means: mow it high, feed it sensibly, and come on out.