Most of us spend many hours in the fall and early spring taking care of our yards — raking, sowing seeds, planting, fertilizing and watering — so we can enjoy a lush landscape by the time the warm weather rolls around. But when the long, hot, dry days of summer arrive, we often find our efforts laid to waste by drought, pests and munching wildlife.
While any home and garden store will stock a vast array of chemical offerings designed to make our weathered yards look beautiful again, you don’t have to go the toxic route to prevent or fight lawn and garden disasters. There are plenty of organic options that will not only improve your yard without chemicals but also save you time and money. In fact, in most cases, it’s cheaper to maintain an organic yard than one that’s chemical-dependent. And perhaps most importantly, your new organic yard will be kid- and pet-friendly.
Start With Healthy Soil
The most eco-friendly lawn is actually no lawn at all, but most homeowners aren’t willing to go that route. The next best alternative is a healthy lawn that has a minimal impact on local ecosystems. And to create healthy lawn, you have to start with healthy soil.
The first step is to have your soil tested, says Bill Duesing, president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council, a nonprofit organization based in Stevenson, Conn. This test is generally free and easy to do with the help of a local cooperative extension office.
Plentiful earthworms are an indication of a healthy soil system. If you don’t see earthworms in the soil, your lawn is definitely stressed. One of the simplest ways to create nutrient-rich soil is to leave grass clippings on the yard when you mow. Adding a quarter-inch layer of finished compost to your yard will help create healthy soil, bringing back the organic matter and organisms that make landscapes thrive. You can also add mulched leaves to the grass in the fall. Mulched leaves are a natural fertilizer, and they’re free.
Most grass thrives in an almost-neutral pH environment, and it’s reasonably simple and safe to raise the soil’s pH with the application of limestone. Fescue and perennial rye grasses are generally the best types of grass for a healthy lawn, since they require minimal care and irrigation and are low-maintenance, according to Duesing. “Both [types of grass] are less demanding of nutrients,” he points out. It’s also important to cut grass high (no shorter than three inches, if possible). Weeds thrive in short, stressed grass.
Less Yard, More Flowerbeds
Another way to create a healthy landscape without the use of harsh chemicals is to keep the lawn area small and fill the yard space with flowerbeds. “Nature works toward greater biodiversity,” explains Duesing. “The more diversity you have in your yard, the more free ecosystem services you’ll get, including bugs and birds that will work on your behalf.”
Many homeowners set up their landscaping projects for failure right from the beginning by choosing the wrong plants for their locales, says Laurie Fox, Virginia Cooperative Extension horticulturalist at the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Virginia Beach, Va. “Choose plants that are habituated to your area and have a chance to do well,” she says.
That doesn’t mean gardeners can sow only native plants if they want healthy landscapes. But one needs to pay attention to the kinds of conditions required by plants and make sure those conditions match the environment of one’s home. Most plants come with labels or tags that specify the climates and environments in which they will flourish. If you’re uncertain about optimal growing conditions for a certain plant, you can always call your local cooperative extension office for free advice.
When planting, group plants by type, so those requiring more watering, for example, are all in the same location. This will help reduce water waste. Other decisions are dictated by common sense. Don’t plant shade-loving greenery in full sun, for example. It’s also important to keep in mind that stressed plants are the most vulnerable to pest infestation and drought, so keep an eye out for struggling plants and either relocate or remove them.
While native and low-maintenance plants are key to a healthy yard, diverse plants are important, too. “A diverse landscape is less susceptible to pests and disease,” notes Fox. Avoid planting flowers of all the same species, as that’s just asking for trouble. Destructive insects tend to be attracted to large gatherings of their favorite foods. With a multitude of flower varieties, the entire landscape won’t be affected if a single type of plant falls victim to infestation.
Water Without Waste
Grass and ornamental plants can withstand stressful conditions like drought better if they have deep roots. To help your plants establish strong root systems, water them deep in the spring. During the growing season, saturate grass and plants 8 to 10 inches deep once a month. When the heat and drought of summer arrives, turf and flowers with deep roots will survive without constant irrigating, which typically can account for as much as 50 percent of residential water use in the summer.
Homeowners can water the lawn without waste by using water from roof gutter systems or rain barrels to irrigate, or by planting grass below patios and driveways or in the line of natural drainage areas. This also allows the grass to filter the water runoff from any polluted surfaces before it ends up in streams.
Group plantings so grass and flowers with similar watering needs are located in the same area, which reduces unnecessary irrigation. In addition, keep irrigation systems away from walkways, driveways and walls, as this also can waste water.
Even the most attentive gardeners will run into pest problems now and then. One of the best ways to prevent insect infestation from causing garden devastation is to pay attention to your lawn and flowerbeds on a daily basis. This way, you can spot problems before they reach a critical stage.
The most common insect pests include caterpillars, which eat the leaves of many ornamental plants, and aphids, which suck the juice out of plant cells, causing the leaves to discolor, curl and die. Japanese beetles also antagonize gardeners in May and June, and will graze on just about anything. Spider mites tend to prey on weak plants in dry, hot areas.
One of the simplest and most natural ways to control pests is to let beneficial insects have the run of the yard and garden. Many homeowners make the mistake of killing insects that prey on pests. Among the good guys are lacewings, which lay eggs on plant leaves. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae will feed on many garden predators, including soft-bodied insects like aphids, spider mites and small caterpillars. Unknowing gardeners often assume lacewings are pests and kill the eggs, but they won’t harm plants. Praying mantises are also useful bugs to have around (although they will attack beneficial insects as well as pests), and are fun to watch as well.
If a pest infestation becomes too big for nature to handle, you should always start with the least toxic control method. One catchall remedy is insecticidal soap, which you can purchase at any home and garden store. Not so different from the folk remedy of soap and water, insecticidal soap is especially effective on soft-bodied insects.
If you find Japanese beetles in your yard or garden, you can pick them off plants during peak activity periods (usually between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.) and dunk them in soapy water. Because beetles can fly, spraying insecticidal soap won’t help much in controlling them.
A number of natural pesticides are available, although they should be used with caution. Rotenone, for instance, is a naturally occurring chemical derived from the roots of tropical and subtropical plants. Organic farmers have used it for decades to treat infestations of aphids and Japanese beetles. However, because it has recently been linked to the occurrence of Parkinson’s disease in rats, its use has been banned in some areas. Another naturally derived insecticide is Pyrethrin, which can be an effective controller of garden pests. But like most insecticides, it kills both good and bad bugs.
Lawns, like gardens, can be vulnerable to garden pests, especially grubs, which feed on the root systems of grass. But unless you find more than three or four per square foot of turf, they are nothing to worry about. If the grub problem becomes serious, you can use Beauveria bassiana, also known as Naturalis-T, an organic compound available at garden stores.
For the past half-century or so, homeowners have become increasingly reliant on chemicals as a way to produce lush, green yards. But more and more homeowners are realizing that by using organic techniques and products, they can have lawns and gardens that are just as lush, as well as healthier for people and the environment.