Homeowner's Guide

How Healthy Do You Want Your Lawn To Be?

It takes time for organic lawn fertilizer to get your grass in shape.
Is it worth the effort, or is the natural approach just hype, a passing fad?

Many people have joined the trend to be more concerned and pro-active about their own health these days. You may exercise more and pay attention to proper nutrition. But isn’t the organic thing for your grass a bit on the fanatic side?

The answer depends on you. To get a healthy lawn, you must first make a conscious decision. Do you want to simply have a lawn that is there, and worry about it as little as possible, but take what you get?
Or do you want to embark on a program based on sound, wholesome environmental principles that will build up a strong, disease resistant lawn?

Those are trick questions. Either choice does not take you in different directions for lawn care. You get both results when you subscribe to the premise that healthy soil below ground produces healthy trouble-free grass above.

Look at these key features of organic lawn fertilizer, then decide if it’s right for you.

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What Exactly Is Natural, Organic Lawn Fertilizer?

It is any natural material containing elements that provide nutrition to plants. This group is quite broad. It basically includes raw, organic (carbon-based) materials derived from plant or animal sources. Examples are alfalfa, blood and bone meal, cottonseed, feathers, fish, kelp, worm castings, manures and compost.

These materials do more than simply add nutrients for plant growth. In contrast, that is the sole purpose of synthetic chemical fertilizer. Organic lawn fertilizers also contribute physical structure and organic material to the soil. These substances interact with everything that exists in the ground. They are essential in providing the optimal conditions for fertile soil and steady, controlled growth.

What Are The Benefits Of Organic Fertilizer?

Benefits For You:

  • It lasts longer. Apply it less frequently. Organic material takes longer to break down. It does not quickly leach out of the soil with watering.
  • Gives consistent, steady results since it releases nutrients slowly, at a rate the grass can use them.
  • Doesn’t over-stimulate lush growth causing more frequent mowing or extra clippings.
  • Worry free. Spills won’t cause burning or clean-up difficulties. Over-application causes no problem.
  • Fewer related problems from chemical residues and run-off.
  • One less time handling chemicals.

Benefits For The Soil:

  • Adds organic matter that builds soil fertility.
  • Feeds the billions of soil microorganisms that are essential in the nutrient exchange with plants.
  • Improves the structure of soil to reduce compaction.
  • Maintains steady moisture levels with organic matter present.
  • Encourages earthworm population. They improve aeration and drainage.

Benefits For The Grass:

  • Continual feeding of nutrients, without high and low extremes.
  • Fewer deficiencies with wider range and balance of micro-nutrients available.
  • No salts present that can potentially cause burning. (Manures are the possible exception to this.)
  • Stronger, deeper root growth due to better nutrients and worm activity that loosens the soil.
  • Improved resistance to stress and drought as roots are strengthened.
  • Less susceptible to insects and diseases when lush fast growth does not occur, and when a stronger root system has access to balanced nutrition.

How Do You Select And Use The Right Materials?

Organic lawn fertilizers and amendments are now readily available. Many companies produce only these type of products. As their value gets recognized, some of the big name chemical companies have also started to offer an organic product line. How do you decide what to try?

What to Select:

  • Pellets or granules are much easier to apply than the meal form.
  • Select a pre-blended product that contains many organic materials. This is easier than getting several individual items and mixing them yourself.
  • Beneficial microbes (myccorrhizae) are added to some brands of organic lawn fertilizer. This stimulates the natural life cycle in the soil. It is necessary if your soil is sterile from chemical use. Once your lawn is healthy, the extra expense for these additions may not be warranted.
  • If a specific organic lawn fertilizer is not offered, use an all purpose blend or one with a higher nitrogen level. (Learn about NPK Fertilizer Numbers)
    No choice of the organic product mix is incompatible with lawns, another advantage.
  • Check the bag for numerous small holes that would indicate bugs got inside. They don’t make the product unusable, rather suggest the bag is quite old.

How to Apply:

  • Use the same applicator as you would for chemical fertilizers. The bag should give settings. Or spread it by hand with no worries about over-doing it.
  • Mow the grass first so product will more easily fall through to the soil.
  • Water thoroughly after application, but not to the point it runs off.
  • Pets and kids won’t be harmed by it. Dogs may be attracted to blends having bone or blood meal, so keep them away until it is watered in.
  • Ignore the instructions on the bag regarding when to reapply. They want to sell as much product as possible. Read When To Fertilize Lawns (coming soon).

Other Tips On Use:

  • Organic lawn fertilizer will not produce results as fast as chemicals. Plan ahead. Don’t wait until the grass is looking bad.
  • Fall is the best time to apply. Reserves will be stored for the spring growth.
  • Spring applications are fine. Organics depend on warmer soil temperatures for the microorganisms to get busy. This can delay visible results.
  • Summer application is fine. It won't over-stimulate grass. Try to coordinate your fertilizing according to the growth pattern typical of your variety, warm or cool season grasses.
  • Store extra product sealed in a cool, dry place, not out in the sun to bake. A small trash can with lid works great.

Are There Concerns With Using Animal Manure?

Instead of specific, blended organic lawn fertilizer, chicken or steer manures are also used. They are relatively inexpensive. Consider this before applying:

Steer Manure:

  • Can be very “hot” depending on how well it was composted, and how fresh it is. Don’t put it on a lawn if you can feel heat through the bag.
  • Use very small amounts. Unlike other organics, too much can be trouble.
  • Contains urine salts. These can burn if applied too heavily.
  • Water thoroughly after applying. Don’t let it sit all day without watering!
  • It has an “aroma” that can last for 2-3 days.
  • Look for brands that say “weed free” on the bag. Cheaper products may not be processed in a way that eliminates weeds.

Chicken Manure:

  • Very good source of nutrients, IF it is a bagged product. Then it is usually fully composted and ready to use.
  • Don’t apply fresh from the local farmyard. Possible problems are burning and bacteria.
  • Don’t exceed the amount recommended on the bag. Water it in good.

Other homemade lawn fertilizer from manure (rabbit or goat) could be used after being fully composted, aged, and screened to a usable particle size.

Do Organic Fertilizers Cost More?

The shelf price is cheaper for many chemical varieties compared to organic lawn fertilizer. However, the best chemical fertilizer types are in slow-release form. They are more expensive, but worth the difference. The cost of organics should be closer in range to these.

Here’s the bonus question. What does it cost to apply a $15.00 bag that needs four or five applications? Try $60-75, plus your time and labor. Or apply natural, organic lawn fertilizer twice a year at $25-30 each time, with half the time and labor. Which sounds like a better deal?

This example depends on you having a lawn that is not starved and desperate for organic material. If so, it is best to apply an extra feeding or two the first year, then cut back to less. Also, organic lawn fertilizers combined with a natural preemergent would cost more. But these may be the best approach to a weed-infested, unhealthy lawn.

Apply less expensive organic soil amendments between each fertilizing to build up the soil. Just a thin top dressing will keep the cycle going.

You Don’t Have To Be An Organic Fanatic

At the garden center, I encountered some reluctance by people to use organic fertilizer. I often recommended that they try organic products first for their vegetable garden, then for their flower garden. They could just use the “regular fertilizer” on their lawn. They loved the results with the organics. It seemed worthwhile to use the "good stuff" in these two special areas.

One day it struck me, that this was a strange approach. Lawns take the most abuse of all the plants in your yard. Constant mowing interrupts its growth process = stress. Activity of all kinds on it = stress. Why expect grass to do more with less?

Successful athletes place great importance on their nutritional intake. A healthy lawn requires, and benefits greatly from, the same resources. Try going organic! Lawn fertilizer never looked, or worked, so good!

A helpful summary of advantages and disadvantages can be found in this article: The Differences In Organic vs. Non-Organic Fertilizer.

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