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UW turf specialists offer guidelines for organic and reduced-risk lawn care

May 8, 2012 By Bob Mitchell

When Wisconsin homeowners talk about growing greener grass these days, it’s a good bet they’re not talking about color.

University of Wisconsin–Madison turf experts are getting a lot questions about how to grow a healthy lawn with minimal risk to the environment and human health. The questions come from both homeowners and lawn-care professionals, says Doug Soldat, a soil scientist and UW-Extension turf specialist.

Photo: Doug Soldat

Choose your grass carefully if you want a low maintenance lawn, says UW–Madison soil scientist Doug Soldat, author of a new factsheet on alternative lawn care. Dandelions have overwhelmed this narrow strip of perennial ryegrass but not the tall fescue that surrounds it, despite the fact that the two received similar treatments. Tall fescue is a relatively uncommon grass in Wisconsin that performs well in low maintenance situations.

“For the past few years this has been one of the top questions at our professional workshops,” he says. “Lawn care operators are realizing that their customers want this, and they are asking us how to do it.

“The problem is that there are no standards,” he says. “The USDA has set the organic food standards, but there is nothing comparable for turf. There’s a huge range in what people are doing and calling natural lawn care.”

Over the past decade, the university’s turf scientists have been collecting data to develop sustainable lawn care guidelines tailored to Wisconsin. At the O.J. Noer turf research facility near Verona, they’re evaluating grass varieties and blends to see how they perform with reduced levels of irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides. They’re also exploring non-chemical strategies for controlling pests and monitoring the effectiveness of pesticides that the EPA classifies as “reduced risk.”

They recently compiled what they’ve learned into two publications. The shorter of the two, titled “Do-It-Yourself Alternative Lawn Care,” is targeted at homeowners. It focuses on six things homeowners can do to help their lawn survive and thrive without a lot of added inputs:

  • Prepare soil properly. A good soil makes it easier for the grass plant to get nutrients and water and compete with weeds. Weeds are adapted to adversity, so they’ll dominate a poor soil in the absence of herbicides.
  • Select the right grass. Low-maintenance grasses suited to Wisconsin include tall fescues, fine fescues and common (not improved) varieties of Kentucky bluegrass. Which is the best choice depends on soil, environment and sunlight. And because it’s very difficult to control weeds in newly seeded grass without herbicides, sod is a better bet for getting the lawn established.
  • Mow as high as possible-three or four inches-with a sharp blade, to maintain strong roots and shade out weeds. Mowing frequently lets you remove less of the plant to avoid weakening the grass.
  • Provide enough nutrients. Well-fertilized lawns have fewer insects and disease problem. Organic fertilizers should be applied at least twice a season.
  • Control pests. Weeds are the primary challenge. You can pull them in a small area if you’re persistent, but larger areas may require other tactics. The publication discusses the pros and cons of various alternative weed killers.
  • Apply enough water to help build a thicker stand of grass that’s more able to keep weeds at bay.

The other publication, “Organic And Reduced-Risk Lawn Care,” is aimed primarily at turf-care professionals. It discusses the same six management steps in more detail and also gets into how certain pesticides and fertilizers can fit into alternative lawn care.

“We lay out two paths,” Soldat says. “One is organic lawn care, basically following the USDA standards for organic food. This leaves out most synthetic materials, GMO products and the use of biosolids (treated sewage) for fertilizer.”

The other approach, which the authors call reduced-risk lawn care, includes the use of some synthetic fertilizers and bio-solids, along with pesticides that are less toxic, applied at lower rates and often derived from natural organisms.

“They are actually quite effective,” Soldat says. “So if you follow the guidelines that we spell out under the organic approach-good soil, the right type of grass, proper fertilization-and add in the ability to use reduced-risk pesticides, you can manage a very high-quality lawn.”

It’s also possible to follow the organic approach and have a decent lawn, he acknowledges. It’s just more difficult, and the outcome is a lot less certain.

“It’s analogous with human health. If you want to live without any medications, you have to rely on preventive medicine-eat right, get enough sleep, get enough exercise,” Soldat says. “But you can do all that and sometimes you still get sick. Preventive steps are the key to success in a lawn-care program without chemicals. But sometimes they may not be enough to meet your goals.”

Both UW-Extension publications, “Do-It-Yourself Alternative Lawn Care” (A3964) and “Organic and Reduced-Risk Lawn Care” (A3954), can be purchased online here.