RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It's that time of year when backyard tomato plants and lawn-bordering flowers start really taking off—along with pesky weeds like dandelion and pigweed. But resist the temptation for a quick chemical fix, and trade in that bottle of toxic pesticides for easy, organic lawn care methods, brought to you by a green lawn care guru.
Mark "Coach" Smallwood, currently the executive director of the Rodale Institute, an experimental organic farm in Pennsylvania, previously founded an organic lawn care company and believes that like organic farming, a nontoxic lawn care plan is essential to health. Here are his answers to questions posted on Rodale.com's Facebook fan page.
Q: How can I effectively deal with weeds in my lawn without resorting to chemical products?
Coach: Weeds are a sign of the lack of the correct microbiology. To remedy this, top-dress your lawn with 1/8 to ¼ inch of high-quality compost. Some simple solutions to take out weeds include dumping boiling-hot water on them, or using vinegar-based, organic BurnOut weed killer—you can find it at retail garden centers and apply it to any broadleaf weed on a nice sunny, warm day. The product's food-grade vinegar will dehydrate the cell walls and kill the weeds. It is best to overseed the spot with grass seed and let the grass shade out anything that tries to grow back. Keeping the grass taller than three inches high will also eliminate weeds; it just takes longer—a year or two. (Coach recommends water-conserving Pearl's Premium grass seed.)
Q: What's the correct way to mow a lawn?
Coach: First things first. Raise your lawnmower deck to at least three inches, which is usually as high as most residential lawnmowers go. This height will eliminate a lot of broadleaf weeds. Mowing your grass too low could turn your green grass brownish, and eliminate taller grass's weed-suppressing shade.
For a fancier cut, try this: Instead of cutting in straight lines, cut your lawn at angles for that that golf course or baseball field look. For a square or rectangular lawn, start in one corner and cut across the middle of the lawn to the other corner. If you want to go all-out, you can use a stryper apparatus, a rolling device you hook up to your mower that helps create a striped pattern on the lawn, for a similar effect. They are popular among staff that manage golf course turf and baseball fields.
Q: How can I incorporate low-growing flowers or other plants (in addition to red, white, and Alsike clover), as a lawn alternative?
Coach: Anytime you can eliminate mowing, I would say thumbs up. I would go even further and ask, "Why can’t you plant edibles where your lawn used to be?" I put raised beds right on top of the lawn or turf, and backfill with 50 percent soil and 50 percent compost. Make sure you space the beds so a mower or weed eater can get in between, and plant your favorite vegetables in the beds. Less grass—more food!
For even more unique ideas on going grass free and replacing weekly mowing duties with ecofriendly turf substitutes, read
Get Off The Grass from Organic Gardening magazine.
If you'd like to ask Coach a question about organic lawn care, submit your question below in the comments section, or post it to the Rodale.com Facebook page.