The Organic Lawn Care Manual

The Organic Lawn Care Manual

by Paul Tukey, Nell Newman


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


Create a gorgeous lawn that is free of harsh chemicals. This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know to grow and maintain a thriving lawn using organic gardening methods. With expert advice on planting the best grass varieties, nourishing the soil, watering, fighting weeds, and sustainable maintenance, Paul Tukey helps you create a luscious and inviting lawn that is pesticide-free and safe for your children and pets. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781580176491
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 01/30/2007
Pages: 271
Sales rank: 247,503
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 10.84(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Paul Tukey is the co-author of Tag, Toss & Run with Victoria Rowell, and the author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual. He is the national spokesperson for SafeLawns, a nonprofit advocacy group for chemical-free lawn care. He was formerly host of People, Places, and Plants on HGTV and is an award-winning film producer. He and his family enjoy playing lawn games in their yard in Rhode Island.

Read an Excerpt


Evaluate Your Lawn Care Needs

A lawn, by simple definition, is an area of short grass. For some of us, though, it's much more. Whether we use the turf as a place to play with our children, entertain our friends, frame our gardens, encourage or discourage wildlife, or privately lounge with a book and a beer, our lawns often have a great deal to say about who we are.

In my first few homes I never thought much about the lawn, and I suspect many folks are the same. I simply mowed whatever grass was in place already and did little to make my lawns any bigger or smaller, better or worse. That was, I suppose, natural lawn care in one of its simplest forms. At least I wasn't running out to purchase and apply products I did not yet understand.

As I have aged, as a parent, homeowner, gardener, and landscaper, I have begun to pay far more attention to the lawn and its place in my daily life. I wish I'd started sooner; in retrospect, it was amazing how much I wasted time, resources, and opportunities along the way. When I recently moved into a new home, I realized I had accumulated a mental checklist for my lawn. I encourage all of you to make a similar list for yourselves before you get started with lawn care. Even if your lawn is already established at a longtime home, taking yourself through the 12-point list will likely be a valuable exercise. Many of these topics are covered in far more depth later in this book.

How Will You Use Your Lawn?

Do you use your yard, or is it only your benign gateway to the outside world? If you're like me and you play games with your children on the grass, you'll want to define a needed area and keep it regularly maintained. Do you have a primary spot where guests often congregate? This space, too, will require definition, since guests rarely like to party in knee-deep wildflowers. Keep in mind, though, that this space does not need to be turf; terraces, a deck, patio, gazebo, or porch may cost more than grass initially, but they'll often pay you back in time, aesthetics, and property value.

As for those areas where no games are played nor guests wined and dined, consider the alternatives. Later chapters focus on ground covers and wildflowers. Trees, surrounded by ground covers or mulch, require far less maintenance than turf in the long run. Many shrubs, which offer varied points of interest throughout the different seasons, can grow for years with little attention once established.

Even if you want to stick with turf as your primary landscape feature, you can vary the maintenance program depending on usage and location within your yard. In front of my home, an area measuring about 100 feet by 40 is mowed fairly regularly for baseball, football, and all the other lawn games my family enjoys. I am certain to grow types of grass that can withstand plenty of foot traffic. I top dress this area with compost, fertilize it in spring and autumn, and keep it regularly aerated and dethatched. The work is substantial, but worth it.

Behind the house, around the deck where we barbecue, I mow a broad path once a month at most so we can freely walk to other areas of the property. Farther out from the paths, I mow just twice, in early spring and late fall. The rest of the year I enjoy whatever wild-flowers come up naturally ... or I help out nature by scattering a few seeds from time to time. In these areas, I don't fertilize, aerate, or think twice about weeds.

The result has been a semi-controlled environment that gives my family the functional outdoor space it wants, while providing a place for a vast diversity of other plant and animal species to coexist. If the only time you visit certain areas of your property is atop or behind a lawn mower, ask yourself why you need to bother.

How Much Time Do You Want to Spend?

When I was just out of college, I considered mowing my own lawn a nuisance, even though mowing became part of my profession. I guess it's part of that cobbler's-children-have-no-shoes phenomenon. When I did get around to mowing, the grass was often so tall that I'd cut off more than I should and then the lawn would suffer and turn yellow (more on that in chapter 11). I'd also have to rake areas where the clippings were so thick they'd smother the grass or get tracked into the house.

It's far better to make a realistic assessment of your time in the beginning and don't grow more lawn than you have occasion to maintain. A standard rule is that a 5,000-square-foot lawn takes about an hour to mow with a 21-inch rotary mower and up to a half-hour longer with one of those manual push-type reel mowers. You could mow an entire acre in an hour with the right piece of equipment, but then you're getting into significant expenditure.

Is Your Lawn a Welcome Mat for Animals?

Will cats and dogs be running across the lawn and tracking it into your house on a regular basis? Do you put out the welcome mat for birds, deer, and other wildlife, or would you really rather they stay away? Both of these answers should dramatically impact your lawn care decisions.

Numerous studies have shown that cats and dogs are far more susceptible than adult humans to health risks associated with synthetic lawn fertilizers and pesticides. A study in the April 2004 edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association, for example, concluded that certain breeds of dogs are four to seven times more likely to contract bladder cancer when exposed to chemically treated lawns. Lawn care products that come into the home on the bottom of paws is also of great concern. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides will, in time, break down in contact with soil, sun, and rain, but these same materials may never break down if they become lodged in cracks in your flooring or in the weave of your indoor carpeting.

When it comes to wildlife, natural lawns attract more birds, insects, and other critters than a synthetically treated lawn of the same size. Large open swaths of any kind of turf, however, are not as welcoming to wildlife as gardens of trees, shrubs, and flowers. If you grow grass right up to the foundation, with no trees or shrubs nearby, you'll have a hard time attracting birds to a feeder. They like to have the cover of a tree or shrub close by. Similarly, deer and some other critters will generally stay off a lawn unless an apple tree or a juicy yew shrub invites them in.

How Much Sun Does Your Yard Receive?

One of the most important evaluations you can make, right up front, is an honest assessment of sunlight throughout your yard. This will become a tremendous consideration in chapter 4, when we examine turf grass varieties. Full sun, needed by the majority of grasses, is defined as at least six hours of direct sunlight between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Full shade, not favored by any lawn grasses, is two hours or less of full sun during those hours. Homeowners who have yards with heavy shade should consider planting a shade-loving lawn alternative (see Alternative Ground Covers), installing hardscape, or laying down mulch, rather than watch a patch of sun-loving lawn grass struggle to survive. Remember: not all bare ground needs to be covered by grass, especially if the site isn't conducive to it.

Although this is a book celebrating lawns, I encourage everyone to also think of trees as a major part of the landscape. If you do have more than six hours of full sun, you may be thrilled to have a nice tree cast shade over at least part of your property during the heat of the day. I happily avoided planting a lawn on a section of my property in favor of a hammock hung between a sugar maple and an old pine. My son loves to lounge in the hammock, bemused or confused that his father gets so much joy from tending the grass and garden nearby.

What Is Your Soil Profile?

I'll address this in depth in chapter 3, but it's worth stressing again and again that lawn care, and any other kind of gardening, begins with the soil. Take the time to do a full evaluation of your soil type, pH, and fertility. This can be done with a relatively simple and affordable soil test, either from your local Cooperative Extension Service branch or a certified soil lab.

You're also about to read more on a new test known as a bioassay, which measures the life in your soil in terms of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and other microscopic organisms. You probably haven't thought about those things since high school biology class, but they're all integral to a healthy, natural lawn. This type of test is more expensive than a simple soil test. Depending on the size of your lawn and your goals for its appearance, however, the one-time cost may be well worth it.

How Much Water Do You Have Access To?

This subject also gets its own chapter, but you'll need to think about access to water early on in the landscaping process. Many communities throughout North America now place restrictions on lawn irrigation; does yours? Many towns, like mine, are still on backyard well systems. Does your well provide enough water to even think of irrigating grass? Periods of drought are typical just about everywhere, and as much as I love my lawn, I'd still rather be able to shower and keep the kitchen tap flowing.

If you're on a municipal water system, chlorine and fluoride are also factors in lawn care. Some communities routinely add fluoride to the water supply to keep teeth healthy, but this has shown to negatively impact the vitality of lawns and soil. Chlorine is less of a concern but can, in some cases, contribute to an unhealthy lawn. I'll talk about ways to mitigate the potential negative side effects of chlorine and fluoride later on, in chapter 8.

Saving water is certainly an option with gutter systems pouring into rain barrels or through recycled household discharge known as gray water. Any water that has been used in the home, except from toilets, kitchen sinks, and dishwashers, can often be used for landscape irrigation. This is a great way to reclaim fluids from your clothes washer, bathtub, shower, and bathroom sink — which comprise 50 to 80 percent of water used in most homes. Using this water will require some rerouting of your plumbing, but it is an expense that gets paid back quickly.

Can You Handle the Gear?

The decision to do your own lawn care requires the ability to purchase and stow 20 or so different items. You'll also need a shed or a significant portion of your garage to keep the mower, rakes, edging spade, trimmer, ear and eye protection, garden hoses, and other equipment discussed in chapter 11. Take a look around your home to see if you can accommodate the tools of the trade.

Do You Want to Increase Your Curb Appeal?

Real estate experts tell us that a nice lawn and overall landscape can significantly increase the value of a home, by as much as 10 to 15 percent in some cases. In other words, the time and expense of a lawn are often well justified. The first things any real estate agent will tell sellers are paint the house, inside and out, and mow the lawn.

If selling your property isn't in the cards anytime soon, your landscape's outward appearance may not be a high priority. Keep in your mind, however, that a nice lawn does add value ... to a point. Too many gardens and too much lawn can actually be a negative for buyers; more than a few hours of required maintenance each week scares away some people.

Do You Care What the Joneses Say?

You may find that some folks in your surrounding area have strong opinions about how your landscape should look. Some communities may even legislate what you can and can't grow and how high or low you should mow your lawn. I have a friend who gets nasty notes from neighbors in his country club community when he misses a mowing or two.

In an ideal democratic setting, you should be able to have a flowery mead right out to the roadside if you'd like. If neighbors do affect your decisions, though, be sure to make your voice heard. Some communities, for example, hire landscape contractors to care for all the yard maintenance around everyone's home. In this scenario, make yourself aware of the products they're using, and be certain those products are not harmful to your family, pets, or water supply. Don't be afraid to let the contractors know about the natural alternatives you read about in this book.

Who's Going to Do the Work?

Whose job will it be to mow, rake, weed, fertilize, and add any other soil amendments? Who will need to understand the process required? These are both significant questions if the goal is to have a great lawn.

At many homes, Dad may send a reluctant Johnny out behind the lawn mower every Sunday afternoon. Dad might even trust Johnny with the power string trimmer or the lawn spreader. If Johnny doesn't get it right, though, he can cause serious damage to the lawn by scalping the grass or applying too much synthetic fertilizer. He can also harm himself by using equipment improperly or by not using recommended eye and ear protection. A great benefit of natural lawn care is that it minimizes many health hazards, but even natural systems can carry certain risks from power equipment or improper use of organic insect killers. Think about these risks and talk them over. At the very least, you may save a few family squabbles.


Grass Anatomy

Called the blanket of the earth, the grass plant in its many forms is one of the most remarkable survivors on the planet. It can be cut off and will regrow. It can go dormant if it is too hot, too cold, or too thirsty, and then bounce quickly back to health when conditions improve. It can be walked on, poured over with water, dug up and put back, and still come back for more.

Before you delve further into this book, it may be useful to review the basics of how grass grows. I'll also review the all-important process of photosynthesis, which allows plants to create food by using the sun's energy. It's simple stuff, but important.

A single grass plant survives because it has minimal needs and multiple built-in protection mechanisms. It takes up water and nutrients through its roots, controls growth through its crown at ground level, and conducts photosynthesis and its breathing operations through aboveground shoots. Unlike many plants that have a long recovery time after pruning or shearing, grass readily repairs itself over and over again. And unlike plants that might die during drought or freezing temperatures, grass plants simply shut down and wait for better days.

A Lawn of Many Plants

A lawn, of course, comprises millions of grass plants growing in proximity. They shade each other in the heat; collectively resist invasion from weeds, insects, and diseases; and generally support each other year-round. Within the roots and shoots are specialized areas that may allow plants to creep together, either above- or belowground, to protect the lawn from trampling. Each section of the plants has a specific role, from the stem parts known as rhizomes that travel underground and weave together to form sod to the aboveground sheaths that help the plants stand tall. Before attempting to grow a lawn of your own, it's useful to study the grass anatomy chart below, and even skip ahead to the glossary. The language of lawns isn't overly complicated, but it does have a few nuances all its own.

The Life Cycle of a Grass Plant

Although we rarely allow it to reach this point, the grass plant has the same goal as all other living beings — to reproduce. Some grasses are annual, meaning they germinate from seed, grow, set their own seeds, and then die all in the same growing season. Some are perennial, meaning they grow and set seed each year and come back every year. Seasonal growth in lawn grasses varies widely, from just a few inches to a foot or two. Because we want our lawn to be a permanent part of the landscape, and not something that has to be replanted every year or two, lawns are usually grown with any of several perennial grasses (see chapter 4).

Our goal for the lawn is at odds with the grass plant's goal for itself. Unlike the gardens we plant, we're usually not after a lawn of grass that goes to seed. We don't want it to reproduce; we're growing it for sustainably green foliage. The grass plant puts a tremendous amount of energy toward seed production. It's best, therefore, to mow the grass before it gets tall enough to set seed; it's better to allow the plant to store this energy so it can produce even more stems and blades.

Food from the Sun

All grass plants grow by using the sun's energy to turn water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and simple sugars that can be used to fuel their growth processes (with some oxygen and water left over, as well). It's the green pigment in plant leaves, known as chlorophyll, that makes this process — called photosynthesis — possible. Inside the chloroplasts is the important element nitrogen, which must continually be replaced or else photosynthesis cannot continue. Other elements, at least 15, are also absolutely necessary in varying amounts for grass growth. Some stimulate roots. Others help in processing the sugars or in building plant structures (see chart, The Plant Nutrient Pyramid).


Excerpted from "The Organic Lawn Care Manual"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Paul Boardway Tukey.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Evaluate Your Lawn Care Needs,
Chapter 2. Grass Anatomy,
Chapter 3. Building Good Soil,
Chapter 4. Grass Is Grass Is Grass?,
Chapter 5. Starting Off Right,
Chapter 6. Get Your Lawn Off Drugs,
Chapter 7. Changing Your Lawn's Diet,
Chapter 8. Watering Dews and Don'ts,
Chapter 9. Listening to Your Weeds,
Chapter 10. Dealing with Thugs,
Chapter 11. Mowing and Maintenance,
Chapter 12. The Nearly No-Mow Lawn,
Appendix: Playing on the Lawn,
Recommended Reading,

What People are Saying About This

Will Raap

"I grew up playing on and mowing clover-filled organic lawns in the 1950s. We rarely used fertilizers or pest controls. Paul Tukey's book is arriving at the perfect time to guide us back to enjoying healthy and environmentally smart lawns."– Will Raap, Chairman & Founder of Gardener's Supply Company

From the Publisher

"I grew up playing on and mowing clover-filled organic lawns in the 1950s. We rarely used fertilizers or pest controls. Paul Tukey's book is arriving at the perfect time to guide us back to enjoying healthy and environmentally smart lawns."– Will Raap, Chairman & Founder of Gardener's Supply Company

"This is an invitation to a lawn party where the Stay Off the Grass signs have all been replaced by bare feet. With a copy of this smart, common-sense guide to lawn care, you'll be rolling up your sleeves and taking off your shoes. Read it and wiggle your toes."–Roger B. Swain, Science Editor of Horticulture magazine

"Lawns should be as safe and friendly to earth's environment as they are to the kids and pets that roughhouse on them. Paul Tukey has written a hard-working guide for those who want to keep their lawns as natural as a mountain meadow."– Robert Smaus, former Garden Editor of the Los Angeles Times

Customer Reviews