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Organic lawn fertilizer options

More people are asking for information regarding organic lawn care. Most want to decrease or eliminate the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on their lawns. The most common reason is their concern that so-called synthetic lawn products may be harmful to humans, beneficial insects, wildlife, and pets.

Fertilizers are really just basic building blocks of our environment. However, we've come to identify these basic building blocks as either inorganic (synthetic) or organic.

Inorganic fertilizers are used in traditional lawncare. More correctly, inorganic fertilizers are better described as soluble fertilizers. This means all they need is water to be available for plant absorption.

Organic fertilizers have the same basic chemical make up as inorganics, except for this one important thing: they have not been processed to the degree that soluble fertilizers have been processed. For these organic fertilizers to be useful, they will need to go through an additional step before doing plants any good. That additional step is performed by microbes living in the soil.

The rhizosphere stimulates microbial activity and microbes also release compounds like organic acids, enzymes, and chelates that solubilize nutrients.

The juice from microbes breaks down organic matter. As microbes get near the roots of your turfgrass, the roots stimulate the microbes into producing organic acides, enzymes and chelates that convert the organic nutrients into a solution that can then transfer from the soil into the root system. Voila! Almost instant fertilizer. Well, not quite instant. Ever see how small a microbe is? That's why organic fertilizers take longer for results to show up in the lawn.

Organic fertilizers are more expensive pound-for-pound than inorganic's. Organics take longer to work, but your microbes are happier, and in the long run, your lawn will be happier too.

Limited scientific research has been done on exclusively natural organic lawn care programs. However, well-documented research has been done on many practices that are integral to organic lawn care such as core aeration, increased mowing heights, and top-dressing with compost.

Recommendations for a completely natural organic approach are therefore based on years of collective experience.

How do I fertilize organically?

There is a growing number of commercial organic dry fertilizers, such as Epsoma, Ringers, Greensense, and Texas Tee. These products are protein based and can be readily digested by soil microbes. The major source of these commercial fertilizers include ground corn, feather meal, alfalfa, cottonseed, corn gluten meal, soy, and other grains. Any ground seed or bean is good as an organic fertilizer including used coffee grounds. These same ingredients can also be purchased in bulk form from farm or feed stores.

A good application rate for these grain based fertilizers is 10-20 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Organic fertilizer may be applied any day, any time of day, rain or shine without fear of hurting the turf. The only exception is that organic fertilizers are not as effective in cold weather simply because the microbes don't like to work when it's too cold. Under normal growing season weather, it takes about 3 weeks for the microbes to process the protein to a degree sufficient enough for the benefits can be seen in the grass.

How do I get started in an organic program?

Getting started is as easy as stopping the use of inorganic fertilizers and switching over to an organics program. It's a good idea to get your soil in good condition first—that means plenty of microbe activity. This can be done by replenishing the microbes with a thin layer of compost. Compost is loaded with microbes and the compost helps boost the existing microbe count already present in the soil. The next thing to do is start using protein based fertilizers like corn meal, alfalfa meal, coffee grounds, soy meal, cottonseed meal, sorghum meal, or what ever you can get inexpensively at your local feed supply store.

The next thing is to start mulching your lawn clippings instead of bagging them. This adds a considerable amount of organic fertilizer to your lawn for free.

Are organic fertilizers better than inorganic fertilizers?

Whether a fertilizer is organic or inorganic, after it's applied to the lawn, that fertilizer must be converted into a form the grass can use. Whether it's converted by water or microbes, the plant doesn't know the difference.

  • One of the advantages associated with organic sources is the low chance of burning grass.

  • Some inorganic fast-release fertilizers have high salt levels that increase the chances of burning the lawn.

  • Most inorganic fertilizers are now time-released and less likely to burn grass.

  • Organic fertilizers take longer for results to show up in the lawn.

  • The percentage of nitrogen in organic sources is low, meaning it takes considerable amount of material to be spread over the lawn to give the proper rate of nitrogen.

Combining both is a good compromise

As already mentioned, to a lawn, it makes no difference where the nitrogen comes from. By combining organic supplements in the form of mulched lawn clippings, adding compost to the lawn occasionally and then reduce the amount of inorganic fertilizers being applied (perhaps just one or two applications in the fall for cool season lawns, or one or two in the spring for warm season grasses) and you should have a happy, healthy lawn and soil.

Organic weed controls

CORN GLUTEN MEAL: At the top of the list is corn gluten meal. Corn gluten meal is a byproduct of corn processing. It is used in cattle feed and dog food as a source of protein. Not long ago it was discovered to prevent seed germination if applied at the right time of the year with the right environmental factors. Read here for more in depth information concerning corn gluten meal

BOILING WATER: Other organic weed control methods that have been sited include pouring boiling water directly on a weed. This is a very dangerous method. Boiling water can cause serious burns if you accidentally spill it on your skin. While the boiling water will kill the top growth of many weeds, it does not control weeds with deep roots.

VINEGAR: Vinegar (acidic acid) is another chemical that can be used. Vinegar comes in differing strength percentages. For effective weed control, household vinegar just isn't strong enough as a reliable weed control. Household vinegars are in the 5% range, yet studies show that 25% concentrations were required for effective weed controls. http://www.hort.wisc.edu/mastergardener/Features/weeds/vinegar/vinegar.htm

Switching from traditional lawn care to an organic program.

Organic versus Synthetic Lawncare