You love your lawn, but that love comes at a cost — adding to the 3 million tons of synthetic lawn fertilizers and 70 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides being used on lawns, an estimated 40 – 60% of which end up in lakes, rivers, and groundwater. The stuff we need to drink.
But there is hope! You can keep your lawn beautiful and ditch the synthetic chemicals by letting your lawn go natural.
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What is a natural lawn?
A natural lawn is a lawn that’s maintained without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. This could mean growing your lawn as a meadow with a variety of grasses and wildflowers, or it could mean growing a traditional green lawn using native grasses and compost, or anywhere in between.
Can you have a nice lawn without chemicals?
Yes, you can! People who switch over to natural lawns find that after an initial period, natural lawns end up saving them time, labour, and money while still looking great!
Okay, one caveat: no, your lawn probably won’t look like one of the top golf runways, but whose lawn does? It’s an unrealistic expectation unless you can spend thousands of dollars a year on lawn specialists.
The Pros of Letting Your Lawn Go Natural
- More resilient. The weather’s getting more unpredictable. Last spring, I had a late freeze followed by a heatwave a week later! Native grasses are used to the trials of where you live. They’ve survived freezing cold winters or hot, dry summers. When you plant different species of grasses, if one species or variety can’t handle a wild weather change, the others will survive or even thrive.
- Less exposure to chemicals! Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are not safe, and you do not want to get them on your skin. Lawn care specialists who use chemicals a lot can even end up with daily nosebleeds.
- Less risk of nitrogen burn. Synthetic fertilizers come with high concentrations of nitrogen to artificially green up the grass. At best, this makes your grass grow faster, meaning you have to mow more. At worst, you accidentally over-apply, and your lawn burns or even dies. Compost contains low concentrations of nitrogen and other nutrients, so it’s really hard to over-apply. These low concentrations are enough to keep your lawn healthy.
- Nurtures the soil, so the soil nurtures your grass. Synthetic nitrogen kills the beneficial microbes and earthworms which would otherwise convert organic matter into nutrients your grass can absorb. When you use compost instead, you’re feeding those beneficial microbes — who can then turn grass clippings and thatch into food. A healthy lawn has 3% organic matter.
- Relieves compaction. Do you have to aerate your lawn every year? Organic matter improves the soil structure, naturally aerating your lawn. It also feeds worms, who then add their own aerating tunnels.
- Less watering. Because you’re allowing the grass to grow taller (around 3-inches), the roots can grow deeper. Deeper roots, along with selecting grass species that suit your climate, means that your grass has better access to the water, instead of relying on the top two inches of soil, which dries out pretty quickly. Plus, organic matter is like a sponge. By adding more through compost, you’re helping the soil keep moisture, so your lawn can go longer between waterings.
- No thatch problems. When the soil microbiology is vibrant, they will break down thatch and turn it into nutrients long before thatch becomes a problem.
- You’re saving the environment. Synthetic fertilizer salts, pesticides, and herbicides are doing quite the number on the environment. They leech quickly through the soil and into water sources. Synthetic nitrogen is actually one of the top causes of climate change, right next to CO2 emissions. And as I said in the intro, between 40 and 60% of synthetic nitrogen ends up leaching into water sources. So by eliminating synthetic chemicals on your lawn, you’re doing your part to save the world.
- Less money spent on lawn care companies. Many natural grass species require little to no care. In fact, feeding them with fertilizer may hurt them. Even if you do still need to add compost, you only need to do it once, maybe twice, a year. That’s money and time in your pocket.
The Cons of Letting Your Lawn Go Natural
- Natural lawns require more care in the first couple years of switching over. This could include overseeding with more suitable varieties of grass, amending with compost and compost tea, and keeping a close eye out for pests.
- Requires more patience. Again, switching over to a natural lawn takes a few years for your lawn to adjust. It may look worse for a while at the start. After years of chemical dependence, your lawn has been stripped of its microbiology, which needs time to recover. Instead of rolling out sod for an instant lawn, you’ll need to grow from seed. But this is really a pro, as it’ll help you learn patience.
- Yes, there will be weeds. You’ll either have to hand pull them or learn to accept them as a bonus. Bees love dandelions! And many common weeds are edible and a tasty addition to salads. (If they’re a noxious, highly invasive weed like giant hogweed, then you may need to employ chemicals to get rid of it.)
- Yes, there will be pests. While your lawn is detoxing, it will be a bigger target for pests who take advantage of the lowered defenses. But, by building up the soil and growing suitable and diverse grasses, your grass will become far more pest-resilient than it ever could with the help of herbicides. And by increasing the diversity, and letting some weeds stick around, you’ll attract beneficial insects — most of whom snack on those nasty pest insects.
- You will need a plan. Letting a lawn go natural requires more thought and hand-holding than just not fertilizing and mowing your lawn. The soil is likely stripped of organic matter and beneficial microbes. Your grass can’t feed itself without added nutrients. And it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I suggest reading the Organic Lawn Care Manual: A Natural, Low-Maintenance System for a Beautiful, Safe Lawn by Paul Tukey, who has transitioned thousands of lawns. This book contains everything you need to know AND INCLUDES A STEP-BY-STEP PLAN! If you want more hands on help, then look for organic lawn care specialists in your area.
Weaning your lawn off synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides is one of the best things you can do in your yard to help the bigger environmental problems and to make your yard safer for you and your loved ones. All it takes is a plan, a bit of extra work initially, and patience.
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.