Front Lawn Freedom

By Rodale Institute Executive Director, Mark “Coach” Smallwood

I’m a sports guy—for 20 years I coached high school basketball, hence the nickname—and I enjoy turf for many reasons. It’s a place to play golf, baseball, football, or soccer, or to just run around and enjoy the great outdoors.

If kids and pets play on a lawn, it’s especially important to make sure that the turf is organic so they’re not exposed to the toxic chemical residues left behind by the products and service providers.

With a drought like the one hitting us hard in the Northeast, we’re fielding a lot of questions on how to care for lawns without chemicals in these hot, dry conditions.

Here are some of my top tips for organic summer lawn care:

Get your lawn off drugs! Ditch the chemicals and your lawn will flourish. There may be a period of withdrawal, but you can remedy this with a ¼-inch topdressing of quality compost. If you have a weed problem, you can manually pull weeds (or get the kids outside to do it). A commercial vinegar-based herbicide like Burnout, manufactured by St. Gabriel’s Lab, can be purchased in most garden centers. The vinegar is food grade and becomes food for the microbes in the soil.

You don’t have to mow your lawn once a week in the summer. The grass is dormant this time of year so you’re really just putting lines in the lawn, not cutting grass. If you see the grass turn brown, it’s not dead, it’s just resting. You don’t even need to water, really, so you can conserve that resource. The grass will get green and grow again in fall and spring. But talk to your lawn-care providers about what else they could do—weed, apply compost, prune.

When and if you mow, don’t bother bagging up the clippings; just leave ’em on the lawn. They provide nitrogen and a source of food for the microbial life in the soil. In fact, if the microbial life in the soil is healthy, the grass clippings disappear quickly because they’re eaten, returning to soil as nitrogen. If your soil is not good, that’s even more reason to leave the clippings. Or you can always rake them up and add them to your compost pile.

You want to establish a good root system. Do this by overseeding your lawn in cooler weather and adding ¼ inch of compost—just make sure it’s organic and, if you can, use products with beneficial bacteria and fungi.

But if you really want to be an organic pioneer, you might even dig up the turf and put in a garden. I was fascinated to read about Julie Bass, the Oak Park, Michigan, resident who recently faced jail time and went to court over her right to have a garden in her front yard. She saved time and fuel by not having to mow, and even better, she grew food for her family. It doesn’t get fresher than from the front yard! Her neighbors really loved it, too.

Whether you grow a lawn or a garden or both, make sure it’s organic. It’s the safest and healthiest option for people and the planet.


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6 Responses to Front Lawn Freedom

  1. Laura B. August 3, 2011 at 6:19 am #

    I’ve converted much of my front lawn into garden plots. I plant vegetables & add tall sunflowers the neighbors enjoy seeing. When I read about the Oak Park woman, I was really bothered by it. What is America coming to, really? I think the food industry may see homesteaders & the like as a threat to their income, & may possibly have lobbyists in place to effect legislation on personal food freedom.

  2. karen in winchester August 3, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    Having just moved into a new home, I’m a little overworked to start my food supply yet. There is so much ivy here that it’s actually stunted the shrubs it’s hosting on, plus the bramble! I have taken most of it to our local recycle centre as my little composter can’t cope with it all, they compost it themself. I am going to plant out next year though, hopefully most of the nasties will be gone by then and my little compost plot will be ready and able to feed my home grown goodies. I can’t wait.

  3. Chris August 3, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

    I don’t use chemicals on my lawn or gardens, but this year my gardens (and my baby plum tree) took a heavy beating from Japanese Beetles. I picked a few hundred of the thousands and threw them into buckets of soapy water, but I am wondering what I can do about the larvae I know will hatch from the eggs the adults have been able to lay in ground this year. Is there an organic way to get those before they hatch next year?

  4. Diane August 3, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    The last recommendation is the best of all. Lawns are not only reliant on chemicals, but they are also a monoculture with little to no ecological value. Planting meadows or native plant gardens (even small patches with grass covered paths if you must) will attract songbirds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators and wildlife. My children spent countless hours watching, recording, and photographing what comes to our front yard (almost 40 species of butterflies alone). I do a bit of spring cleaning, but the native plant garden is essentially self-sufficient all summer. No mowing or chemical supplements. And a lot of carbon sequestration going on! See:

  5. Laura B. August 4, 2011 at 6:49 am #

    Response to Chris, for Jap. beetle grubs, try milky spore.

  6. David Mattinson August 4, 2011 at 7:50 am #

    Chickens might do the trick, Chris.

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