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Grassy Goodness

Organic landscaping comes with a few wrinkles



We all want our property to look perfectly beautiful. We covet lawns that are emerald carpets, their plush nap undisturbed by weeds. And, we have the synthetics and the technology to make it happen.

An increasing number of property owners, however, are becoming uncomfortable with the whole idea of chemically induced visual perfection. Most of their concern centers on the effects such chemicals can have on their children and pets. The potential harm to the environment comes in a close second.

Going “organic” would seem to be the perfect solution. It’s safer, kinder, and more responsible to be sure. But a closer inspection reveals that while the organic approach is a good solution, it’s not a perfect one. Here’s the reality check:

It takes time.
Changing from synthetic chemicals to organics is a transition—one that can take five or six years. The reason it’s such slow going is that abruptly dumping a full dose of organic material on top of synthetics can be just as harmful as too many chemicals.

That’s why one of the first things a professional organic landscaper will request is a history—which chemicals have been used and for how long. You have to proceed carefully.

It can be labor intensive.
This applies particularly to lawns. There, the best way to deal with weeds organically is simply to have a thick lawn and crowd the interlopers out. This often means annual over-seeding. 

You’ll need to adjust your idea of lawn beauty.
Before WWII, the American lawn was a happy mix of grass, clover, crabgrass, and dandelions. Synthetic weed killers came along during WWII to defoliate jungles in the Pacific. After the war, someone had the bright idea to use these synthetics to “perfect” America’s lawns.

An organically managed lawn however will not provide a perfect, weed-free carpet. At the very least, you’ll have clover—which is actually beneficial as it provides nitrogen. You’ll also have a slightly shaggier look because organic lawns are mowed higher—to about three to four inches. There is one weed that organic weed inhibitors work decently on: crabgrass.

You’ll need to tolerate a few more pests.
Organic pesticides have their downside: they tend to eliminate the good bugs along with the bad. Because of this, many people go with a program that entails close observation of pests, correct identification, and trying less harmful controls first. These include:

◗ Mechanical controls such as traps and barriers.
◗ Cultural controls such as weeding, eliminating standing water, and introducing biodiverse plantings that attract beneficial and destructive insects. If you want the bad guys to just bug off, marigolds, geraniums, lavender, nasturtiums, sage, and catnip will send a wide range of leaf and flower chompers packing.
◗ Biological controls—the deliberate introduction of beneficial organisms that destroy pests. This whole approach requires time and effort and a definite philosophical position: co-existence.

There are no regulations on using the term organic in landscaping. Farmers have to comply with laws when using the term.

Landscapers do not, so it can be difficult to judge just how “organic” an organic landscaper actually is. The Northeast Organic Farming Associ­ation has developed guidelines on how organic principles can be applied to the landscaping profession and grants NOFA accreditation to qualified landscapers.

To more property owners, slightly funkier lawn are worth it for the sheer peace of mind an organically managed landscape brings. After all, our lawns are not just for gazing upon. They’re for walking barefoot on, for children, and pets to roll around on. So the property isn’t perfect.

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