Organic lawn care 101

The PSA came across my garden newsfeed this week. Urgent! If you want a life without dandelions and henbit, NOW is the time to apply a pre-emergent!

As we walk through the neighborhood, we observe the lawns. Which ones often have the most weeds? The ones that are scalped in the spring, and regularly sprayed and fed with chemicals of all sorts. Pre-emergent. Weed killer. Chemical fertilizers.

Then we end our walk… looking at our own lawn, which has been organically maintained for 23 years now and is nearly weed-free. If I didn’t want to sound like an environmental zealot (which I don’t mind sounding like!), I would call our lawn “maintained the lazy way.” We have a long list of things we don’t do to our lawn.

We don’t scalp our lawn in the spring. (Cutting the grass too short allows more sun to hit the soil, drying it out faster, while also allowing weed seeds to germinate.)

We don’t bag our grass clippings. In fact, well, we don’t even have a typical lawn mower let alone a bag for it.

We don’t apply pre-emergents or weedkillers of any sort. The “weeds” we do fight are mostly self-inflicted weeds. Trumpet vine. Mexican petunia. I am not saying that we don’t get weeds. Yes, we do get weeds. But we chose to allow some  to grow (such as dandelions and henbit), as they are beneficial to the pollinators we depend upon. The few “weeds” we do get, we pull by hand.

A weed is a flower in the wrong place,
a flower is a weed in the right place… ~ Ian Emberson

Henbit, in particular, blooms in late winter and early spring when few other flowers are blooming. Dandelions – no matter how many wishes have been blown to the wind in our garden – have never reproduced to any point of being a nuisance.

Weeds can actually tell you a lot about your lawn. For example, clover in the lawn indicates low nitrogen levels. Sedge and bindweed generally grow in soils that are poorly drained, while dandelions grow in poor soil. Studying up on weeds can tell you a lot about your lawn and its needs.

A few lawn pointers:

Never mow lower than 2 1/2″ inches, while 3-4″ high is best. Mowing at least once a week during the spring disrupts weeds’ growing cycle, as the weeds never have time to set seed.

Leaving grass clippings on the lawn is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to add essential organic matter to your yard.

If you must apply a pre-emergent, consider using corn gluten meal, an organic method of controlling weed germination. (In full disclosure, I have never used corn gluten meal as weeds have never been an issue for us.)


Leave some leaf litter around the garden for lizards and bugs to hide out in through the winter. If you are lucky, you will also see birds, such as the brown thrasher, come in to thrash about, looking for food. (Above mentioned lizards and bugs. Such is the cycle of life)

“Darting about in the thickets,
His red-brown coat to veil,
Foraging there amongst dead leaves,
Thrashing his long brown tail.”
~ Alice E Ball


We shocked the neighborhood when we moved in and proceeded to pull a brand new reel mower out of the garage. We had several neighbors come rushing over, offering us their gas powered lawn mowers “until we could afford a real lawn mower.” Cost wasn’t the reason we went with a reel mower. In fact, our reel mower, new, cost more than a basic (ie: cheap) lawn mower. We knew from experience that a reel mower did just as good of a job of maintaining a lawn, while also being environmentally friendly, quiet and low maintenance.


There are two small downsides to the reel mower: Twigs will stop the blades immediately, so all lawn debris does need to be picked up first. (Which is advisable with all lawn mowers.) Deeper patches of grass (like after a rainy period) may need a few quick passes, in alternating directions, to be cut evenly.

Every few years, we take it into the shop and get the blades sharpened. (We could do that on our own, but prefer to hire it done.) That is the extent of its upkeep.

Flower beds prevail over lawn today, but our house – situated in a cul-de-sac – has a large yard, by suburban living standards.  When we first moved in, we had quite a bit of yard to mow, but it was never an issue to mow it with the reel mower.

We have now had said reel lawn mower for 23 years now and still love it as much today as we did when we first bought it.

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