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Natural Lawn Care

Why go natural?

Lawns are a great place to play, but we sometimes waste a lot of water, use pesticides and fertilizers that pollute our streams and lakes, and produce a lot of waste in caring for lawns. Fortunately, there’s a better way!

Follow these steps for a healthier lawn that needs less water and no chemicals, recycles clippings into free fertilizer, and protects our environment and your family’s health.

Mow higher (1-2 inches), mow regularly, and leave the clippings

“Grasscycling” - Or leaving the clippings on the lawn doesn’t cause thatch build up. But it does make lawns healthier. Soil organisms recycle the clippings into free fertilizer, and you save all the work of bagging. Modern mulching lawn mowers make grasscycling even easier.

You can grasscycle with any mower - Push mowers  and conventional power mowers leave clippings on the surface to break down. Electric and gas mulching mowers blow chopped clippings down to the soil, leaving a clean lawn. Consumer Reports rates mulching mowers each June. Call the Garden Hotline to learn where to buy a mulching mower. Learn more about Grasscycling and Mulching Mower Tips.

Use “natural organic” or “slow release” fertilizers

Don’t try for a deep blue-green color – it’s a sign of over-fertilizing. Healthy lawns in our region are a lighter meadow green.

  • Buy “natural organic” or “slow release” fertilizers, or use compost to feed your lawn slowly, and reduce fertilizer pollution of our streams and lakes.
  • The best time to fertilize is September, when grass plants are building root reserves for the next year.
  • If you want to fertilize in spring, wait until May, when grass growth slows. Get a soil test if you suspect deficiencies.
  • Many lawns will benefit from spreading lime every 3-4 years.
  • Remember, grasscycling returns free fertilizer (the clippings) each time you mow, so you can fertilize less, or never.

Water deeply, to moisten the whole root zone, but less frequently

Let the soil dry between waterings to prevent lawn disease and save water. Lawns only need about one inch of water a week in summer, including rain, to stay green. Or you can let areas of lawn that don’t get heavy wear go brown and dormant – just water once a month, and they’ll bounce back in the fall.

How much is one inch of water a week? - Scatter tuna cans or other straight-sided containers on your lawn, turn on the sprinkler, and check the time. When most cans have 1 inch of water in them, turn off the sprinkler and check how long it ran. Now you know how long to run your sprinkler each week in summer, if you want to keep your lawn green.

Use automatic irrigation systems efficiently

Automatic systems can actually waste lots of water, or be fairly efficient, depending on how you set and maintain them.

  • Have a professional test, repair, and adjust your system annually.
  • Inspect the system while operating once a month – look for leaks or heads that are plugged or misdirected.
  • Install a rain shutoff device (ask your irrigation expert where to find them).
  • Adjust the watering schedule at least once a month through the season – plants need a lot less water in May and September than they do in July and August.

Improve poor lawns with aeration, overseeding, and top-dressing with compost

  • Aerate in spring or fall to improve root development and water penetration.
  • Follow by overseeding thin areas with Northwest-adapted grass seed blends.
  • Then “top-dress” by raking in 1/4 to 1/2 inch of compost to cover the seed and improve the soil.
  • Repeat these steps annually as needed to improve poor lawns.

Think twice before using “weed and feed” or other pesticides

Accept a few weeds, and crowd out problem weeds by growing a dense healthy lawn. Use a long handled weed puller to easily remove dandelions without bending over. Weeding is easiest when the soil is moist. If you want to use weed killer, don’t spread “weed and feed” all over (it gets into our streams) – just spot spray the problem weeds.

Consider alternatives to lawns on steep slopes, shady areas, or near streams and lakes

Grass grows best on level, well-drained soil in full sun or part shade. And it takes a lot of work (and sometimes chemicals) to maintain. Look for other plants better suited to soggy soil, slopes, or heavy shade. Try to leave or plant a “buffer” of dense, native vegetation along streams and lakes. It will filter and slow runoff, shade and cool the water, provide homes for wildlife, and prevent bank erosion too.

Learn more

Natural Lawn Care (pdf) - How-to details for each of  these 6 steps.
Ecologically Sound Lawn Care for the Pacific Northwest (pdf) - A 90 page manual that has more information on planting new lawns, mowing, fertilizing, and maintenance for professionals and homeowners. Or see the short 8-page summary Sustainable Lawn Care for NW Professionals (pdf).
Choosing a Nursery or Landscaper - Ask these questions to find a skilled professional.

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Questions?

What about moss, or crane flies? Where to buy organic fertilizer or mulching lawnmowers? Ask the experts at the Garden Hotline, (206) 633-0224 (language interpretation available) or email help@gardenhotline.org.

Related Links

Integrated Pest Management - Factsheets on weed and pest management for lawns and landscapes.