Here is a press release I received from the UW-Madison recently about organic lawn care.  It’s got some good points, but also raises a few questions we all need to ask ourselves.

  • MADISON – When homeowners talk about growing greener grass these days, it’s a good bet they’re not talking about color.University of Wisconsin-Madison turf experts are getting a lot questions about how to grow a healthy lawn with minimal risk to the environment and human health. The questions come from both homeowners and lawn-care professionals, says Doug Soldat, a soil scientist and UW-Extension turf specialist.”For the past few years this has been one of the top questions at our professional workshops,” he says. “Lawn care operators are realizing that their customers want this, and they are asking us how to do it.”The problem is that there are no standards,” he says. “The USDA has set the organic food standards, but there is nothing comparable for turf. There’s a huge range in what people are doing and calling natural lawn care.”Over the past decade, the university’s turf scientists have been collecting data to develop sustainable lawn care guidelines tailored to Wisconsin. At the O.J. Noer turf research facility near Verona, they’re evaluating grass varieties and blends to see how they perform with reduced levels of irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides. They’re also exploring non-chemical strategies for controlling pests and monitoring the effectiveness of pesticides that the EPA classifies as “reduced risk.”

    They recently compiled what they’ve learned into two publications. The shorter of the two, titled “Do-It-Yourself Alternative Lawn Care,” is targeted at homeowners. It focuses on six things homeowners can do to help their lawn survive and thrive without a lot of added inputs:

    – Prepare soil properly. A good soil makes it easier for the grass plant to get nutrients and water and compete with weeds. Weeds are adapted to adversity, so they’ll dominate a poor soil in the absence of herbicides.

    – Select the right grass. Low-maintenance grasses suited to Wisconsin include tall fescues, fine fescues and common (not improved) varieties of Kentucky bluegrass. Which is the best choice depends on soil, environment and sunlight. And because it’s very difficult to control weeds in newly seeded grass without herbicides, sod is a better bet for getting the lawn established.

    Mow as high as possible-three or four inches-with a sharp blade, to maintain strong roots and shade out weeds. Mowing frequently lets you remove less of the plant to avoid weakening the grass.

    Provide enough nutrients. Well-fertilized lawns have fewer insects and disease problem. Organic fertilizers should be applied at least twice a season.

    Control pests. Weeds are the primary challenge. You can pull them in a small area if you’re persistent, but larger areas may require other tactics. The publication discusses the pros and cons of various alternative weed killers.

    Apply enough water to help build a thicker stand of grass that’s more able to keep weeds at bay.

    “They are actually quite effective,” Soldat says. “So if you follow the guidelines that we spell out under the organic approach-good soil, the right type of grass, proper fertilization-and add in the ability to use reduced-risk pesticides, you can manage a very high-quality lawn.”

    It’s also possible to follow the organic approach and have a decent lawn, he acknowledges. It’s just more difficult, and the outcome is a lot less certain.

    “It’s analogous with human health. If you want to live without any medications, you have to rely on preventive medicine-eat right, get enough sleep, get enough exercise,” Soldat says. “But you can do all that and sometimes you still get sick. Preventive steps are the key to success in a lawn-care program without chemicals. But sometimes they may not be enough to meet your goals.”

    UW-Extension publications, “Do-It-Yourself Alternative Lawn Care” (A3964) and “Organic and Reduced-Risk Lawn Care” (A3954), can be purchased on line at


Soldat’s analogy to preventative personal health and lawn maintenance is interesting, but I’m not sure I want to weigh my own ability to lead an active and productive life on the same balance with having a cosmetically perfect look in my yard. 

I don’t think it’s a very good deal to trade a “very high-quality lawn” for the lives of the invertebrates and the animals who depend on them.  I value native pollinators a little higher than the indoor-outdoor carpet look around my house.

What do you think? 

What is this compulsion to have a vast sea of monoculture plants cropped to a uniform level? 

Mightn’t most of this effort at lawn care be better spent planting a food garden or native plants?

4 replies

  1. Oooohhh! Don’t get me started on lawns! They got us into trouble twice in Colorado with the home owner’s association. We lived in a rented house, so we had no choice but to have the “perfect” green lawn, but in a semi-arid desert that meant tipping lots of water onto it, which I baulked at. Even though we had the sprinkler system to come on in the early hours of the morning and not mid-day like some and set to a couple of times a week, it still used more water than we used in a week for normal activities (I know we used a lot less water than the average American family as we could see that from our bills, but three years in Denmark meant water usage was kept firmly under control to stop spiralling costs there and the habits continued). I admired the person who had resorted to a rock garden, at least it didn’t need the water. As for weeds in the lawn, what’s wrong with that? As long as it doesn’t become too scruffy then I don’t see a problem, we have dandelions and now daisies growing through the grassed areas here and they look pretty. Far better than monotone green.

    The two reasons we got into trouble was firstly for not cutting it soon enough – I was unaware at the time that the type of grass that is grown in that lawn does not mind if there is a hot, dry wind blowing, something that would kill an English lawn. Secondly it was the weeds, I had been hand pulling them, but a week away for my Father-in-laws funeral and they became to obvious and we were forced to call in a lawn care specialist to pour some noxious substance on it. Fortunately he was more of the green sort and sympathised immensely with us and assured us that the substance used was more green than most and he took care that it didn’t end up down the drains like the water that most folks poured on their gardens. So in essence I really think the addiction to the perfect green lawn needs to stop and as for prioritising green lawns over farmers to irrigate land – we won’t even go there, well not this time anyway. 🙂

    • I like the neighborhood I live in in Madison. I went out with my camera to get a shot or two of lawns, and didn’t see very much. Most people here are filling their yards with other things than lawn. I wasn’t able to photograph the grass in my yard because there is non. It’s all forest floor plants.

  2. Isn’t a flat “green” monoculture unattractive and boring visually? When I look at lawns like that I see poison and chemicals … and someone with control issues.

    Plus it’s so counterintuitive. You pour water on something so you can cut it? Then you dump poison on it to make it “grow”? Just doesn’t make sense.

    And what about the hydrocarbons used to control that watered and poisoned plot by mowing, weedwacking, blowing every little piece of cut grass away? Besides, the butterflies and bees prefer non-poisoned yards.

  3. Thanks. They not only prefer nonpoisoned yards, they depend on them, and they also need native plants.

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