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MONDAY, MAY 21, 2007
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Turf wars
How to grow your lawn the organic way

By Dean Fosdick
For The Associated Press

A cultural turf war is being waged across America.

On one side are the traditionalists who shear and spray and fertilize and take great pride in their picture-perfect lawns, as well they should.

On the other are the organic practitioners whose legions are swelling and whose focus is shifting from flower and vegetable gardens to the grass making up the rest of their properties.

When it comes to lawns, the cultural divide is clear.

Pastoral perfection is not the primary goal for organic subscribers. Certain “weeds” can be tolerated, such as clover, which not long ago was encouraged for use as a nitrogen-rich grass supplement until backyard golfers discovered their putted balls didn’t roll that well on it.

Organic practitioners don’t bag their clippings, either. Under the natural rather than chemical way of doing things, grass clippings are mulched and allowed to recycle, bulking up soil microbes in the process.

Organic-tended lawns also are permitted to grow higher than the golf-course standard so they can crowd out weeds. While some observers would issue demerits for the slightly tousled look, others consider the taller stems good preventive medicine.

“The best defense against weeds is a healthy grass,” said Paul Tukey, a landscaper and author of “The Organic Lawn Care Manual” (Storey Publishing, 2007).

“Mow less frequently and mow higher,” Tukey said. “When you let the blades grow longer, more of the plant’s energy goes into the roots. Deeper roots withstand drought better and insects better.”

There are many reasons for taking lawns organic, Tukey writes.

Safer for families

“They’re safer for families, pets and the environment. They use fewer fossil fuels, water and fertilizer. They can be less expensive and, in time, require less of your time — which allows you to enjoy your lawn rather than fret about its upkeep.”

“I don’t want to be preachy about it,” Tukey said in a telephone interview from his home in New Gloucester, Maine. “I mean, I still use a gas-powered snowblower. ...But I know what goes into these chemicals and I don’t want my children to roll around in anything potentially toxic.”

Property owners for the most part are more interested in ridding their lawns of weeds than they are about growing grass, Tukey said.

“Anybody can put chemicals down and see it work for a while. ... But what’s going on underneath? You’re not building up the soil. You’re creating a dependent lawn waiting for its next fix of chemicals.

“But in three years, four or five, you can use natural methods to make your lawns self-sufficient. You can speed the process and shorten it to about a year if you want to be aggressive in the transition.”

Transition takes patience

The transition from traditional lawns to organic takes patience. It begins by building up what’s buried beneath the grass rather than by dealing with the grass itself.

“If you feed the soil, you feed the plant,” Tukey writes. That means nurturing and balancing the soil, adding compost — at least a half-inch per year — and then determining your level of dissatisfaction with the existing lawn.

Is it a matter of plugging a few holes, reseeding to thicken the growth or taking a deep breath and starting over? The latter would involve tearing up the existing turf, adding richer and deeper topsoil and then laying sod or seeding.

The choice of methods is up to the property owner, of course. Tukey’s advice in one sentence: “Treat your soil well with compost and natural fertilizers, pick the right grass for your climate and sunlight situation, water well, use the right tools, and mow properly with a sharp blade.”

You don’t have to go it alone. More and more companies are examining the profit potential in offering organic lawn-care services, or at least a more earth-friendly blend of the traditional and natural.

“There’s not a huge groundswell of people purchasing the (organic) services, but there’s some interest,” said Peter Korda, vice president of Scotts LawnService, a subsidiary of The Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. in Marysville, Ohio.

“We offer two flavors of organic choice,” Korda said. “One is 100 percent organic using Scotts natural lawn food. That is essentially fertilization only. There are no organic pesticides out there yet that we’re comfortable with.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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