The secret to having a great lawn without chemicals is Dutch clover. For the past 50 years, clover has been considered a noxious lawn weed, but before that it was an important component in fine lawns—and for good reason. Clover is drought-tolerant, virtually immune to diseases, and distasteful to common turf insects. And it generates its own food by fixing nitrogen in the soil.
So how did this lawn superstar get such a bad rap? Blame the broadleaf herbicides introduced after World War II. Used to kill weeds such as dandelions and plantains, the chemicals also destroyed the clover that was used in many lawn mixes of the time (leaving ugly bare patches in their wake). Today, virtually all seed companies omit clover from their mixes.
But that doesn't mean that you can't enjoy the advantages of this great green. Eliminating herbicides from your lawn regime is incredibly easy. And once you do it, most clover you introduce into your back yard will thrive. Here's where to start?
Step 1: Kick the fertilizer habit.
If your lawn is already in decent shape—no big bare patches, less than 20 percent weeds—you can make it organic without adding any new clover or grasses. Conversion is not so much what you do as what you stop doing. In other words, throw out your fertilizer. Most commercial synthetic versions are loaded with nitrogen (represented by the first of three numbers in the analysis on the package).
But turf needs a lot less nitrogen than people think. Though you'll see figures as high as 30 percent, it's better to use a less concentrated nitrogen source that lasts longer. So try an organic lawn-food blend such as Concern or Espoma, cottonseed meal, or dried poultry waste. Most of the nitrogen in these is water-insoluble; it stays put and is released over a month or more, providing nutrition to the plant in small doses. Apply it at a rate of one pound actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet in midspring and again in autumn. (The percentage of nitrogen lawn food varies, so you'll have to do some calculations to figure out how much to apply.)
Granted, your lawn might not turn emerald-green overnight, but you'll find it retains a uniform color through the season. Best of all, it will grow slowly and steadily, loosening those chains that bind you to the mower.
Step 2: Add clover and other grasses.
If you're lucky, you already have some clover in your lawn. If not, it's easy to add it by overseeding, or planting on top of what's already there. In spring or autumn, rough up the surface of the lawn with a metal garden rake. Mix the clover seed with sand or finely screened compost to ensure even distribution. Sow two ounces of clover seed per 1,000 square feet for a moderate clover cover, or up to eight ounces if you want the clover to dominate the turf. After sowing, water your lawn deeply and keep the soil surface moist until the clover germinates. The result will be a soft, cushy, deep-green lawn that stays lush through spring, summer, and fall.
If you can't give up the idea of an all-grass lawn, you can still go organic without clover. Use the same overseeding technique to introduce a low-maintenance turfgrass, such as hard fescue or sheep fescue, to your Northern lawn. In the South, try buffalograss or blue gramagrass. If you're starting over, consider an ecology-lawn mix that incorporates turf-type fescue with flowering plants, such as English daisy and yarrow. More than a lawn but less than a meadow, an ecology-lawn mixture can be mowed and used like turf.
Step 3: Water, but not too much.
Like fertilizing, watering calls for restraint. Daily shallow watering discourages grass roots from digging deep to find soil moisture, so when drought strikes, a lawn is more susceptible to damage. Deep watering, every two weeks or so, is better. In fact, if you grow the proper turfgrass for your area—if you're not trying to grow bluegrass in Arizona, for example—then you can probably get by without any watering. Yes, the lawn may lose some of its luster during dry months, but it will spring back when rains return.
No water? Little fertilizer? Tall grass? How is this lawn going to look? Better than ever. In time, it will be thicker and sport a more honest green color than it ever would with chemical fertilizers, even as its appearance changes with the seasons—as nature intended.
Step 4: Banish weeds and insects naturally.
Granted, no lawn will ever be 100 percent weed-free, but your mowing, feeding, and watering practices will gradually reduce the weed population. And in the meantime, there are effective, organic weed-control strategies. One of the best is corn gluten meal, which prevents many grassy and broadleaf weeds, including crabgrass, from germinating.
Apply it early in the season, before the soil reaches 55 degrees, at a rate of 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Do it again in the late summer and you'll stop weeds from taking hold.
Insects are not a huge problem on a lawn, especially one that's been strengthened by organic care. Still, there are a few bad characters that can do some damage to your turf. Grubs, for example, feed on grass roots, causing large patches of turf to turn brown and die. Fortunately, there's Milky Spore, a bacteria that's poisonous to grubs—and only grubs—and a favorite of organic gardeners for more than 50 years. A little goes a long way: Apply four ounces per 1,000 square feet in the spring or summer, and, in most climates, it will colonize the soil to offer long-term coverage.
Step 5: Enhance your soil.
In the end, organic gardening always comes down to the soil. When you're dealing with lawns, it's hard to improve the soil in traditional ways; you don't want to dig up the turf to add nutrients and microorganisms. But you can topdress: Simply use a spreader to apply a quarter-inch-deep layer (or less) of finely screened compost to the turf. The compost will invigorate the soil and stir up a slew of microorganisms as it sifts below the surface, improving drainage and reducing compaction along the way.