There’s nothing like the feel of soft grass under bare feet and the peace of mind knowing it is safe for children to experience this summer pleasure.
For lawns, as with many other things in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Going pesticide-free means changing the way we manage our lawns, rather than a simple substitution of products.
“You need to create an environment that isn’t hospitable to the bugs and weeds in the first place,” says Mike House, owner of Nutri-lawn Sudbury, which offers a pesticide-free program called Organics Plus. “The best weed control is a thick, healthy lawn.”
Hubert Seguin is the owner of the Greater Sudbury franchise of Turf Logic, an entirely pesticide-free lawn care company. He says people need to have a good dose of patience and a little bit of tolerance for less than perfect conditions.
House and Seguin both agree that poor soil quality is one of the biggest problems with most residential lawns in Sudbury. Seguin recommends getting the soil tested for acidity, nutrients and organic matter as a first step. Based on the results of the soil tests, he personalizes lawn treatment programs for his customers.
To offset the typically low nutrient quality of residential soils in Sudbury, House recommends applying fertilizer every six to eight weeks during the growing season.
Seguin says acidic soils may also benefit from lime applications.
“Fertilizer that’s classified as organic has to be made from 100 percent plant or animal matter,” explains House.
Nutri-lawn uses an odour-free composted cattle manure product and a liquid beet extract called Juicy Lawn that has a very high nutrient content.
Turf Logic uses liquid and powder plant-based products. Organic fertilizers are slower-acting than chemical alternatives, so patience is required, but they also include beneficial micro-organisms that help improve soil quality over time.
Once the soil is taken care of, most other lawn problems can be prevented through proper lawn maintenance practices, including mowing, watering, aeration and over-seeding.
“One of the biggest problems people make is improper cutting,” says House. “They will either cut it too short, cut it too infrequently or cut it when it’s really hot – all things that really stress out a lawn. Then suddenly, weeds and insects become a problem.”
A general rule of thumb is to maintain a blade height of approximately three inches and to cut off no more than one-third of the grass blade at a time.
“Taller grass helps shade the soil and prevents weed seeds from germinating,” says House.
It is also essential to cut the lawn with a sharp blade, so the ends of the grass blades are not damaged.
Lawnmower blades may need to be sharpened two or three times per season, says Sequin.
You also need to recognize when your lawn needs water. Well-shaded lawns with good clay soils will hold moisture very well and may not need to be watered at all, while lawns that receive full sun and have poor quality soil may need regular soakings.
Most lawn experts recommend watering the lawn once a week with up to an inch of water, less if it rains. Early morning is the best time for watering to maximize the amount of water that soaks into the lawn.
“The next thing you need to do is break up the thatch layer to allow the water and nutrients to get down to the roots,” says House. Thatch is the mat-like layer of dead grass that lies at the base of the grass blades. Aeration involves punching holes in the thatch and extracting plugs of soil. Other benefits of aeration include reducing soil compaction and encouraging deep rooting. Spring and fall are the best times to aerate the lawn.
Even healthy lawns can benefit from over-seeding once a year, says House. “But you’ve got to get the seeds in contact with the soil. You can’t just sprinkle seeds on top and expect them to grow. You need to aerate first or you need to cover the seeds with a top dressing (compost or topsoil) and keep the area moist for a couple weeks.” Early fall is the best time for over-seeding because the warm soil and frequent rain help the grass get established.
“The grass seed available now is so much better,” says House. Some of the new varieties are “endophyte-enhanced,” meaning the grass seed contains a beneficial fungus that increases the hardiness, drought tolerance and insect resistance of the grass. It is also important to spread as many varieties of seed as possible to increase the diversity of your lawn.
A thick, healthy lawn is the best defence against weeds and insects.
“If the turf is thick and not a lot of sunlight is getting through to the soil, weed seeds are not going to germinate,” says House. Proper watering, mowing, thatch control and fertilizing should eliminate the need to control large weed infestations. Hand pulling, with removal of the root, is recommended for occasional weeds.
Chinch bugs are Sudbury’s most menacing lawn insects. These tiny red and black insects love our dry, acidic soils and are hardy enough to survive our winters. To prevent chinch bug infestations, House and Seguin recommend removing excess thatch and maintaining adequate soil moisture. If chinch bugs have already found a home in your yard, spot treatments may be an option for preventing further spread.
By focusing on prevention and having a little bit of patience, it is possible to have a lawn that’s green, healthy and soft on the toes.