Violets can supplement grass in lawns

Growing Great Greenspaces

Green surroundings can soothe the soul and even feed the stomach. Beautiful, healthy lawns and gardens can be created and maintained using organic principles.

Homeowners may devote considerable time, energy and resources maintaining landscapes, while keen gardeners can feed families and put away healthy food for extended seasons. Eco-friendly lawns and gardens feed the soil, sustain pollinators, minimize unwanted plants (a.k.a. “weeds”) and keep chemicals out of streams, rivers and lakes, and groundwater.

Healthy Yards

More and more people are realizing the joys of growing vibrant living surroundings, without using harmful insecticides, herbicides or other pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers. Does this mean a yard full of unsightly weeds? Nope!

Eco-friendly lawns and gardens work to keep pests and weeds at bay, and more! —they feed the soil, plants and pollinators, keep toxic chemicals out of our air, water and homes, and cool the urban environment. You can even cut down rising food costs if you grow edible veggies, fruits and herbs.

Whether you live in a house, apartment or condo, read on for some top tips on how to create a beautiful lawn and garden, pesticide-free!

Is Your Lawn Addicted to Chemicals? Break the Cycle with Organic Lawn Care

Many people are moving on from what they find a boring turf monoculture to biodiverse landscapes loved by birds and pollinators. That said, if it is your desire, a beautiful organic lawn is readily achievable.

If you use pesticides to keep unwanted plants and insects at bay, and chemical fertilizers to keep your lawn lush and green, you’re not alone. This is a common North American approach to lawn care. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy for your yard, your family’s health, or the planet. It is not efficient in the long term.

You probably already know that pesticides can cause a range of negative health effects, possibly affecting the nervous system, reducing fertility and disrupting hormone systems. Pesticides can harm the foetus, damage child development, and contribute to cancers and a number of chronic diseases.

Did you know that pesticides could negatively impact plant health? Pesticides can reduce soil quality, killing microbes and fungi, making it harder for plants to thrive.

Synthetic fertilizers affect soil quality, and simple chemical versions of plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium can wash from soil into waterways and groundwater, devastating aquatic ecosystems. Chemical fertilizers cause “eutrophication” when they stimulate aquatic plants and algae to grow quickly, blocking light and reducing oxygen, that then kills other aquatic life. Cyanobacteria overgrowth creates toxins that are harmful to many forms of life, including humans.

Your lawn can even grow dependent on chemical fertilizers, with stunted roots creating a vicious cycle, that keeps it hooked on chemicals and water to stay lush and green. The good news is that eco-friendly practices result in beautiful, resilient groundcovers.

Nine Organic Lawn Care Tips

The Organic Landscape Alliance provided expert advice to support Ontario’s law restricting pesticides. We draw on their nine practices, for great turf while ditching pesticides and chemical fertilizers for good. 

#1: Mow High

Adjust your lawnmower to cut the grass three inches high to encourage strong root development, and leave about 2/3 of the grass blade. The shade suppresses weeds and helps to keep soil cool and moist, reducing the need for frequent watering.

#2: Mulch with Grass Clippings

You have the natural fertilizer you need, right in your lawn! Try using a lawn mower with a mulching blade and leave the grass clippings right on your lawn, where they can break down and nourish the soil. Manual mowers can be perfectly adequate for urban lawns.

#3: Aerate Your Lawn

Thatch is organic material that builds up between your lawn and the soil surface, but healthy soil needs to breathe. Although a thin thatch layer helps to retain water and insulates against extreme temperatures, a thick layer can suffocate your lawn. Creating airways into the soil helps air, water and nutrients to penetrate into the root zone, improving plant health. Best done in the Spring or Fall, it can be as easy as poking holes into your lawn with a fork or strapping on aerating footwear with spikes. For larger areas, a turf aerator machine that removes plugs may be helpful.

#4: Reduce Lawn Thatch

Thick thatch on your lawn can host plant diseases, so removing some (not all) with a stiff raking when grass is dry (for easier removal) can reduce disease and increase air circulation. Most important, however, is topdressing to enrich microbes that will decompose thatch and recycle nutrients in place.

Topdressing with compost. Photo by Plantforsuccess.com

#5: Top Dress with Compost

After you aerate is a great time to apply a natural fertilizer, so the nutrients get into the soil where they are most needed. Compost sprinkled on your lawn in Spring and Fall slowly releases valuable nutrients, and furnishes microorganisms that help to decompose thatch.

 #6: Overseed Your Lawn

If your lawn is looking brown and patchy, after topdressing with compost try adding grass seed in early spring or the fall. For more resilient groundcover consider adding Dutch white clover to the mix.

Set yourself up for success by choosing hardy grasses that withstand pests and disease, and suit the local sun exposure and weather conditions. Overseeding helps to create a lush, dense lawn that crowds out weeds and looks great. Professionals may use slit-seeding that cuts the roots of weeds and plants new seeds, all at once.

 Comparison of Turfgrass Species (University of Maryland Extension)

Turfgrass   speciesDrought   toleranceFull sun Shade High traffic   toleranceInsect and   disease   resistance
Turf-type tall fescueExcellent Excellent Fair Good Good
Kentucky   bluegrassGood Excellent Fair-Poor Excellent Poor
Fine fescue Good-Fair Poor Excellent-Good Poor Good
Perennial   ryegrassPoor Excellent Fair-Poor Good Poor (Fair: if   Seed contains endophytes*) 
Zoysiagrass Excellent Excellent Poor Good Good
Bermudagrass Excellent Excellent Poor Excellent Good

Seeding Rates for Lawn Establishment (University of Maryland Extension)

Turfgrass speciesSeeding rate @ lbs/1000 sq. ft
Turf-type tall fescue6 to 8 lbs.
Kentucky bluegrass2 to 3 lbs.
Fine fescue4 to 5 lbs

#7: Use Organic Lawn Fertilizers

Organic turf care experts sample soil, and supplement nutrients and minerals that are in low supply. In addition to leaving grass clippings, organic options to supplement ground covers and gardens include compost, compost teas rich in microbes, minerals and natural fertilizers containing kelp (seaweed), fish emulsion and bone meal slowly release nutrients into the soil.

[Advanced Tip: Adjusting the mineral content and pH of the soil based on a soil test can optimize conditions for turf and make weeds less vigorous.]

#8: Remove Weeds Naturally

Thick organically maintained turf largely out-competes weeds. In transition, lawn aeration and slit seeding cut weeds off at the roots, and there are other non-toxic ways to keep weeds at bay. Corn gluten meal stops the growth of the very first root from a seed, so early spring application can stop germination of weed seeds. Be aware – this stops germination of any seeds you want to grow, so don’t try seeding at the same time! Wait a month or 6 weeks.

Why not gather your family to pick weeds by hand? Many hands make light work, and it is truly satisfying to pull out weeds by the root.

If hand weeding isn’t for you or your lawn is too large many relax and enjoy fresh-cut greenery. An organic weed killer containing iron is also available.

#9: Encourage Beneficial Species

Not all insects are troublemakers. In fact, some are downright helpful! Aphids are voracious insects that can weaken many plants, putting your lawn, garden and some shrubs at risk. Grubs munch on grass roots, which can destroy your lawn. On the other hand, earthworms, ladybugs and tiny nematodes can be your lawn’s friends. Earthworms aerate the soil naturally as they move around underground, and ladybugs love feasting on pesky aphids. Nematodes can be purchased especially for grub problems if the soil is not already rich in them, and grubs become destructive.

[Advanced Tip: Nematodes are delicate creatures and timing is important, so follow the instructions!]

Tired of Turf? Supplement or Replace Your Lawn with Other Groundcover Plants

While grass varieties such as Kentucky bluegrass and fescue grasses are most common in North American lawns, grasses aren’t your only plant options.

Have you ever noticed clover popping up in your lawn? That’s because clover is very hardy, enriches the soil with nitrogen, and thrives even in dry, nutrient-poor conditions. This is just one example of a plant that makes a beautiful lawn addition or replacement, requires little care, and can withstand some foot traffic and pet excrement.

Many ground cover plants do not tolerate herbicides, add nitrogen to the soil so there is no need for fertilizer, and protect soil, water and wildlife from toxins. Choosing drought-tolerant varieties means less time spent watering, and less water used.

How do you choose which plant(s) to supplement or replace your lawn?

Sun
How much sun does your lawn area receive in a day? 6 hours or more of direct sunlight is considered ‘full sun’, 4-6 hours is considered partial sun. Anything under 4 hours falls into the partial or full shade category.

Soil
Assess the soil to help to choose the plants that will do best in your space. It is certainly possible to send your soil away for detailed testing, but there are do-it-yourself ways to identify your general soil type. Basically, the minerals in soils are either clay (fine particles, nutrient-rich and slow to drain), sand (larger particles, comparatively nutrient-poor and quick-draining) or loam (a mixture of sand, silt and clay that is considered ideal).

Try the Squeeze Test

Squeeze a handful of moist soil in your hand, then open your hand to see what happens. If the soil holds its shape even when poked, you have clay. If it falls apart, it is sandy. If it holds its shape but crumbles when poked, you’ve got loam.

Armed with this information, you can head to your local garden centre and explore the options. Be sure to ask garden centre staff for help, for your sun and soil conditions. Share how you want to supplement or replace your grass with other plants. A few questions may save you hours of research and ensure that you get the best plants for your particular growing conditions.

Groundcover Ideas

Some of us are ambitiously “turfing the turf” by ripping it out or composting under thick layers of paper, cardboard and mulch, and then establishing gardens. An easier option may be to supplement your lawn with other low-growing plants that flower and feed pollinators.

Clover and thyme are favourite ground cover plants that can make great lawn supplements or replacements in a wide range of planting conditions. There are, however, many options (just check that you are not unleashing invasive species).

White Dutch Clover

White Dutch clover is a popular choice, for good reason. Deep roots mean it can find water deep in the soil, which reduces the need for frequent watering. This hardy plant handles foot traffic, easily spreads to fill gaps, and will thrive in either sun or shade. Clover fixes nitrogen, making it a natural fertilizer. Bonus, it is low growing, so no mowing is needed.

“White Dutch clover is an excellent choice for lawns across Canada. Clover tends to stay green throughout drought and insect attacks, which would damage grass.”

CBC gardening expert, Ed Lawrence

How do you get started? White Dutch clover can be mixed with your existing grass to fill in bare spots or to start a new clover lawn. A kilogram of clover seed will cover about 400 square metres of bare soil, or much more if added to an existing lawn. If soil is acidic, a light dusting of dolomitic lime before seeding is recommended. Spread seed by hand or seeder, and add water as needed to get it established. 

White Dutch clover: Image by ww5168564 from Pixabay
Violets

Violets supplement lawns with gorgeous purple flowers in the spring. Sprinkle flowers over your salad for an exotic seasonal culinary treat.

Violets in lawn – Ottawa – May 2022
Wild strawberries

Wild strawberries attract pollinators and sport dainty white flowers – and then of course, strawberries!

Naturalized wild strawberries in bloom – Ottawa – May 2022
Bugleweed

Bugleweed is low growing and can take over a patch of lawn. It flowers through the growing season, is drought-tolerant and tough through the summer, and suppresses other plants with repeated mowing.

Bugleweed, Ottawa, May 2022
Low-Growing Thyme

Thyme isn’t just for the kitchen – low-growing varieties make a great lawn replacement. It is drought-resistant, hardy, can withstand some foot traffic and will quickly fill in gaps. 

Thyme is more expensive than white clover, so it may not be the best choice for large lawns. Unlike white clover, it is best to remove the grass first before planting thyme seedlings 6 to 12 inches apart.

To remove your existing lawn, do NOT kill it off with harmful herbicides. Smother your lawn in layers of newspaper, cardboard and other mulch that will degrade into soil. With water and time, it will break down and smother your lawn. Dig it up, making sure to remove any remaining roots, and you’re ready to plant your thyme.

Three popular varieties are Silver Thyme, Creeping Thyme and Woolly Thyme. Why not mix up different kinds of thyme for a truly eye-catching lawn?

Thyme Lawn: Photo Courtesy of Roberta Smith for Fine Gardening Magazine

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