For a natural lawn, feed the soil
Lawn fertilization advertisements are hanging from your front door, threatening to break the knob under their weight. Your neighbors are giving you the evil eye about that dry patch by the curb, and the homeowners association is about to fine you if you don’t do something about those brown spots. You have a lawn. You’re keeping it. Yet you don’t want to contribute to the pollution that maintaining its soft greenness seems to demand.
On April 17, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Ruckelshaus wrote in the Wall Street Journal that in 1970, “85 percent of the problems of water pollution in the country were large point-source discharges, like municipal sewage-treatment plants or industrial operations. Only 15 percent were non-point sources—the runoff from city streets, suburban lawns, and rural and farm areas.” Now, however, the numbers are reversed: “15 percent of the problem is point sources, and 85 percent of the impact is non-point sources.”
For homeowners who want to minimize their contribution to polluted waterways, keep their kids and pets away from chemicals, and who want an overall healthier lawn, Jeff Casci says there’s an alternative.
“You feed the soil, not the grass,” says the owner of Natural Lawn and Garden, which uses compost and natural fertilizers on lawns.
Typically, Casci first tests the soil to find out which nutrients are missing. If needed, he thatches, aerates and seeds the lawn. In the spring or fall, after aeration, he applies about a quarter-inch of compost from locally-based Full Circle Compost. In the fall, he uses an organic fertilizer, such as Dr. Earth.
“Basically, by feeding the soil, you’re feeding the life six to nine inches below—the worms, the microbes. They actually do all the work, and your grass is what benefits from it,” says Casci.
Wendy Hanson Mazet of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension says that whether organic or inorganic, if fertilizer runs into storm drains, it still pollutes waterways, so a smart sprinkler arrangement is your first step. But she says it’s more common for people to over-apply synthetic fertilizer than compost, since a layer of too much compost would look like dirt rather than lawn. She adds that both synthetic and organic fertilizers leave a salty residue, but inorganic fertilizers leave a higher level of salt.
“An inorganic does not feed the soil at all,” says Hanson Mazet. “All you’re doing is basically giving the plant a kickstart with whatever nutrients you’ve chosen, and as they’re used up, it doesn’t leave the plant with anything beneficial. Whereas compost not only feeds the plant, but also the soil, which makes your overall growing condition that much better.”
She adds that whether inorganic or organic, “if you overdo it on either one, you’re contaminating our storm drains. It’s about doing things appropriately. Let’s look at the grass, its root system and how it lives. We’re looking at the plant as a result, but what are we doing to the soil to give us that result?”