Going Green Starts at Home

The Basics of Organic Lawn Care

John McClaffertyHaddon Heights Green Initiatives Committee

Now, more than ever, we are beginning to understand just how important it is for all of us to do our part to help the environment, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and reduce our emission of greenhouse gases. Being a good steward of the environment is all about making careful, informed decisions.

Responsible, organic lawn and garden care is a great place to see how changing a few things in our everyday routines can greatly benefit our community and our planet. When considering what it is you can do to help reduce your carbon footprint, one of the first things to think about is transportation. Every year, millions of gallons of gasoline are burned, needlessly hauling away grass clippings and leaves. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting we all stop mowing our lawns and raking our leaves. What you can do is simply mulch or compost those clippings and leaves to enrich the very soil that gave them life.

Let’s first take a look at the grass clippings. Mulching the clippings is one of the best things you can do for your lawn and you’ll never have to drag a bag of leaves to the curb again. Mulching is done with a mulching mower, which is really just a lawn mower with the base fully enclosed and no bag. Many mowers easily convert by simply removing the bag and adding an insert to close the exit port. The clippings are forced to remain under the mower longer where they are pulverized by the blades. The tiny clippings fall back to the soil where they quickly decompose and provide valuable nutrients for the lawn.

Exactly how you mow your lawn is a very important part of keeping it healthy naturally. A common mistake people make is mowing the grass too low. The optimum height for a healthy lawn is two inches. This is important for several reasons. First, the taller blades of grass help shade the soil on the lawn, keeping weed seeds from germinating. Most important is that grass allowed to grow to two inches will have a healthy root system that reaches deep into the ground to help the grass find water in the hot dry days of late summer. Next, never mow more than one third of the grass’s total height at one time; if the grass is three inches high, remove no more than one inch with the mower.

In the fall when the lawn is covered with leaves, the mulching mower once again saves the day. Simply raise the mower height so that it is not cutting the lawn and mow over the leaves. The blades will chop the leaves to bits creating a much needed burst of nutrients in the fall.

So what if you have too many leaves and you don’t want to mulch all of them into the lawn? Or you can’t convert your mower into a mulching mower? The answer is simple: compost. Composting is a simple, easy way to convert all of your organic waste into wonderful, nutrient rich, soil building humus; what organic gardeners refer to as black gold.

Unfortunately, mention the word compost-pile to many people and images of a fetid, rotting dung heap surrounded by flies and vermin come to mind. Nothing could be further from the truth. A compost pile will have no odor and no flies or vermin. For our purposes, we don’t even need manure; although if you have access, your compost pile will be much richer. Start by building a compost bin, ideally out of cedar, but old pallets are a great way to recycle a valuable resource. Avoid using pressure treated wood which could leach dangerous chemicals into the compost pile. There are plenty of plans available on-line and in gardening books. The bin can be as simple or as complex as you like, but be sure it is at least three feet tall, three feet wide and three feet deep. Building the composted with two or three bins will make turning the pile much easier.

To get started, in the fall mow over the leaves with the blade raised and the bag attached to the mower. Dump all the collected, shredded leaves into the compost bin and water them generously just once. Over the winter they will begin to break down, but will be far from compost. To begin composting, add the grass clippings from the first mowing of the lawn; the pile should be about fifty-fifty grass clippings to leaves. You can mix the leaves and grass clippings, or build the pile in alternating layers of clippings and leaves, each layer about three or four inches deep. Water the pile right away, not too much; the pile should be just damp. The next day, roll up your sleeve and thrust your arm deep into the pile. It should be nice and hot. The heat means the pile is working; micro-organisms are converting your yard waste into plant food. If the pile is not hot, add a little more water. Every few days turn and mix the pile, add water as needed. Be sure to compost all of your organic kitchen scraps too. This includes fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells and coffee grinds. Avoid oily wastes and meat scraps.

In few weeks your clippings and leaves will have been converted into crumbly black humus, a wonderful organic fertilizer to feed your lawn, vegetable garden, and flower beds.

We are just skimming the surface on the topic of organic lawn care here. Composting and mulching your yard waste is a wonderful way to reduce dependence on chemical fertilizers, and it also reduces use of fossil fuels simply by not having that waste hauled away. It is important for us to understand that we do not live apart from the land or the environment, but that we are an integral part of our own ecosystem and it is our responsibility to be the stewards of our own environment, to care for the land, air and water that nourish ourselves and our children.

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