Northeast Wisconsin
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • March 2018
Written by 

Do-it-yourself organic lawn care

The first step in switching from conventional to natural, organic lawn care is to assess the quality of the existing lawn. If an existing lawn contains few weeds and consists of desirable turfgrass species, natural, organic methods and cultural practices can maintain a good lawn. If a lawn has excessive weeds and/or consists of undesirable turfgrass species, it may be best to initially take a more aggressive approach.

After addressing lawn quality, the next step is assessing soil quality. A number of inexpensive soil test kits are readily available; however, they generally will not provide enough information to help benchmark your current soil requirements and provide you with a roadmap to a successful lawn care program. Without knowing what is right and what is wrong with your existing soil, you may be wasting your time and money. For the purpose of this article, I will recommend a program based on a nine year data base of soil tests taken from the Fox Cities and the surrounding area.

Most lawns found in the Fox Valley are lacking nutrients like nitrogen, calcium and potassium. Our soils are also poor in structure which is a result of high clay, low organic matter and a poor balance between calcium and magnesium. Based on those findings, my general recommendations for starting a DIY organic lawn care program are as follows:

Spring — Feed the plants

Apply all natural organic fertilizer which utilizes water insoluble nitrogen and zero phosphorus. The application rate will depend on the deficiencies found on your soil test and the recommendations on the product. The fertilizer is typically applied in early spring and applied at a rate of 5 to 10 lbs per 1000 square feet depending on the nitrogen content.

Summer — Feed the soil

What creates a sustainable lawn is healthy, biologically rich soil. Creating an environment that the biology thrives in is the key to a healthy lawn. There are a number of ways to accomplish this. Compost tea inoculates the soil with added beneficial organisms and, if done correctly, feeds the organisms and plants, creating a less stressful environment for both; this results in healthy, productive plants and a sustainable soil. If compost tea is not available to you, improve organic matter by top dressing with compost and/or humates. Apply compost tea throughout the growing season at a rate of 2 gallons per 1000 square feet. Top dress with ¼ inch compost at least one time per year until a sufficient organic matter percentage is achieved (5 to 6 percent).

Fall — Amend the soil

Fall is a great time to do a number of soil structure amendments if compacted soils are the problem. Aeration is the quickest way to deal with soil structure issues like compaction. Aeration opens up the soil allowing air and moisture to get deeper into the root zone which helps with loosening up tight soils. While the soil is open due to aeration, it’s also a great time to add humates and calcium (gypsum). If your grass is thin and has a number of bare spots throughout, overseeding with good quality C3 grasses like bluegrass and perennial rye is recommended. If available, add mycorrhizal fungi to the seed mix to enhance plant vigor and soil structure. Apply seed in late fall at a rate of 2 to 4 pounds per 1000 square feet; however, give yourself enough warm days to insure complete seed germination.


Turf is just like any other plant and it requires water to maintain its vigor and appearance, especially Kentucky Bluegrass which is in most of our lawns. I recommend deep, infrequent waterings in the morning only with 3/4 to one inch of water one to two times per week. Overwatering leads to soil compaction and disease. During extreme heat, water more frequently for shorter periods, or simply let your grass go dormant.

A word about weeds

Since the 1940s, traditional lawn care has feasted on a one-size-fits-all approach to weed control that paints every plant with the same broad stroke. The EPA estimates, however, that only 2 percent of the active ingredients in synthetic weed killers, which are called herbicides, ever reach the target plant. The other 98 percent goes into the soil, the ground water and the atmosphere. Organic land care specialists believe that the best tool against weeds is a healthy grass plant which can only happen with healthy soils. That takes time, especially on yards that have an abundance of weeds.

Weeds are telling you something about your yard. Each weed seed is genetically programmed to replace specific deficiencies in the soil. For example, if your lawn is missing nitrogen, nature will often send in clover or one of its cousins in the legume family of plants, which can trap and process nitrogen from the atmosphere. If your lawn has too much nitrogen, nature will likely give you an abundance of dandelions. The best approach to eliminate weeds is to improve your soil through an appropriate balance of biology and nutrients and improving soil texture and structure. This takes time if your soil is out of balance. The organic approach is not a quick fix; it’s a healthy and safe alternative approach to chemicals which benefits our family and our environment. Having said that, here are some tools to get rid of weeds without chemicals:

  • Total eradication using nonselective sprays or solarizing techniques
  • Spot weeding with nonselective sprays, flaming or mechanical tools
  • Soil modification that gets to the root of the problem
  • Overseeding with new grass seed to crowd out weeds
  • Mowing at an appropriate height (3 to 4 inches) and bagging only occasionally (first cut of the year, right after dandelions go to seed, right before winter)

Good luck and happy growing! 

Todd Rockweit

Todd and Tara Rockweit are owners of Backyard Organics, LLC, Wisconsin’s first organic land care business accredited by NOFA, one of two organizations in the country that accredit Organic Land Care Professionals (AOLCPs). Since 2004, Backyard Organics has been supplying natural and organic products and services for people, pets and property, including a complete do-it-yourself program. To read more about our products and services, or if you would like to submit a question, please visit us at, email [email protected] or call 920-730-3253/888-200-0446.

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