One of the great satisfactions that comes from writing this column involves readers who tell me they have put their lawns in the hands of the soil food web and had success. If you are not one of them, you could be. All it takes is a lot less work than what you are doing now.
Less work? You read it right. The very first thing you do to join one of the most important environmental movements in history is to stop bagging your clippings. They are 90 percent water. The remains will quickly decay, even here in Alaska, and serve as food for the soil food web populations that in turn will be feeding your lawns from now on. This alone will save you from moving about a ton of clippings per acre every time you mow. No more "stopping and removing the bag, walking to the compost pile to dump it, going back to the mower, putting the bag back on the mower" stuff.
Next, if you have an old lawn that has become hard packed, often the results of chemical applications that destroy the soil structure, it really helps the conversion from chemicals if the lawn is plug aerated. You can rent a machine that will pull 3 inch-long plugs out of your lawn, opening up the soil to air and letting water flow in. You don't even have to rake the plugs as they will dissolve into the lawn.
Next, for a normal-sized lawn, apply a mix of one 50 pound bag of soybean meal and one 50-pound bag of granulated molasses to your lawn. These feed the microbes and worms and other soil food web members. They hold the nutrients until they are released when eaten. Soon a greener lawn will appear. Chemical fertilizers, on the other hand, are not retained in the soil food web and so must touch the roots to work while much of the rest goes into the water table. They also have to be applied several times a season. The soymeal/molasses mix is a once-a-year thing at most. Again, much less effort.
Water, of course, is a constant, but lawns that are not fed high nitrogen fertilizer have mycorrhizal fungi, worm tunnels and burrows and much better soil structure. All of these things help organic lawns "reservoir" water. They need it less and that means less work hauling hoses, sprinklers and remembering to turn the water on or off.
Finally, the high nitrogen in chemical fertilizers makes grass grow faster than it does when fed naturally. The result is you need to mow much more often. You can save a heck of a lot of time not mowing as much when you stop using the chemicals.
OK. By my math, once the conversion from chemicals to organics is made, you have nothing to do but mow -- and even that is going to take less time. However, I am the first to admit that some of this saved time needs to be used to weed, either by hand or with safe, organic methods.
Yes, weeding takes time and work, but I am quite sure, having gone through the conversion myself, that you will still be way ahead despite having to weed. You'll have much more time to go fishing or play golf or work in other areas of the yard.
It is really pretty easy. Still, given the tremendous amount of money spent on advertising chemical lawn fertilizers, I know it takes a leap of faith to believe you can have a healthy green lawn without buying a high-nitrogen fertilizer (that also contains a goodly dose of broadleaf weed killer in it). Really, folks, it can be done. Many of your fellow readers will attest to this and if they won't, I have a few acres of chemical-free lawns that look pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.
Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at teamingwithmicrobes.com or by calling 274-5297 during "The Garden Party" radio show from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KBYR AM-700.