The other day while I was out tending to my landscape a local landscaper stopped by and said to me “It’s amazing how good your lawn and shrubs look after months of drought compared to other properties I see and even take care of. What’s your secret?” I wish I could claim some special ancient wisdom of lawn care or just great karma, but it’s really quite simple. It’s organic gardening.
Organic landscaping and gardening is all about creating lasting healthy soil ecology that results in lasting and healthy plant structures. Fall is perhaps the most important time to get into your yard and do some work since temperatures are moderate and there is a good amount of moisture in the air.
So, ready for the secret? Here are five tasks that I do every fall to get my landscape ready for the next season.
Mowing The Lawn
Sounds simple right? Well the way in which you mow the lawn will have a big impact on how much nutrients are available for growth. When I mow, I do so without the bag attachment and install what is called a mulching blade for my lawn mower. This cuts up the grass and debris into smaller bits that are able to fall to the top of the soil and decompose leaving behind rich organic matter and nutrients.
I also leave some of the brown matter behind (you know those fall leaves that you are always racking up). This brown matter is vital to soil ecology and some studies out of the University of Minnesota have shown that by mulching up brown matter and leaving it on your lawn actually can help prevent weed growth next season. That’s a great reason alone!
The underlying principle here is to combine natural green and brown matter. Green grass clippings combined with shredded brown leaves are a perfect formula of nutrition for your lawn.
Aerating The Lawn
If you’ve ever been out on the golf course and noticed what look like dirt pellets all over the place, that’s what it is – aerating. Colloquially this is called plugging the lawn. You can rent an aerator, which has special prongs to dig out soil and spit it on top of the lawn. If you aren’t up for doing this task yourself there are many companies that will come and do this for you.
For about a week your lawn will look a bit messy with plugs strewn everywhere, but don’t fret — this is an important step to let oxygen into the soil and to the roots of your lawn. As you water your landscape and the rain falls the plugs will naturally dissolve away and pull soil back into the plug holes. The result is a healthier, stronger lawn that can withstand drought and other environmental swings and pressures.
You might look out over your lawn and see lots of green grass and think you are in great shape. You may also find yourself heading to dead spots and re-seeding periodically as a natural part of lawn maintenance. But it doesn’t stop there.
Healthy lawns benefit from new, fresh growth every year and this is achieved by overseeding your entire lawn with fresh seed. Simply cast the grass seed or spread with a spreader over your entire lawn. Be sure to buy a quality grass seed from a nursery, which can also advise you on the right seed mix for your area.
The new seeds will spur fresh growth that will keep your lawn stable, healthy, and lush for next season.
Winter Fertilizer (Dry Mix or Pellets)
Before we get into a conversation about seasonal fertilizer mixes, let’s talk about the fundamental difference between chemical/synthetic and organic fertilizers.
Chemical fertilizers are formulated for fast release which will give you an instant blitz of green for the lawn. Unfortunately they do nothing to improve the overall quality of the soil. Organic fertilizers, by contrast, are slow release particulates, which work to improve both the soil and your lawn.
Another hazardous impact of using chemical fertilizers is the run off effect which can impact the aquifer and results in environmental issues like toxic algae blooms, for example. These chemicals along with salts and metals found in synthetic chemical fertilizers can have a very harmful effect on your property and water resources.
Bottom line, when the soil isn’t ecologically healthy you will find yourself needing to rely more on chemical fertilizers to keep your grass growing. This just adds to overall expenses and generally leaves you with a vulnerable landscape. Add in drought conditions such as the ones we have experienced in Connecticut this year, and you will see instances where fungus and other diseases have destroyed whole lawns — literally! Not only will you have to face replacing your entire lawn, but you will have to bring in new soil — in all a rather expensive exercise.
A final note, fertilizer bags give you three numbers – Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K). Fertilizers that are specially formulated for the winter are high in Nitrogen. For instance, look for a fertilizer that is formulated as an 8-0-8 mix.
Creating Leaf Blankets Around Shrubs and Plantings
Waste not, want not right? When you are clearing all those leaves consider using some to protect vulnerable plantings from the harsh colds of winter. After all this is exactly what nature does in the forest.
Rake or blow a good amount of leaves around the base of shrubs and plantings. This give them a protective blanket that protects against the harsh winter cold and snow packs. When spring comes, grab your rake and clean it up then. Your shrubs will thank you for the extra care all summer long next year.
I hope these tips help you get ready for the winter ahead and set you up for a healthy and vibrant landscape next season. If you have tips that you like to deploy in your landscape, we want to hear about them. Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments below.
Check out our video on 5 Tips for Organic Landscaping.