Starting organic lawn care

bucks5022004January 10, 2014

Hi, I have over two acres of lawn and would love to start organic.My problem is that I read you have to start by spreading compost. Also read that starting organic without spreading compost is like trying to start a car without an engine.Is this true and I have no alternative to spreading compost?

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Compost is one source of organic matter that soils need and there are many alternatives to compost.
Start with a good reliable soil test that will tell you that soils pH and major nutrient levels so you can plan on what you need to do to make a good healthy soil that will grow a strong and healthy turf. Talk with the people at your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office about soil testing.
You may also want to use these simple soil tests to learn more about that soil,
1) Soil test for organic matter. From that soil sample put enough of the rest to make a 4 inch level in a clear 1 quart jar, with a tight fitting lid. Fill that jar with water and replace the lid, tightly. Shake the jar vigorously and then let it stand for 24 hours. Your soil will settle out according to soil particle size and weight. For example, a good loam will have about 1-3/4 inch (about 45%) of sand on the bottom. about 1 inch (about 25%) of silt next, about 1 inch (25%) of clay above that, and about 1/4 inch (about 5%) of organic matter on the top.

2) Drainage. Dig a hole 1 foot square and 1 foot deep and fill that with water. After that water drains away refill the hole with more water and time how long it takes that to drain away. Anything less than 2 hours and your soil drainsâ too quickly and needs more organic matter to slow that drainage down. Anything over 6 hours and the soil drains too slowly and needs lots of organic matter to speed it up.

3) Tilth. Take a handful of your slightly damp soil and squeeze it tightly. When the pressure is released the soil should hold together in that clump, but when poked with a finger that clump should fall apart.

4) Smell. What does your soil smell like? A pleasant, rich earthy odor? Putrid, offensive, repugnant odor? The more organic matter in your soil the more active the soil bacteria will be and the nicer your soil will smell.

5) Life. How many earthworms per shovel full were there? 5 or more indicates a pretty healthy soil. Fewer than 5, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, indicates a soil that is not healthy.

Once you have adequate information you can determine what needs to be done to the soil and what is the best way to get the soil a lawn needs. Cover crops? A lot of shredded leaves? Other forms of organic matter that might be available?

Here is a link that might be useful: Virginia Cooperative Extension

    Bookmark   January 11, 2014 at 6:43AM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

Two acres is too much lawn... the first thing one does when they go organic is to reduce the amount of lawn that they are maintaining.

    Bookmark   January 24, 2014 at 11:58AM
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I have almost 100,000 square feet but about 75K of lawn. I know there are other alternatives I'm just not interested and want a big lawn. I'm just interested in getting started and know I would have to spread about 1500 pounds of corn meal. That brings up another question: can I spread corn meal and soybean meal with a normal fertilizer spreader or will it get stuck?

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 5:44PM
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What is a "normal" fertilizer spreader? Is yours a drop spreader or a broadcast spreader?
Broadcast spreaders are easier to calibrate and use then drop spreaders, in my experience.

Keep in mind that "fertilizers" are a crutch and do not replace having a good healthy soil.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 7:12AM
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Also read that starting organic without spreading compost is like trying to start a car without an engine.Is this true and I have no alternative to spreading compost?

You "start organic" by stopping artificial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. That's ALL it takes.

Go to a mulching mower and leave the grass clippings to compost in place.

Get your watering schedule adjusted so you are watering as little as possible: usually watering longer but less often encourages the grass roots to go deep and develops drought tolerance.

Your 2-acres of all the same species will want to diversify, so influence it in a good direction. Plan now for converting it into a meadow/lawn with mixed low-growing species - adding white clover, for example, adds a nitrogen fixer. Adding a few other species of grass means that if a disease takes out one, the others will probably survive.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 7:32AM
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I have a broadcast spreader that pulls behind the mower. The reason I ask is because I tried to spread powdered lime before and it just packed in the spreader. Maybe I am barking up the wrong tree because I want beautiful grass where I have grass. No mixtures just grass thick and full.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 8:35AM
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I did a lot of grains through my earthway broadcast spreader last year. Anything powdery didn't really work well. Here was my observations:

>Soybean Meal - Worked great
>Rabbit Food - Worked great
>Pure Alfalfa Pellets - Okay, but had to shake the unit once in a while as they are much larger than Rabbit Food
>Cracked Corn - Worked great
>Nature safe Feather Meal Pellets - Worked fine, a little shaking.

I did about 500lbs of Rabbit food/Alfalfa pellets, 400 lbs of Cracked Corn, 200 Lbs of Soybean Meal, 150lbs of Nature Safe on about 11K sq. ft., so I didn't really need to utilize my tow spreader. Also did 720lbs of Milorganite, but can't list that as a grain :).

The meals, like corn and cottonseed, tried once. Never again!

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 8:15AM
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I was most worried about corn meal. That is seven dollars a bag where everything else is over fifteen so I was wanting to do it. Oh well maybe not. How do the rest of you guys spread corn meal?

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 8:23AM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

Why you are interested in organic lawn care?

Most people who do organic lawn care are doing it for sustainability reasons... and what one discovers is that a 2 acre expanse of a monoculture turf grass is not considered a sustainable, earth-friendly practice. Its slightly better than a corn field, but not much.

I spread corn meal with a broadcast spreader... push behind - plastic thing. I have to shake and rock the spreader to keep the meal moving through the spreader.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 11:29AM
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So you are saying that having two acres of grass I should just forget organic and go to synthetic? I don't think so! I want to build my soil by using organic but still have a large grass yard.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 3:31PM
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Paul Tukey will tell you that you can have a 2 acre lawn if you want, If you have not yet seen the episode of
Growing a Greener World about organic lawn care you may want to click on the link below and watch.

Here is a link that might be useful: GGW 407

    Bookmark   January 30, 2014 at 6:53AM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

You can have any size lawn that you want... but how sustainable is something that requires tons of fossil fuels to maintain it...

How many fossil fuels were used and how much glyphosate was used to produce, package, ship the thousands of pounds of grain meals required to keep the soil in a condition to grow turf grass.

Organic lawn care is better than synthetic lawn care for the soil, and will produce a healthier turf. Turf is great and has a useful purpose. Its great in areas where there will be lots of activity, walking, sports etc.

Maybe you want a big lawn for a baseball or football field, or maybe a golfing area? That makes sense to me.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2014 at 1:24PM
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Kimmsr, I have a the last two soil tests which were done the last two springs.

PH- two years ago 5.4, last year 5.9. I applied about fifteen bags of solu-lime from southern states each spring after the soil tests so I'm hoping this year will be well above 6.
buffer ph-6.79
p- 14ppm
k- 154
ca- 1004
sulfur- 7
organic matter 3.8% enr 114

I have not checked anything yet ground is still frozen.

Also wanted to know if soybean meal is easier to spread than corn meal. Really wanted to get a good dose of corn meal but do not know how I will spread it over such a big area. Thanks

    Bookmark   January 31, 2014 at 7:11PM
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That pull behind broadcast spreader is the best option you have, you just need to figure out how to regulate it. Lime is not the best stuff to spread with that, however. I have seen people try and have seen them get covered in lime dust.

    Bookmark   February 1, 2014 at 7:01AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Why does it seem like I replied to this twice but they're not showing???

Anyway I've been a moderator on three organic lawn care forums since 2002 and not once has anyone mentioned sustainability with respect to lawns. Most people do it because it really works well.

No, you don't need any compost in a modern organic lawn care program. All you need is animal feed. Apply any of them at a rate of 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Apply as often as you want to or can afford. Choose from soybean meal, alfalfa pellets, cottonseed meal, corn, wheat (flour). Those are commonly available at feed stores in 50-pound bags. Or if you can find Milorganite on sale, use that.

If you can't get any grass to grow, or if you want to have the yard of the month all year long, then pay attention to your soil chemistry by having it tested at Logan Labs in Ohio.

    Bookmark   February 14, 2014 at 1:25AM
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Can someone explain how soy, corn, or alfalfa are organic? I've never seen these feeds available in organic form for lawns, so that means they are laced with chemicals and are GMO.

In fact, all the "organic" bagged fertilizers I can find are exactly the same - made from non-organic grains and chemically laced poultry feathers/droppings.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2014 at 2:20PM
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Soybeans and corn are the two crops that have been genetically engineered the most, while Alfalfa has not, yet. Using those grains would, in my humble opinion, be not organic.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2014 at 6:52AM
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