Botany Garden

The UW-Madison Botany Garden is an excellent place to appreciate nature without pesticides or herbicides. (Photo by Raya Ronaghy)

Green Grass

The grass of an organic lawn grows nice and green. (Photo by Raya Ronaghy)

Blue Damselfly

A small blue damselfly makes its home in the safety of an organic lawn. (Photo by Raya Ronaghy)

Pollinating Hoverfly

A hoverfly pollinates a wood sorrel flower, keeping the ecosystem stable. (Photo by Raya Ronaghy)

Organic Lawn

An organic lawn at the UW-Madison Botany Garden. (Photo by Raya Ronaghy)

Organic Lawn Care

Organic Lawn
An organic lawn at the UW-Madison Botany Garden. (Photo by Raya Ronaghy)

What is an Organic Lawn?

Spraying pesticides and herbicides on a lawn can be a quick and easy way to get a nicelooking lawn, but the pesticides can be very harmful to plants, animals, and even family members and pets. These chemical controls may make the lawn look nice, but they do damage to the lawn as well. An organic lawn is a lawn that is maintained without the use of any pesticides, herbicides, or other man-made chemicals that may be dangerous to the environment. Organic lawns are becoming more and more popular each year, as people realize how important they can be to keeping the environment happy and healthy.


Why Organic Lawn Care?

Clover Bee
A bee is pollinating a clover flower. (Photo by Raya Ronaghy)

Having an organic lawn can be important to keep the environment safe, as the pesticides sprayed on the grass can have a negative impact on the ecosystem around it. These pesticides can hurt the plants and animals around the grass they were sprayed, but they can also be washed off from rain and run into other ecosystems, even rivers and lakes, and be dangerous to the animals and plants much farther away from the lawn. Organic lawns are much safer for people and pets, so there is no need to worry about them rolling around in potentially dangerous chemicals. The removal of pesticides from an organic lawn can also make the grass healthier in the long run, as letting the grass fight off pests and diseases by itself makes the grass stronger and less susceptible to these threats when they come. Pesticides often kill off anything in a lawn, such as beneficial insects and microorganisms, and although some plants growing in a lawn are considered weeds, many of them can be helpful to the grass as well, and even add some color to the lawn. In particular, nitrogen-fixing clover can help provide usable nitrogen to the lawn, making it need less added fertilizer.


Garden Lawn
There are many nice views and places to relax at the UW-Madison Botany Garden. (Photo by Raya Ronaghy)

Our Botany Garden

The UW-Madison Botany Department has joined the effort to maintain a 100% organic lawn for the community to enjoy safely. Even in just two summer seasons, the results are magnificent. The Botany Garden is pesticide and herbicide free, and still maintains its beautiful grass and ecosystem. Many people enjoy the garden as a place to relax, have lunch, dance, and connect with nature, and they can do so without worrying about their exposure to chemicals. Our garden is one of the best and safest places on campus to enjoy nature at its finest.

How To Maintain an Organic Lawn

Organic lawns often take much more time and effort than a conventional lawn, and can be more costly too, but the extra effort put into a lawn can really pay off and provide a nice, carpet-like lawn that is safe for people and the environment.


An organic lawn can be started by first improving the soil for the grass. The quality of the soil can be very important, as this is where the grass gets its nutrients, and poor soil can make it hard for grass to take root and grow to its potential. Not to mention that one quality of weeds is that they are very good at thriving in poor conditions, making it easy for them to outgrow grass in poor soil. A good first step is to get the soil tested, to see what nutrients it has and what it may be missing. Here are a few ways to improve the soil: 

  • Dethatching – Cutting through dead grass and removing debris that might get in the way of new grass trying to take root 
  • Soil Amendments – Adding things like compost and corn gluten can increase lawn health and provide extra nutrients 
  • Slit-Seeding – This process creates holes to put the seeds directly into the ground, helping them grow faster 
  • Over-seeding – Spreading seeds over already existing grass can help thicken the grass and overcrowd weeds 
  • Lawn Aeration – Creating small holes in the dirt can let air, water, and nutrients get to the roots much easier

Weeds are often unwanted, but they can be a good indicator to what may be wrong with the lawn. Certain weeds like to grow in certain locations, so you can know what kind of conditions are near the weeds. Crabgrass, for example, tends to grow in high traffic areas, where the soil is compact. A solution can be to loosen up the soil through aeration. 

Clover
Clover is good for for grass, and should not be weeded out. (Photo by Raya Ronaghy)

Some plants that are considered to be weeds can actually be beneficial to the lawn. Clover can help break down nitrogen to make it easier for the grass to get nutrients from it, and some experts even recommend planting clover along with the grass to keep it healthy.

Once an organic lawn has been started, there are still things that need to be done to keep the grass happy and healthy. Here are some tips to keep the lawn going after it has been started:

  • When cutting grass, leave the clippings where they fall, as they are a natural source of nitrogen when they decompose. 
Bee & Clover
A bee pollinates a clover flower. (Photo by Raya Ronaghy)
  • Water the grass infrequently and in large amounts to encourage the grass to grow deeper roots, which can help the grass withstand drought and have a better chance at outgrowing weeds.
  • Spread compost or other fertilizer one or two times a year to help grass grow. 
  • Using organic corn gluten (not during grass seed germination) can help stop weed seeds from growing, as the corn gluten prevents seeds from germinating. 
  • When cutting grass, keep it at 3 to 4 inches, as cutting grass too short can weaken it and make it hard for the plant to photosynthesize. 
  • Grow a variety of grass types, as this prevents the grass from going dormant at the same time, and the grass types can work together to overcrowd weeds.
  • When watering grass with a sprinkler, place a cup or rain gauge nearby to collect water and measure how much water the plants are getting.

There are many tools used to maintain an organic lawn, but here are a few recommended tools and other materials to get started with: 

Organic grass seed Water sprinkler Scarifier (Optional)
Organic fertilizer Corn gluten  Leaf blower
Lawn mower Rake Garden lime
Thatch rake Wheel barrow String trimmer
Aerator

Pros and Cons of an Organic Lawn

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Pros

Pros

Good for the environment                                                                        


Less harmful to pets and people                                                          


Teaches the grass to defend itself instead of relying on pesticides 


Makes grass more independent                                                              


Saves water                                                                                       


Keeps harmless and helpful insects alive                                                                                    

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Cons

Cons

Can be more expensive                                                                                              


Takes extra effort and time                                                         


Good results take longer                                                                      


Does not conform to standard “look”                                                                               


Weeds still grow                                                                                                   


May have less nitrogen levels                                                 

Statistics

  • Americans dump approximately 70 million tons of fertilizer and 70 to 90 million pounds of pesticides on their lawns each year
Clouded Yellow Butterfly
The clouded yellow butterfly can freely live in an organic lawn without toxic pesticides to worry about. (Photo by Raya Ronaghy)
  • Between 30 and 40 million acres of land in the US are devoted to turf grass 
  • Americans spend about $40 billion annually on seed, sod, and chemicals 
  • In Canada, 130 communities and two provinces have outlawed pesticides
  • 60 to 70 million birds die from pesticide poisoning each year in the US alone 
  • Watering lawns accounts for 30 to 60 percent of water consumption in summer
  • A gas powered push mower emits as much hourly pollution as 11 cars, and a riding mower emits as much as 34 cars
  • Gas powered mowers in the US use 580 million gallons of gas per year 
  • A 1996 survey found that more pesticides are used on turf grass than on any other ornamental plant

Sources 

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Sources