Going "Green" in the Yard

Master gardener Paul James simplifies organic lawn care.

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Figure A

Going "green" in the lawn can be daunting: It could mean a total shift of the way you look at and practice yard work. But Gardening by the Yard host Paul James breaks down organic lawn care into manageable steps:

Mow differently. Cutting grass too short is a common mistake. When you mow, raise the deck height of the mower all the way to the top — three to four inches, depending on the height of the mower.

Four inches of grass height means 4 inches of roots below ground. Weed control naturally follows because lack of sunlight to the soil inhibits germination.

Another good tip: Get a mulching mower. The fine grass clippings thrown back to the lawn pack a nutritional punch that would allow you to reduce fertilizer application by nearly 50 percent.

Figure B

Address the thatch issue. A lot of people think that thatch — those brown grass stems and runners that settle into the lawn — is caused by grass clippings. Actually, thatch is caused by the use of a lot of synthetic chemicals and poor watering practices.

Get rid of thatch by raking it up. You can use a steel rake, a special de-thatching rake or extra elbow grease using a normal rake. Green grass is firmly rooted, so it won't come up.

When you pull up thatch, you break an impenetrable layer that keeps water and nutrients at bay, and you can use what you uproot to mulch your garden beds.

Figure E

Fertilize. Put the green back in your grass. All organic fertilizers — such as alfalfa meal or this mixture of alfalfa meal, bone meal and blood meal — contain materials that would otherwise end up in the trash, so using them is a great way to recycle. It also has considerable nutrient value.

If you're used to the speedy results you see with synthetic fertilizers, you will notice that the organic varieties release nutrients more slowly and take longer to show results. On the upside, that means you fertilize less often — only once or twice a year. And when you do, water the fertilizer into the lawn. As with any watering, one thorough watering is better than several short waterings.

Another upside to organic fertilizers: You don't have to be as concerned about precision. Unlike synthetic fertilizers, organic varieties such as blood meal or bone meal can't burn plants.

And because of their slow release, they don't produce the abundant new succulent leaves on plants that attract unwanted insects.

Pest and disease control. For every synthetic control, there is an organic equivalent. The organic alternatives simplify things because the products themselves are simple to use and nontoxic.

Some options and what they treat include:

Insecticidal soap: soft-bodied insects such as aphids and red spider mites.
Pyrethrum (made from South American chrysanthemums): hard-bodied insects such as beetles. (Use as a last resort, because it also kills beneficial insects.)
Neem (oil-based): effective on difficult-to-control hard- and soft-bodied insects. (Use as a last resort, because it also kills beneficial insects.)
Horticultural oil: fungal diseases and smothers soft-bodied insects.
Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis): mosquito larvae

Compost it. As always, a compost pile is a great, natural way to provide nutrients for your plants and amend the soil. With its disease-fighting properties, compost is the greatest thing you can do to promote overall health in your landscape.

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