Whether your lawn is your pride and joy, a status symbol, or the lush carpet your children (or you) run around on, you want your grass to grow in green and thick. (And preferably without all the effort and synthetic fertilisers.) By adding more organic matter to your lawn, you’ll be creating healthy soil which creates healthy, vibrant lawns.
To add more organic matter to your lawn, you can either simply leave grass clippings after mowing, shred autumn leaves, topdress with 1/4 inch of compost, or even leave beneficial “weeds” like clover and dandelions to add biomass and nutrients. A little bit of organic matter goes a long way towards a lush lawn.
What is Organic Matter?
Organic matter is decaying plant and animal material, microbes, and plant roots. Plant and animal material is broken down by beneficial microbes, insects, and worms over months or years into nutrients that plants can absorb through their roots. Roots, microbes, insects, and worms will also break down when they die, adding to organic matter.
A little organic matter goes a long way. The ideal organic matter to mineral composition is 2 – 3% for lawns and 5% for vegetable gardens.
How Does Organic Matter Help Lawn Soil?
Organic matter improves the health of your lawn by:
- Feeding and supporting the beneficial microbiology in the soil,
- Providing slow-releasing nutrients over months,
- Aerating the soil,
- Increasing moisture-absorption,
- Helping the lawn resist pests and disease, and
- Reducing or eliminating the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers.
The health of plants generally comes down to the health of the soil. When beneficial microbes, insects and worms are fed (through organic matter), they in turn aid plants by breaking that organic matter into nutrients they can absorb. Not just for a few weeks after application, like synthetic fertilisers, but months later.
Organic matter also helps aerate the soil, giving room for roots to grow and breathe, and acts as a sponge for water. If you have sandy soil, organic matter will absorb water so roots stay hydrated longer (which means less watering in dry seasons!), and if you have clay soil, organic matter helps soak in water instead of having it sit on top.
And since plants are healthier and already receiving the nutrients they need, you can stop using (or only use in spots as needed) synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides. Did you know that suburban lawns receive the heaviest applications of pesticides per acre in the US, even more than conventional agriculture? Synthetic chemicals then wash off into nearby streams, affecting the local ecosystems. Synthetic chemicals tend to kill off the beneficial microbes in your soil, which means you then have to use more synthetic fertiliser to get the same results.
Overall, using organic matter instead helps the environment and keeps you and your loved ones healthier as you enjoy your yard.
And best of all, using organic matter to create healthier soil means less time caring for your lawn and more time enjoying it!
How Do You Add Organic Matter to Your Lawn?
The key to adding organic matter to your lawn is topdressing with an organic material (whether grass clippings, leaves, or compost) that is lightweight with small particles so that the grass can still easily grow through the organic matter.
The easiest way to add organic matter is by leaving grass clippings on your lawn after mowing. The grass clippings will break down into nitrogen-rich nutrients.
You can also run your lawnmower over fallen leaves, cutting them up into small pieces, in the autumn.
If leaving clippings and leaves on your lawn doesn’t appeal, you could also make or buy compost. Sift it before applying to your lawn to remove any hard clumps, twigs or other pieces of wood and apply a 1/4 inch to your lawn. You can do this by:
- Scattering compost by hand by grabbing handfuls of compost and sprinkling it over the lawn.
- Dump piles of compost throughout your yard and rake it to the appropriate thickness.
- Use a fertilizer spreader set at a low setting and take multiple passes in each direction to ensure even distribution.
Compost can be either made by decaying plant material (like yard scraps) or from livestock manure (chicken, rabbit, cow, horse), or a combination of both. Either one should be finished, meaning it’s a crumbly, dark brown that smells like loamy earth. Although chicken and rabbit manure can be applied as-is, unfinished cow or horse manure may burn your lawn.
Additionally, by identifying “weeds” that spring up in the lawn, you’ll be able to spot specific deficiencies. For example, clover crops up in places that are nitrogen deficient — then fixes nitrogen in their roots which is released into the soil. You can stop clover from overtaking your yard by adding more organic matter high in nitrogen (like in the form of fresh grass clippings) or let the clover do its work. After all, a weed is only a plant growing in a place that we humans don’t want it to grow. (The exceptions being if a plant is toxic to humans or pets, or if your local state or provincial government has deemed it invasive. Then definitely remove them!)
If you want to go a step further, get a soil test for your lawn to find out if the soil has specific deficiencies and topdress with specific amendments.
When Is the Best Time to Add Organic Matter to Your Lawn?
Topdressing your lawn can be done either in the early spring (giving your lawn an early year boost) or in the fall just before the trees drop their leaves. You can topdress once or twice a year, whatever you find works best for you and your lawn.
What’s the Best Organic Matter for Your Lawn?
The best organic matter for your lawn includes:
- Mulched or shredded leaves
- Grass clippings
- Used coffee grounds (high in nitrogen, ask a local coffee shop)
- Finished livestock manure compost
Is Adding Organic Matter Expensive?
Adding organic matter to your lawn doesn’t have to be expensive. Grass clippings, dried leaves, and organic material for compost are free yard waste that you’d otherwise be bagging up and sending to the garbage dump.
If you decide to buy compost or other amendments, then it can still be pretty reasonable as you only need to spread a thin layer once a year. A bulk compost supplier will save you a lot of money compared to bagged compost if you need more than a couple of bags.
Some municipalities give away compost made from compost pickup, so check with them. This free compost may not be finished, however, and you will need to let it continue composting before applying.
Through a compost application once a year, or just not picking up dried leaves and grass clippings, you can nurture your lawn into a lush backyard paradise, inexpensively and chemical-free.
Jamie is the founder of The Backyard Pros. When he was 15 years old he started working at a garden centre helping people buy plants, gardening products, and lawn care products. He has real estate experience and he is a home owner. Jamie loves backyard projects, refinishing furniture, and enjoys sharing his knowledge online.