organic lawn care for dummies?

emmgusAugust 23, 2007

hi there,

i'm going to apologize in advance for my long post!

we moved into our house 4 yrs ago, and my husband has been "in charge" of the lawn care until this summer, when due to his busy work schedule i have taken it over. we have been using cgm for 3 yrs now, and have put down milky spore a couple times. for the most part, there have been no chemicals used, but we have been inconsistent with any treatments. the lawn looks ok, up until now i have been hand weeding pretty successfully. this summer has been a little busy, so the crab grass and the nutsedge have gotten a better hold than they used to have.

anyway, i've been learning alot from this board, but i'm wondering if there is some easy resource out there to help me with exactly what to do, when to do it, and where to get it, for the lawn. i tried to find a service that would come and do all the treatments for me, but with no luck. i don't mind doing it, but since i've created a monster with all the trees and shrubs i've planted, not to mention the fact that i canned the lawn mowing service last fall, i'm feeling a little overwhelmed by it all. (not to mention the fact that i have 2 children that need my attention!) i do also happen to be a bit stubborn, and would like to prove in my own quiet way to my scott's and chemlawn addicted neighbors that it can be done without chemicals. regarding the rest of the plantings, i use only organics, or nothing and have been pretty successful.

i live in new jersey, and i think our lawn is mostly kbg. we don't have that much yard, our whole lot is only about a quarter acre. i've been cutting it with a smith and hawken reel mower i picked up at a yard sale last fall, at the highest height it will go, which seems to be around 3". i am planning to take care of some of the weed patches soon and then will need to overseed this fall, especially in a few bad spots.

can anyone guide me? i just really want the basics for now, and then when i have more time next year i can step it up if needed.

thanks so much for reading thru this!

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Check out your local extension office website and they should have a lawn/garden section. Under that section should be something about Fertilizer/Requirements. You should be able to find a schedule for your type of grass for a high or low maintenance lawn. This info is probably for synthetic ferts but you'll get and idea of time/amount.

As for the Organic Approach. Alternate the grains you feed your lawn through the year. Spring put CGM then put alfalfa, then SBM, throw some CM in from time to time. The more diverse your grains the more diverse the biology. There is not an exact science.

10-20lbs of grain per 1000sqft is the average for a single feeding.
You should be able to find most grains at a farm and feed store.

    Bookmark   August 23, 2007 at 9:27AM
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Do you live in Bergen County by chance? If so, we can start a little support group :-)

    Bookmark   August 23, 2007 at 9:44AM
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deerslayer(Z5 NE IL KBG)

The Organic Lawn Care FAQ is a good place to start. Here is a link:

Organic Lawn Care FAQ


    Bookmark   August 23, 2007 at 1:48PM
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hi there,

another long post, sorry again in advance.

thanks for the responses. i live in essex county actually, but not far from bergen county. as far as i know, one other neighbor and myself are the only "freaks" on the block that are trying to stay organic. unfortunately, her lawn looks terrible, so it's not helping our cause! (she works alot.) so it is up to me to provide proof. i just haven't had time to decipher it all and figure out exactly what we should be doing. that's the part i need help with. i want to make a plan with a timeline and have something to follow. then i need to find out exactly where to get the stuff. there are no farm and feed stores in my area that i know of, where do you go rutgers1? cgm we can get at our local hardware store, but nothing else yet.

as for the local extension office, i've tried that with other issues and they are not that knowledgeable or helpful, and i'm not interested in info pertaining to synthetics anyway. this forum is much more informative. :)

so anyway, skoot cat listed a general plan, but i have a lot of questions:

"Spring put CGM then put alfalfa, then SBM, throw some CM in from time to time"

how do you handle reseeding and cgm in the spring? do i do that before the first application of anything? then do the cgm? do you use the cgm only in the spring for the preemergent qualities? is it a waste of money to use it later? is compost best done in spring or fall? can i use compost from the garden center?

this is what seems like a plan for us, please help me with feedback:

this fall: eliminate weeds(by hand and by vinegar), spread compost, spread fertilizer(which type?), do some seeding.

next spring: spread more compost/topsoil on root zone of maple tree in backyard(love/hate), seed that area, but when can i do the cgm?

early summer: spread some sbm or alfalfa (which one?)

late summer: spread sbm or alfalfa (which one?)

early fall: reseed if necessary

late fall: last application of sbm/alfalfa/cm/cgm?

sorry for all the questions, thanks for any help!

    Bookmark   August 23, 2007 at 7:42PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

I see some problems.

1. Always, always, always reseed in the fall.

2. Never reseed in the spring. Notice there is only one 'never' here. Sometimes you have to seed in the fall but those times should be so rare as to be abnormal.

The reason you have crabgrass is that you seeded in the spring. Spring is when the crabgrass seed germinates. If you are watering to encourage grass seed in the spring (like daily watering), then you are also watering to encourage all weed seeds. If you seed in the fall you will have tall grass by spring and you can water normally at once a week. Weekly watering and tall grass are the two ways to keep weeds out.

The weeds you have now will die out whether you pull them or not. You may as well save yourself the effort and just scalp, seed heavily, and roll it down.

If you don't use seed in the spring, then you can see how using CGM in the spring will benefit.

Here's the grass care program for dummies. It's three steps.

  1. Water deeply and infrequently. Deeply means at least an hour in every zone, all at once. Infrequently means monthly during the cool months and no more than weekly during the hottest part of summer. If your grass looks dry before the month/week is up, water longer next time. Deep watering grows deep, drought resistant roots. Infrequent watering allows the top layer of soil to dry completely which kills off many shallow rooted weeds.

  1. Mulch mow at the highest setting on your mower. Most grasses are the most dense when mowed tall. Bermuda, centipede, and bent grasses are the most dense when mowed at the lowest setting on your mower. Dense grass shades out weeds and uses less water when tall. Dense grass feeds the deep roots you're developing in 1 above.
  1. Fertilize regularly. I fertilize 4 times per year using organic fertilizer. Which fertilizer you use is much less important than numbers 1 and 2 above.
    Bookmark   August 24, 2007 at 12:42AM
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thanks very much dchall!

we never realized that seeding in the spring is a problem, and that clears up the cgm dilemma for me too. we are planning to spread some this fall and seed, i like the idea of not having to take out the crabgrass first. the nutsedge is a different story, it seems to come up every year in the same spots, more or less depending on how much i've worked on it, so i'll still have to do that.

as for watering, we do not have a sprinkler system, and i have to admit i am not a good waterer when it comes to the grass. everything else is well watered and looks great. luckily this summer we have had heavy rains about once a week to water the lawn for me, and we just had 4 straight days of rain so it looks great now.

on mowing, i do mow at the highest setting, around 3". i do so once a week or less, and use the catcher basket because the clippings seem too long to leave on the lawn. a lot of them end up there anyway just due to the nature of the mower and the way it throws grass forward and all over. so a little bit of mulching does happen by default. a couple times this summer i have done an "in between mowing" without the basket in order to leave the clippings. i will try to do this more. it's hard to have time to mow the lawn every 4 days. maybe if i spring for a new mower - i've been eyeing the sunlawn mm2 - it will be more enjoyable!

for fertilizing, when are those four times a year for you? are they: early spring before growth starts, with cgm, early summer, late summer, fall? if i alternate feedings with other fertilizers - sbm/cm/alfalfa, which would be the best to use for the last dose in the fall? and how close to seeding time can i do it? the same time?

thanks again for your help, it is all starting to make sense now. i have been mentally resisting this being "my job" this summer, but if i know what to do and when, it won't seem like such a chore next year.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2007 at 9:46AM
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The reason I suggested your county extension website was to find a Fertilizing calender/rate etc. They have a ton of info related to lawn care. I stated that its primarily for synthetics but you can easily convert to organics.

Ex. If is say to apply a complete NPK fertilizer in april, you could put down Alfalfa (3-1-2) or Soybean (7-2-1) or both. You could buy an organic fert from a garden center. If it says put 1-lb. N per 1000sqft in June, you could put Soy Bean meal or CGM (9-0-0) or both. There should be a chart to determine the correct amount (in pounds) per nitrogen content per SqFt. The average for Grain fertilizer is 10-20lbs per 1000sqft.

I think your looking to deep, there isn't an exact science to this. Your goal is to provide the soil/microbes with organic matter or food. In turn the microbes will break down the material and gradually return nutrients back to the turf resulting in a greener/healthier lawn.

The Scotts company now offers an Organic Lawn Fert. It's available everywhere.

Theres also a company called Bradfield organics. Its Alfalfa based. do a search for them and find a retailer near you.

Mulch Mow at the Highest Setting with a sharp blade and often. Never remove more the 1/3 of the blade height.

Apply 1" of water only when lawn shows signs of stress. leaf blades curl, foot prints remain long after being made, etc. (approx 1 week)

I found a link to Rutgers Extension office below. Check it out and read all the links under Lawn Care and Landscaping.

Here is a link that might be useful: Rutgers Extension Site

    Bookmark   August 24, 2007 at 11:22AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

I forgot to comment on your reel mower. Most people have to be strangled to get a good reel mower but you already have one. Now I'm going to suggest you not use it. The only problem with reel mowers is that the don't do a very good job of mowing the grass tall. If you want to mow the grass at 1/16 of an inch, you must have a reel, but if you want to mow at 4 or 5 inches, the rotary does a much better job. Plus today's rotaries are all mulch mowers. They will chop the grass and redeposit little pieces back into the turf. By catching the clippings you are depriving your soil of a significant amount of nutrients. So if you want to have a bermuda, bent, or centipede putting green mowed at 1/16 inch, then get a good reel mower. In fact if you want to mow up to 1 inch, a reel mower works very very well. For all other grasses that like to be mowed taller than one inch, you are usually much better off with a rotary.

If your watering program is less than perfect (as is mine), you will do yourself a big favor by letting the grass get still longer before you mow. I know the rule of thumb (clip no more than 1/3), but if you let it get longer, you get a lot more benefit than just the shaggy appearance (??). Until my wife put her foot down, I was letting my St Augustine get to 10 inches and mowing it back to 5. But even 5 inches was too shaggy for her. Here are the benefits to longer grass. Longer grass will provide more food to develop longer roots which reach deeper into the soil looking for water. Longer grass shades the soil better keeping it cool, reducing evaporation, and reducing watering needs. Cooler moister soil grows more of the beneficial fungi your plants rely on for nutrition. Longer grass also keeps the sun away from weed seeds like crabgrass and nutsedge. Almost all turf weeds must have lots of sunlight to thrive if they get a chance to sprout. If they are in the full shade of the tall grass, hardly anything will live.

I fertilize on the Federal Holiday Schedule. I apply 10-20 pounds of ORDINARY corn meal per 1,000 square feet on President's Day, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving. I probably live much further south than you but with an organic program, you can really apply any time you want. The microbes will be there working on the protein every chance they get, IF the protein is their waiting for them. Sometimes I'll use CGM or alfalfa pellets instead of corn meal. After 5 years of being organic I'm still experimenting.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2007 at 8:06PM
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hi again,

thanks very much for the info skoot cat and dchall.

skoot cat, i will check out the rutgers website more, i was a little down on them due to the lack of knowledge coming from the master gardener's helpline a few times this summer regarding strange insect problems. i will give them another try. i don't even really want to get too much into the chemistry of it if i can help it. i just need a simple plan to start out with, so we can try to be more consistent and get better results. thanks also for the info on the other products to look for.

dchall, i like your federal holiday schedule - great idea. although, i think if i was out there in february here in new jersey, my neighbors would start talking! as for the mower, i will think about it, but i don't think i can give up my reel mower now, i really like it. i will do a little more research to see if i can find one that cuts higher than 3", so far the sunlawn mm2 has the highest setting that i've found. i can't believe your wife let you grow the grass to 10", that's pretty funny. even 5" would be pushing it around here!

anyway, thanks everyone for all the info, i feel like i have a better handle on it now.

    Bookmark   August 26, 2007 at 11:48PM
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I'd like to point you to search this website for (okcdan) it seems the two grasses compared St. Aug. vs. KGB may be very different animals.
St. Aug. is a warm weather grass and mine is four inches after I cut it. I'm new to this also but my grass does work well for drought & weeds keeping it high.
Okcdan may have some things for you to look at maybe some sort of game plan for you.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2007 at 9:43PM
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There are several places that I know of where you can buy the grains. You usually have to have them order it for you, as they don't always have it in-stock. The first is Westwood Feed in Westwood. It is probably a 20 to 30 minute drive for you, but you can order once and fill your car with everything you need for the year. I was at another once, and after searching on Google a bit, I think it is Mikes Feed Farm in Riverdale. I think that would be closer to you.

I find that the NJ feed stores don't quite compete on price with the feed stores in the more rural parts of the country, especially on corn gluten meal. Westwood Feed only stocks the commercial brand corn gluten meal, and they charge a bundle for it, yet their soy bean meal is moderately priced.

Having experimented with organics a bit over the past year and watching others in my neighborhood, I have concluded that the fastest way (though not the most ORGANIC way) to get there is to cheat the first year and use a synthetic preemergent in the spring. Then you can breath a bit without all of the weeds and plan your attack for the fall. I didn't do that this year, and I paid the price. I am getting nice results from my overseeding, but I think the whole summer and overseeding process would have been easier had I used a preemergent in the spring. Going forward, I am going to use a preemergent as long as I still have bare spots in my lawn and any sign of disease (I moved in last September and have since found out that historically my lawn dies out in spots late every summer despite getting adequate water - I think it is some type of fungus). All of my other feedings are organic. Once the lawn comes in thick and the soil is amended properly, I will stop using the preemergent.

    Bookmark   August 28, 2007 at 3:03AM
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Modifying that schedule for NJ is easy (I'm in PA, just over the line). Don't do it in February unless you want to have chillblains and frostbite. :-)

May 1, July 1, August 1, and September 1 is pretty much perfect for here, weather dependent. Skip the August 1 if July was really dry and you're not watering. What you put down in July is still trying to decay and failing.

Around Thanksgiving, use Winterizer. It's not organic, but your lawn really wants it and it will help with winter color, survivability, and spring greenup. That's why you don't have to organically fertilize until May.

On a newly-seeded lawn the first year, the schedule differs. There, feed monthly at the lower rate (about 10 lbs/thousand). New lawns and newly-reseeded lawns are very hungry.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2007 at 7:15AM
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"Around Thanksgiving, use Winterizer. It's not organic, but your lawn really wants it and it will help with winter color, survivability, and spring greenup. That's why you don't have to organically fertilize until May."

Okay, I am NOT trying to start a "this topic doesn't belong on the board" debate. But this question has crept into my mind, and I am sure the organic board is the best place to have it answered.

What does using a chemical winterizer in the fall do to the soil foodweb?

I want to do what's best for my lawn/soil/herd, and if using a chemical once a year is okay, and I can do it at a time that wouldn't be detrimental to my kids, then I'm okay with that. Or... is there an organic means that is nearly as good? Big dose of SBM, alfalfa pellets, a combination of the two...?

Thanks, and believe me that I am not trying to open up a can of worms here.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2007 at 11:42AM
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My New England winterizer program consists of monthly application of alfalfa, soybean, milorgarnite at 10 -15 lbs/1000 ft^2 starting in early July and continuing until November. I also apply compost to problem areas as it becomes available. This is the second year in this house and I am still working on building the soil. Winds and tree positions are unfavorable and I will be picking up leaves and other organic matter from curbs this fall to add to my lawn and compost.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2007 at 12:03AM
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As winterizers go, the only thing that I have heard someone say worked REALLY well other than a synthetic was Milorganite. From what I can tell, it appears that it is something you have to experiment with:
1) According to one poster on one of these boards, if your soil has been babied for a few years, you don't need that last big shot of nitrogen to get your lawn to green in the spring.
2) If you are new to organics - as I am - odds are you need it.

As a first year organic guy who has watched various neighbors implement it, I think cheating is the best route for me. My first goal is to drop two things that the typical Scotts-addicted person does:
1) I want to drop the weed-n-feed step.
2) I want to drop any other post-emergent spraying (spot spraying, etc.)
Therefore, I am going to spread the Halts in the spring and vow not to do anything else except pick the weeds that do pop up. I need to spread the Halts because my lawn has not filled in 100% thick enough to choke out all weeds, and I want to give it a season to do that.

My only debate right now is whether I want to spread a synthetic or natural winterizer. Since someone stated that November here in NJ is kind of late (the micro herd not as active) to spread a grain, I am tempted. But since I am cheating in the spring, I might just can the winterizer application.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2007 at 10:49AM
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I am in a similar situation.

My lawn definitely has not been babied. I don't think anything had been done to it in the previous 10 years before we bought the house. I laid new sod in June, on top of tilled soil and a couple inches of compost. I've since put down one application of SBM. The lawn looks really good considering it got too much water, but I would still consider my soil mediocre, at best.

I'm curious, though. You didn't mention CGM at all as a pre-emergant. At 9-0-0, wouldn't that also be a fairly decent winterizer if you're just looking for nitrogent content? Hey, that's a pretty intelligent sounding question from someone new to organics. Go me!

My biggest question, and I guess I didn't ask it directly, is this: After spending all spring and summer building up the microherd, what does a chemical in the fall do it? Are chemicals bad for the herd, are they neutral, or do they actually provide some nutrients to the microbes and what not?

    Bookmark   August 31, 2007 at 11:41AM
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Some would say that the micro herd would be affected - and I would probably agree - but there are some people here with great lawns who bend the rules. My guess is that the weed-n-feed and sprays like Weed-B-Gone - and even stuff like GrubX - do the most damage. I would love to get off everything completely, but I don't think it will work to my liking. I need a year without weeds (just one application of Halts, and spot hand picking) to build the density so that I can consider going completely organic.

After experimenting with CGM this summer and seeing that it acted like a fertilizer - not a preemergent - I am not ready to trust it yet.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2007 at 12:02PM
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Since I am still in the process of building the herd, I think I'm going to skip using any chemicals - including pre-emergent. Weeds aren't too much of a problem in my yard. St. Augustine is pretty dense stuff when mature, and I keep it about 4", so it's shades out most of the bad stuff.

(Except this one batch of yard where I have Bermuda intermixed with the St. A. It's rather strange. They've reached an equilibrium of about 95% St. A., and 5% Bermuda. I understand most attempts to get rid of Bermuda are futile, so I'll let them be, as long as they Bermuda stays in check. It's kind of neat, in a way. I'll have to post some pics one day.)

So, possibly Milorganite as a pre-emergent, huh? What exactly did you mean by, "It's something you have to experiment with?"

    Bookmark   August 31, 2007 at 12:13PM
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No, Milorganite is not a preemergent. It is just an organic fertilizer.

That sentence you referenced about experimenting was phrased awkwardly by me. I apologize; I was typing quickly.....My point in that section is that some people get good spring greening results from a late fall application of Milorganite (and no synthetic fertilizer) since their soil makes the best use of all the great nutrients they have given it over the year. Others who haven't babied their soil need the extra push in the fall that they get from the synthetic fertilizer.

I think my micro herd was executed prior to my moving in last fall. It has been a slow process. I have only been at the organics for less than a year, and I have mixed in non-organic treatments too which have probably set me back. My lawn is really nice and green right now, but I am still waiting for the earthworms to return. I am quickly learning that rejuvenating a mistreated lawn is a slow process. I am just hoping that the micro herd forgives my one synthetic application next year!

If I think of it, I will post a photo this weekend.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2007 at 11:34PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Around Thanksgiving, use Winterizer. It's not organic, but your lawn really wants it and it will help with winter color, survivability, and spring greenup. That's why you don't have to organically fertilize until May.

Even when I used chemicals I never used a winterizer, so my experience would be different from morpheusa's. Still I don't see any reason to use chemicals for any reason at any time of year. My lawn usually greens up early, but if it doesn't that isn't a reason to change my program. It gives cause to rejoice in not mowing or watering for a few more weeks.

As for winter color with St Augustine, if you water weekly all year around, your grass may not go dormant, depending on how far south you are.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2007 at 11:45PM
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