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Organic Lawn Care

Spring lawn care

Rake. Use a rake to gently remove thatch (compacted layer of clippings and dead grass which prevents water from percolating to the roots). Do this in late spring or early summer. Don't act too soon after the thaw when the grass still feels spongy, or else the roots will be damaged, but don't wait so late that heavy seed weeds have germinated.

Fertilize. Some experts recommend fall fertilization only. But if you want a really strong and pesticide resistant lawn, apply (in mid-May) slow-release, granular, organic fertilizer. Don't use highly soluble chemical ones which leach natural soil nutrients, stress the soil and grass, and may induce disease outbreaks. Organic fertilizers include compost, manure, top dressing, rock mineral fertilizer, bone meal, blood meal, shrimp, crab, and kelp.

Aerate. Aeration removes small plugs of earth to decrease soil compaction, increase water retention capacities and increase air circulation to roots. It is best done in June (or the fall) to avoid times when heavy seeder weeds germinate and may grow in the plug holes. Aerators can be rented at garden stores (or try golf shoes or crampons).

Top dress with compost. This is best done with aeration, but it can be done any time between mid-June and the end of August. If you don't have your own compost heap, buy composted cow or sheep manure. Broadcast it at 100 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Overseed. Stressed areas and bare patches invite weed invasion. Overseeding (sprinkling an existing lawn with new seeds) gives excellent results when combined with aeration and top-dressing. Loosen the soil, spread compost or peat moss, sprinkle with grass seeds of a hardy species, press in and water. Mixing in up to 20 % of white clover seed is not a bad idea.  Clover will naturally supply most of the Nitrogen required by your grass.

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Routine lawn care

Mow high (2.5"-3"). Longer grass discourages weed and insect invasion. Long grass blades stay much stronger, prevent weeds from sprouting, shade the roots, prevent drying of soil and encourage longer, healthier roots. Mow regularly, never removing more than one-third of the leaf length at at time. Mow in the evenings or on cloudy days. Don't mow wet grass!

Mulch clippings. Leave the clippings on the lawn as mulch. This reduces the need for organic fertilizers by 30%. In wet periods, or if grass was very long, compost the clippings instead. If you are detoxifying a previously chemically-treated lawn, don't mulch for a year or two or thatch may build up.

Water deeply. Lawns need 1" of water once a week, applied slowly during dry spells, preferably before 8:00 a.m. Put a can under the sprinkler and time how long it takes for an inch to accumulate. That's how long to allow before moving the sprinkler each time.

Control weeds and insects ecologically. A healthy, well cared for lawn out-competes most weeds. Check often for stressed areas like bare spots (they invite weed invasion) and treat promptly by eliminating the cause (such as heavy traffic). Remove occasional weeds by hand. For persistent weed problems, get your soil professionally analyzed.: ideal soil pH is six to seven. Add lime or sulphur to modify pH. This increases availability of plant nutrients and promotes beneficial micro-organisms. Dishwashing soap and warm water sprayed in warm weather is effective against most insect pests. Avoid chemical pesticides as they are unnecessary and damaging to human, animal and environmental health.

Relax on the monoculture.   A lawn consisting of only one kind of grass (usually Kentucky grass)  leaves it very vulnerable to pests such as white grub.  Overseeding with a variety of grasses and with white clover makes it  more resistant.  White clover, being a  legume plant, also captures Nitrogen from the air and augments the soil with it, making it more fertile.

Be realistic. New, stressed or previously chemically treated lawns need time and basic care to recover and become healthy and weed-free (well, almost weed-free).

* Adapted from "10 Steps to Ecological Lawn Care"  by M.Hammond

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Fall lawn care

Fertilize your lawn. This is an essential step. We must feed the soil! If you only fertilize once, fall is best. Use one of the organic fertilizers mentioned above (spring fertilization) Your lawn will have a head start next season.

 

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Naturalization

Have you noticed  alarming headlines about the dramatic decline of North American songbirds?   The Audubon Society is one organization tracking this trend and its multiple causes.

What does this have to do with my lawn and backyard, you say? City and suburb sprawl is one contributing factor in the decline of many beneficial insects and birds.  For example, pesticides in gardens travel up the food chain to poison songbirds who ingest  the insects.  Also, a perfectly manicured monoculture lawn doesn't offer much food or shelter to passing butterflies or songbirds.   Certain native species of plants which sustain local wildlife have been replaced by  foreign-imported species.  So, what can we do?  Here are some practical suggestions to make your yard welcoming to wildlife, including songbirds:

  • Naturalize part of your yard. Set aside a small portion of your lawn (less mowing!) for plantings of native vegetation and ground covers. This will encourage a greater variety of wildlife to visit. When was the last time you saw a toad or a monarch butterfly in your backyard? 

  • The Audubon society suggests a comprehensive list of concrete changes to naturalize your yard

  • As the first green appears in your garden, can you recognize what plants, besides grass, are sprouting in your lawn? Collect a sample of each to identify using plant books. 

  • If you haven't already done so, set out bird feeders and birdbaths and keep them filled. Which birds use your feeders? Learn the names of the most common birds in your area and double your pleasure from bird-watching in your yard.

Bill Freedman, a professor of Ecology at Halifax, has completely naturalized his urban yard. Here he explains the environmental benefits to his grass-free lawn, made up entirely of native species.


For more information on going grass-free, visit go wild.

If your are curious about any of this, want to comment, or join in, please call Helen at (514) 694-4883 . If you are a member of the Audubon Society or the American Natural Wildlife Federation and are taking part in their backyard habitat programs, we would really like your input.

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Soil quality and weeds

Soil composition plays an important role in lawn quality.  "Weeds" sprouting in your lawn are great indicators of the health, composition and pH of your soil.  Here are some natural indicators of soil problems.

1. A large number of dandelions

Dandelions and a number of other weeds can grow and even thrive in soil that is poor in nutrients and heavily compacted. Solution:  Dig out dandelions when soil is saturated from rain to ensure root can be pulled out completely. Aerate, fertilize with compost & over-seed with mix of grasses and clover seed.

2.  Strawberries and moss

Wild strawberries and moss love acidic soil to the point of crowding out grasses.  Staff at a garden center can analyze its pH (acidity) - the cost is around $15-  and then advise you on how much lime to sprinkle on the lawn to make the pH of the soil balanced and suitable for grass.

3.  Lots of grass thatch

Thatch is dry dead grass that can gradually accumulate around the base of the grasses  in the lawn.  A small amount of thatch.  If thatch builds up too thickly, it can inhibit the growth of new grass.  Thick thatch indicates nutrient-poor soil.  Solution:  rake out thatch, aerate, compost and over-seed.

4. Mushrooms

The presence of a circle of mushrooms generally indicates decomposing wood, such as roots of a long-gone tree,  under the surface of the lawn.  As mushrooms are the only organism that can decompose the lignin in wood, they perform an important function in re-turning it back into compost and soil.

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Organic lawncare companies

Before hiring a lawncare company to take care of your lawn, educate yourself about hazards of pesticides and common terms used to reassure unsuspecting homeowners

Maintaining a list of ecologically trustworthy lawncare companies  is not an easy task as companies come and go quickly, and their services may change from year to year.  If you have any suggestions for modifying this list to keep it current, please contact us.

COMPANY AREA SERVICED SERVICES PHONE

Aralia

Montreal and area

Landscaping and maintenance

Certified Horti-Eco

514-279-1130

JB Paysagiste

the west of Montreal

 

514-453-7937

1-800-639-4141

McInnes

South Shore of Montreal

 

450-441-6987

Natura

the west of Montreal

Landscaping and maintenance, lawn restoration

Certified Horti-Eco

450-265-3219

*The list was originally provided by Nature-Action Québec.

In the absence of certification of organic or natural lawn services,  how can you be sure your contractor is truly 'green', and not applying toxic pesticides on your lawn?  A committed organic contractor will generally:

  • Analyze the quality of your soil, including its  texture and pH

  • Consider the lawn's environment - sun and shade areas, drainage and amount of foot traffic

  • Suggest alternative ground covers for areas unsuitable to lawn, such as areas of deep shade or steep slopes

  • Favour physical (rather than chemical) methods of encouraging healthy lawn growth, including aeration, topdressing, high mowing, lawn mulching and over-seeding.

  • Use only 100% natural fertilizers and not ‘organic based’, as these may contain only 15% natural products. 

The contractor must also never use any pesticides or herbicides except in exceptional situations and in a temporary manner. In this case, they must choose low impact pesticides (insecticidal soap, borax, natural pyrethrin, etc.), bio pesticides (Bt) or natural predators (e.g.. Nematodes) and should recommend ways to avoid future infestations. They must never offer any systematic or preventive use of pesticides for eventual insect infestations or plant disease.

 

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