It’s spring again, and we’re facing our fourth year with a yard of snow-weathered dirt.
We haven’t achieved our dream of an organic lawn without weed killers just yet, but we are still trying, and we think we've finally found the solution.
It hasn’t been easy. We’ve invested thousands in the yard, mainly to remove weeds from past failed efforts, and add more dirt.
Last fall, we raked off the top layer of practically our entire lawn after the crabgrass died … with backbreaking effort.
Crabgrass is a menace. It masquerades as grass, but it's spiny and spreads from its center, smothering everything in its path.
How did the perfect green lawn we had when we moved in end up like this? We gave up on weed killer. That’s what!
Let me tell you, the weeds started to take over quickly.
At the beginning of last year, our organic lawn was a literal sea of dandelions. We hired a crew that hacked them out with a crowbar.
To our beautiful mess we added compost, and replanted what unfortunately turned into the aforementioned web of crabgrass.
In desperation, we hired a landscaping company to cut the weeds on a regular basis so as to maintain the illusion of a lawn.
We argued with our new guy all year about weed killer.
Of course, he wanted to use weed killer and give us a beautiful green lawn that he could be proud of.
Our response was always a gentle "no."
This year, we are having that discussion again. Our guy tells me that Roundup isn’t harmful at all. That everyone uses it, and that it is the only way to have a green lawn.
Sorry, but Roundup is harmful, and it's not true that it's the only way to get a nice lawn. (Although, maybe it is partly true.) Our organic lawn may never be perfect. But at least it won’t be poisoned.
Keeping The Organic Lawn Dream Alive
I’ve seen a beautiful organic lawn that is free of weed killer. Thick, lush, dark green blades of perfect grass, as far as the eye could see.
It’s at the place where my organic gardening mentor keeps his garden. I asked him how he did it without using weed killer.
The answer, he said, is simple. The soil isn’t compacted.
Soft, healthy soil is the main answer to the question of how to grow a lawn organically.
It makes sense if you think about where weeds thrive. Empty scrabble lots, sidewalk cracks. Anywhere that nothing respectable will grow, weeds grow.
The second point is to plant a diverse set of grasses, effectively turning a monoculture into a biodiverse environment.
You see, nature doesn’t support monocultures of a single plant variety, which is why the weed killers are needed. To take an organic approach, you have to try to work with nature.
You will never see a perfect lawn in nature. They came from humans’ desire for aesthetic order.
Why I Considered Using Weed Killer
I have to be honest with you. I seriously considered allowing weed killer in my front yard and side yard, which is away from my garden, and more in the public eye.
I was lured by my lawn guy’s demurring about “letting him do his job and we’ll have beautiful grass.”
I was also fearing the great unknown of the upcoming year, and whether we’ll be able to finally achieve our dream, or face another failure.
However, as I was thinking about it, I happened to see our neighbor applying weed killer, and it reminded me of why I started my garden in the first place.
It was a darn organic gardener at the other neighbor’s who stopped ME from applying weed killer in year one.
That was when I was at the very beginning of freaking out about the onslaught of weeds in our yard.
I even wrote about it.
I also stopped by Home Depot, and saw the weed killers and chemically-treated seeds lining the shelves near the cash registers.
There aren’t any other solutions on offer! This is part of the reason it took me so long to find our solution, which I have detailed for you down below, step by step. It is also why I am writing this post.
So even though our dirt is thin and compacted by our 150-year-plus maple tree in the front yard, I am standing my ground.
My answer about weed killer is a resounding NO!
The Plight Of American Farmers
Unfortunately, monocultures like most Americans’ front yards are the biggest reason why our food system is in deep trouble.
We’re dependent on chemicals, more and more of them, to grow our food. And it’s going nowhere good, and fast!
Today I read the story of farmer Adam Chappell in Civil Eats, and it broke my heart.
His experience is part of a look-back at the last decade of farming in America, which involves genetically modified crops (GMOs), and more chemicals. (You may not be aware that GMOs don't grow without the chemicals, and that the same companies sell both.)
The farmer said ten years ago, “GMOs were marketed as the environmentally friendly way to do it.”
You’ll even see that kind of marketing if you visit Monsanto’s website.
However, Adam said, “all we’ve done is created a treadmill that a lot of people are having a hard time getting off of.”
He goes on to describe how a particular weed, called Palmer amaranth, was crushing farmers’ yields.
At first, glyphosate, the primary active chemical in Roundup, killed Palmer amaranth.
But after six years it no longer worked.
Now they’ve added another chemical, a class of PPO-inhibitors. (Whatever that is. 🙂
But after three years, Palmer amaranth has won again, and the farmers were told to use more quantity of the same weed killers to try to solve the problem. Basically there is no solution.
Adam describes how farmers are desperate for solutions. They’re hardly making any money out there.
Thankfully, Adam found a couple of innovative agricultural scientists who’ve been proving the economic value of planting cover crops to bring life and diversity back to the fields.
Simply by adding a rotation of cereal rye, he’s been about to reduce chemical AND fertilizer use significantly.
Adam’s story gives us hope.
It’s All About The Soil
The microbiome refers to the billions and trillions of microbes that coexist with humans on earth. They are everywhere: inside our bodies, on our skin, and in the dirt.
When we use weed killers, pesticides, fungicides, and industrial fertilizers, it is killing billions of these microbes, killing the life in the soils.
These microbes are responsible for getting us the nutrition we depend on from our food. Microbes, plants, oxygen, water, and the sun all work together so the plants get what they need from the soil.
When you taste a vegetable grown in organic soils, you are tasting the life in the soil. It tends to be sweeter, more mineral, complex, and it could even surprise you.
If this isn’t something you’ve tasted recently, I encourage you to go to a farmer’s market and find produce grown by a small to medium sized farm.
Some large organic farms are following practices that mirror conventional farming, and these farms can sometimes give consumers a bad impression of organic food if the difference cannot be tasted.
As for our spring organic lawn solution without weed killers, we’ll be bringing in more topsoil because we believe soil compaction is our biggest impediment to an organic lawn.
It'll be more money, and more backbreaking work. But nobody said it was going to be easy.
We’ll also aerate our soil to loosen it so that oxygen can get in and support the microbial activity down under.
Most importantly, there will be no poison on our lawn to kill the microorganisms and worms that we have cultivated in our dirt so far.
It takes three years to transition to an organic farm. Maybe it is the same with a lawn?
Over time, with any luck, we are betting that nature’s wisdom will take its effect.
Best OrganicLawn Seed, Organic Fertilizer & Organic Weed Preventer
It took us a long time to discover Jonathan Green, an American company that makes high quality grass seed, organic fertilizers, and organic weed preventers.
I am so happy to recommend them to you, because its clear this company has the right approach.
We have started this year with Jonathan Green’s 4-step New American Lawn Plan to create an organic lawn.
Step 1: Use an organic weed inhibitor
In March, we applied a product containing organic corn gluten to our dirt to inhibit weed seed germination. We used Espoma organic weed preventer, with is similar to what Jonathan Green offers.
It's basically corn, which is kind of ironic, since corn is the biggest GMO crop in this country that has contributed to chemical use.
As soon as the weather warms, the weeds will start coming. So far, there's not much on our lawn, but it's still early days.
You do have to wait 6-8 weeks to plant grass after applying the inhibitor, so you have to time it right. Luckily we did. So we are off to a hopeful start.
Step 2: Condition the soil
After aerating and adding top soil, we’ll add Jonathan Green’s organic soil conditioner, which is designed to activate the soil’s biology. Aptly, it’s called Love Your Soil.
Step 3: Adjust pH and fertilize
These are synthetic products (technically chemicals) that Jonathan Green recommends as amendments when you are just getting started on a transition to an organic lawn.
Step 4: Use high quality grass seeds
We will use this Jonathan Green’s high quality grass seed. The product boasts roots that can grow up to 4 inches deep.
Deep roots are very important for soil health, since the roots can more easily find water, and deep roots create soil structure, which microbes like.
Jonathan Green also sells a crabgrass-specific germination inhibitor that can be used at the same time as grass seed.
Reviews are mixed on this one though, and better on a crabgrass inhibitor that goes on after germination, so we may go with the latter.
EXTRA STEP: Watch those weeds carefully
It should be noted that the crabgrass inhibitor I wrote about just above is referred to on the packaging as a pesticide, with chemical warnings and all.
I am really not a purist, and just a person looking for better solutions, so I am going to think further before using this one. I may, or I may not.
We may just go for the option of pulling weeds as they emerge. Maybe an hour a week of wholesome exercise will get the job done.
You may be wondering too, is there is a safe organic weed killer available?
The answer is not really. There is nothing to kill weeds on contact without killing your grass. But there are fairly effective organic certified weed killers that kill weeds and grass, so you have to be very careful when applying it.
All of Jonathan Green's products are designed to work together, so I feel like this is a good plan. You can see all these products below, which are available at Amazon.
I will update you as to how it turns out.
If you have any experience growing an organic lawn without weed killer, we'd love to hear from you in the comments below.
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