As home owners, my husband and I always opted out of the use of lawn chemicals. We didn't know much about them and that, precisely, is the point. We instinctively felt that there were too many unknowns. A healthy lawn is the product of healthy soil. There is a symbiotic relationship between the lawn vegetation and the soil that supports it and that it supports.
Through the years, we found that less is best and keeping things simple actually works. Our lawns in general could easily look very presentable, at very low cost, with these few smart cultural practices:
1. Aeration, as needed and very necessary especially for the chemically compacted lawn. Rent an aerating machine or hire someone to do your lawn and get more savings by encouraging neighbors to join in. This is not expensive and it is a great way to improve soil health; and, it assists with over-seeding.
2. Over-seeding with a mix of local grasses and white clover. (Clover is evergreen and drought resistant. Having one grass seed type is not sustainable.) Picture a tree plantation where every tree is the same such as with a fast growing pine. What are the implications? Is it a healthy forest with healthy soil? Now, picture a healthy forest with a variety of trees; oaks, maples, pines, hemlock, birches; this is what you want for a good lawn. More good plant growth crowds out unwanted weeds. Early Fall is best time to seed but when starting out with a needy lawn, spring aeration, compost top-dressing and compost tea along with seeding will be helpful.
3. Mulch-mowing-- leaving the short (1/2 inch) grass clippings which in turn assist with water retention, and microbial and plant health while returning nitrogen to the soil. We use a Fiscar's Reel Push Mower that mulches our small yard.
4. Mowing Height-- Keep the Grass height at 3- 3 1/2 inches.
5. Composting with either or both organic compost topsoil or organic compost tea (the tea is less expensive and more practical for larger areas). Make sure to get the compost from a reliable source!
6. Soil Testing If you have a reliable and knowledgeable local organic lawn professional assisting in the beginning, he or she will want the soil test. We did not go with testing with any of our previously chemically treated lawns and we did fine with just these basic practices. Lime may be good at times, but it is very important to have the soil ph tested first. We have rarely used lime and have had good results. Note: Not all lime is equal and it is good to consult with an organic farmer's association for proper type for your area.
7. Leave some dandelions as they actually help with soil health; same with plantains ( a broadleaf). To keep the dandelion population down, dig out most but leave some and just clip off the yellow flowers before they go to seed! If your lawn is loaded with dandelions, the soil is telling you something and more work will be required. Know that moss grows for a reason-- probably best to just let it be but if you must get rid of it, you can get the soil more bacterial and less fungal with the right type of organic compost top-dress and compost tea. Our source here in NH is reliable but buyer beware; know what you need and good advice may be found by speaking with someone who is NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmer's Association), certified. Of course, when living outside of New England, find someone in your area who is trained in organic lawn care.)
8. Apply Organic fertilizer such as soybean meal (after aeration and before applying organic compost top-dress or compost tea), in the spring and fall, especially when converting the lawn from years of chemicals.
Our current lawn has been off lawn chemicals for 8 years and it had only 1 1/2 seasons with compost and compost tea. It has had several years of aeration and over-seeding and two seasons with mulch-mowing. We have never applied any fertilizers on the lawn and are still very pleased that it looks better than most lawns. We rely on rain and snow melt for water because with good soil, there is good water retention and with a mix of local grasses that are properly mown, there are deeper plant roots. This spring, we will be mowing only since the lawn is working well on its own.
The link below from Toxics Action Center is quite good at explaining things in more depth. Plus, it contains facts for why we should not use weed and feed products for our lawn care. I found it interesting that they say that lawns rarely need lime. Note: Save time and money by planting more trees, bushes, and rock gardens with herbs and flowers, not to mention vegetables for bees and other pollinators.
Even though these pesticides are proven to be hazardous to public health and the environment, USEPA’s pesticide regulatory system has put its stamp of approval on the use of these pesticides. Although a growing pool of research links exposure to the pesticides used by TruGreen ChemLawn to nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and headaches and chronic illnesses like lymphoma, leukemia, bladder cancer, and learning disabilities, the USEPA continues to register these pesticides for commercial and residential use.