Going full-bore organic isn't your only choice if you want to avoid exposing yourself, your pets, your family, and the environment to toxic chemicals. Anyone interested in organic lawn care but leery for any reason -- what if it doesn't work, what if I get in over my head, anything -- should also know about Integrated Pest Management. IPM, a well-recognized and growing approach to lawns, gardening, and agriculture, is like organic gardening with a loophole: you do everything to establish a healthy crop on healthy soil using earth-friendly methods, but if you hit a problem you can't solve, you take recourse to chemicals. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides therefore become the last resort, rather than the first. You may still use them from time to time, but you'll use them far less often and only after trying other methods.
This site doesn't describe IPM in detail, but if you follow the program for organic lawn care and use chemicals only after trying organic methods, you'll be in the ball park. IPM methods are extensively described on various web sites, including that at UC Davis, one of the foremost agricultural universities in the U.S. Purdue University has a program developed specifically for schools and day-care centers.
To Do List: Good Any Time
Switch to an Organic Fertilizer This is one of the easiest things you can do, especially if you're not using a lawn service. There are numerous organic options, including pellets or powders that can be applied with a spreader in the same way that most commercial fertilizers are usually spread. See Fertilizing for details.
Set your Mower Height High Set your cutting height to 2.5 to 3 inches, and cut long. The longer grass will shade out more weeds than will short grass, it will protect the dirt from evaporation, and it will grow more slowly than short grass. Longer lawns therefore need fewer pesticides, less water, and less frequent mowing than short lawns.
Let Grass Clippings Lie Do not rake up the grass cuttings after you mow. The cuttings help shade out weeds in spring, help slow evaporation (promoting water conservation) in summer, and provide important organic material for your soil all season.
This practice works best if you mow frequently, so that the clippings are relatively short. Long clippings may lie about on the grass like a bunch of hay, looking unsightly and doing little to enrich the soil. Shorter clippings will sift down between grass blades more easily than long ones, gracefully removing themselves from sight and beginning to decompose relatively quickly. They thus satisfy both aesthetic and environmental standards.
NOTE: If you've been giving your lawn heavy doses of chemical fertilizer, you may not want to make this your first step into organic territory. Too much synthetic fertilizer can kill soil microorganisms, thus damaging the soil's ability to break down organic matter, so those grass clippings could hang around much longer than you want them to. If you're in any doubt, switch to an organic fertilizer first, and then let the clippings lie.
Sharpen Mower Blades Fungi, viruses, and pests all flourish in unhealthy grass, and many such pathogens enter grass blades through damaged spots. Dull mower blades mangle grass, leaving it bruised and torn. The open spots make the grass vulnerable to disease and other problems, and the mangling makes it less healthy overall.
Sharp mower blades cut grass cleanly, avoiding bruises and leaving only a minimal cut open to bacteria. Your grass will therefore be healthier and will need less by way of pesticides and fertilizer. Click on how to sharpen lawn mower blades, and your grass blades will benefit.
Water Early in the Morning Plants cannot make efficient use of water in the heat of the day, because their pores close to minimize transpiration, the loss of water from their leaves. In dry climates or dry conditions, up to 50% of sprinkler water can evaporate. For both these reasons, it is best to water in the morning before the day heats up. Your water bill will be lower, since less water will be wasted, and your grass will benefit, since it will receive water at the optimal time of day.
Water Deep -- NOT Often Plants will work only as hard as they need to; roots will grow only as deep as they must. Frequent lawn watering, even if it's deep, encourages grass roots to stay shallow, which in turn means that they cannot reach deeper water during drought conditions. Less frequent watering forces roots to grow deep in order to reach deeper water.
The problem with infrequent watering is that dry soil (like a dry sponge) does not absorb liquid readily. Instead, the water tends to run off the surface or percolate down cracks to deeper levels without soaking into the topsoil.
The solution is to water twice, once briefly, and then again more thoroughly after an hour's delay. Ideally, the first watering would deposit no more than a half inch of water, while the second would deposit a full inch. The overall goal is to saturate the earth to a depth of six to nine inches.
The first, brief watering gives the surface a chance to expand and absorb the water, so that the next, more lengthy watering will actually soak into the soil, saturating it evenly rather than just running off or trickling through it via a few routes to depths below those where grass can reach it.
Top dress with Compost To top dress is to sprinkle fertilizer or a soil amendment on top of the soil rather than to dig it in. Summer top-dressing should be light -- a quarter of an inch at a time -- but this will improve the soil in a number of ways. Organic care depends on good soil, so topdressing helps ensure that your soil is able to sustain a thick growth of healthy grass.