By Barbara Kessler

This sounds like a simple mandate. But often people simply don't know how to fertilize their lawn or deal with weeds unless they use their customary bag of "weed and feed" that typically contains toxins or synthetic fertilizers.

They might want to stop chemically treating their yard because they know it is hard on the soil and our overall environment, not to mention what it may be doing to our personal health. But they don't know where to begin… Switching to a natural or organic lawn program is not difficult. It simply requires knowing what to substitute for what you've been using — much as if you were altering a recipe for cake to reduce the fat or sugar. So starting with the pre-emergent weed treatment in February or March, depending on your climate, here are the basic concepts and products you'll need to make the switch:

  • Treat pre-emergent weeds with corn gluten, which is available in a granule or flake form. The granule form is much easier to work with and spread. Corn gluten interferes with the germination of weeds, but leaves already rooted grass alone. (You wouldn't want to use corn gluten if you were seeding for grass or in areas where desired wildflowers were germinating.) To verify the safety of corn gluten and for more information see the online EPA info sheet on this natural herbicide.
  • Spot treat emerging weeds with a vinegar solution. This doesn't harm the micro-life in the soil. Most experts recommend a solution of 20 percent commercial strength vinegar, which is what you'll find at the nursery. That works, but for stubborn weeds, but it's best to use the vinegar on a sunny day when the light combined with the treatment cooks the weed, all the way to its roots. Rubber gloves are a good idea when using this vinegar. It's much more potent that what's in your pantry. Also steer a wide path around trees and shrubs. This is an organic treatment, but an effective one. Don't let it ruin the plants you want to keep.
  • Aerate your lawn, especially if thatch is thick and it appears that it's causing water to run off and not get to the grass roots. There are a variety of tools, including rolling aerators with spikes or spiked shoes (bonus: Exercise!) available for this spring and fall lawn "treatment." Yardiac.com has a good summary of why aeration is important and how to do it correctly. They also sell some of the equipment needed for this important lawn care step.
  • Fertilize with organic compost and organic fertilizers. The idea is to add nutrients that enrich the soil, which will ultimately support strong turf that will choke out weeds and require little maintenance. Gardenweb.com recommends first replenishing soil microbes (in a lawn that's been treated with chemicals previously) by spreading a thin coat (only about 1/3 of an inch thick) of compost — never pure manure — over the top. Next fertilize in spring and fall with protein-based fertilizers like corn meal, alfalfa meal, soy meal, cottonseed meal or even coffee grounds. These products are available at nurseries and sometimes farm/seed supply stores. For more details on organic fertilizing, Gardenweb.com has an excellent FAQ.
  • "Sweeten" the soil with molasses around shrubs and other plantings to give them a spring boost. Give a struggling lawn extra assistance with an application of a seaweed, kelp or fish soil enhancer — but not at the same time you fertilize. This adds nitrogen in a form that's easy to assimilate and won't runoff like many chemical fertilizers.
  • Water deeply, but not as often, to encourage grass root growth. You'll have to be the judge of this, considering the rainfall and sun-exposure in your lawn. When we lived on the East Coast in the Mid-Atlantic United States we rarely watered our lawn. But here in Texas, the lawn requires regular watering. (Topic for another day: Xeriscaping part of your lawn area with native plants.) As a general guide watering once a week for a half hour would be better than three times a week for 10 minutes each time.
  • Mow high to encourage healthy grass. Just how high varies by variety and your climate, but the conventional rule is to leave grass 3" high, maybe a bit less for Bermuda and Zoysia. The reason: Grass needs sunlight to thrive and it can only root about as deep as it is high. The other rule of thumb is to never cut more than 1/3 of the grass blade, though it is tempting to cut more when you're doing the mowing! The grass will be healthier, thicker and more drought- and water-resistant.

That's the basic organic turf program in a nutshell. The details and dates will vary, depending on your lawn's particular issues. For instance, aerating may be more important in an older lawn where the thatch is thick or the soil is clay-based. There's more to learn. And there's a need for patience. While an organic lawn can look just as lush as a chemically prodded one, it may take some time for the soil to revive and start doing it's job. But this is a start. If stopping the use of toxic chemicals is important to you, then you've taken that first step.

Like so many green solutions, it's win-win in the long run because properly nourished soil will ultimately require less maintenance and be cost-effective too, whereas chemicals that kill off the beneficial microbes in soil initiate a vicious cycle that requires additional chemicals to keep the lawn green and the turf becomes dependent on applications of toxic agents.