Obviously a lawn grows in soil, but we always think of applying fertilizers to feed the lawn. The truth is much more complex.
First, we can't feed the lawn-- turfgrass creates its own food from sunlight. Fertilizers, any fertilizers whether they are man-made products, or the digested poop of a million microbes, are all absorbed through the root system of the turfgrass plant which grows in the soil.
The healthier the soil, the more microbes that live in the soil, and the easier those microbes can digest organic matter converting that matter into the chemicals required by the turfgrass. Applying man-made chemicals to the soil, only by-passes the microbe stage. The chemicals are transformed into a solution that is able to be absorbed through the root cell walls in a relatively short period of time. Organic fertilization just takes a little bit longer for the microbes to convert this matter into the same chemicals that will then be absorbed. These chemicals, whether they come from a test-tube or organic matter, are then used in the construction of new cells in the turfgrass. The turfgrass is really not that particular about where it gets its required dosage of chemicals.
There is a growing concern about using man-made fertilizers to promote lawn growth. Over the years this has been the standard for lawn care. Today, environmental concerns by some highly outspoken groups have forced a number of politicians to take sides without understanding the science of healthy soils. The politicians have sided with these critics I believe, because they have the loudest voice. Just like the case that was made for global warming, those voices were the loudest and most threatening, therefore they sided with that idea with examining the science.
That being said, there is a strong case for using organics in lawn care. The problem is that organics, from a business standpoint, is time consuming. It requires extensive re-training of people that had already been trained and certified to do things a certain way. Now this has to be repeated.
Organic turf management involves a systematic, long-term approach to developing a healthy, microbe-loving soil, that will support a thick healthy, weed-reduced lawn. The problem for the lawn care business is that "long-term" qualifier. It takes time to implement an organics program to a point where the homeowner can appreciate the costs involved. Not an easy task.
At the heart of the organics approach is soil testing. Understanding the minutia in the soil test report gives a good snapshot of the existing soil conditions and what must be done first, second and so on. Things such as biomass and texture play a larger role in determining the health of the soil and its capacity for growing a thick turfgrass.
There is a growing number of organic fertilizer suppliers that have product lines that can be delivered. Organic products typically have more bulk than their concentrated chemical application brethren.
Organic products can be applied to lawns in several ways. Commercially processed organic matter is obviously one option. Homeowners can also apply organic matter throughout the growing season by grass-cycling when they mow. Leaving lawn clippings adds a considerable amount of organic matter to the lawn, and over the years, provides a good base for healthy soil microbes to thrive.
Compost is another soil amendment that can be applied annually to the lawn. This is like a super-dose of organic matter that will quickly bring a depleted, microbe deficient, soil new life.
A truly organic approach to lawn care most likely rejects using herbicides for weed control. Organic weed-control is spotty at best. There just aren't any real good solutions that come anywhere close to matching the highly specialized herbicides currently available. However, there is hope.
Thick, healthy lawns actually prevent most weeds from ever gaining a foothold in your lawn. Those that do occasionally pop up can typically be controlled with either manual removal or by carefully spot treating with a chemical application.
Ideally, a soil test should be performed annually to determine the success of the organics program and to determine additional needs. Once a healthy balance has been achieved, then the soil tests can be reduced to every two - three years.
Understanding that an organic lawn care program does not produce immediate results will go a long way at curbing frustration and perceived failure. Organics takes time-- in fact years, to be properly evaluated. You just can not evaluate the success or failure of an organics program in one growing season.
Back in the 1960s I believe, a famous lawn fertilizer company that we won't name, but has its headquarters in Marysville, Ohio, ran an ad campaign to prove the potency of their fertilizer products. They covered a homeowner's front yard with concrete, and then laid sod over top of that concrete. The lawn was fertilized and watered regularly and at the end of the growing season that lawn looked beautiful. The point they were pushing is that with the right fertilizers, you could grow grass anywhere.