Top navigation


The Basic Principles of Organic Lawns

by Frank Koll

Maintaining organic lawns and gardens is based on some key principles that guide land care professionals to manage and take care of your landscape. These are the cornerstones to our organic program:

1. Site Analysis

It is critical to observe and analyze existing conditions before any recommendations are made. This involves taking soil tests, paying attention to light and shade conditions (microclimates), taking an inventory of existing plants, assessing their health and noting any other important site considerations. Any land care program that is conducted without this basic information is essentially one that can easily waste many resources as well as drastically harm the environment.

2. Do No Harm – No chemicals and no synthetics

Every choice we make in land care can have a positive or negative impact on the environment. There are always decisions to make in land care, and with the information from the site analysis, we can assess the benefit or harm of any “improvements”. Because chemical and synthetic materials generally leach into the soil, then into the water supply or atmosphere and can be toxic, organic land care does not use any formulated chemicals or synthetic materials. This is an important distinction because some products labeled as “organic” may in fact have synthetic material and would not be allowed in organic land care under the NOFA standards. Be aware of what products are being used on your landscapes at all times and make sure you see the list of ingredients. If it includes anything that is not recognizable or edible then chances are that the product has synthetic ingredients and should not be used.

3. Soil health is critical

Nature teaches us that healthy soil has a natural way of feeding plants, so that is where we begin. A healthy forest ecosystem, as an example, requires no fertilizing and has no waste because of the natural processes that occur. Healthy soil is made up of 5% organic matter, 45% minerals, 25% air and 25% water. This soil is good for plants, holds moisture, minimizes erosion and gets air to the roots of a plant. Healthy soil has an abundance of microorganisms – bacteria, fungi and nematodes to name a few – which do a lot of work releasing nutrients including nitrogen, phosphorous, magnesium and calcium for plants to use. This process is initially slower than a traditional lawn program because when we feed the soil, we need to wait and let nature take its course. A traditional system feeds plants directly for a quick fix but in the process kills the health of the soil and its inhabitants. In this case, long term sustainability is not an option and plants need to be fed constantly to sustain themselves. In organic land care, soils are amended to get the natural system started only once soil test results are evaluated and we know what exists in the soil and what is lacking.

4. Right place, right plant

Organic land care works with the existing conditions of your landscape and matches plants to those conditions instead of vice versa. Various soil types, light and moisture levels dictate different plants for different conditions. Matching plants to habitat helps reduce the amount of maintenance needed because you are working with the natural conditions and not against them. For example, in a shade environment most grasses would not be successful because they need full sun. Alternative ground covers would be recommended as a more sustainable option.

5. Diversity of plants

Plant diversity helps ensure the health of an ecosystem whether it is the forest or your backyard. Monocultures, where one plant dominates, are more susceptible to disease and pests than a diverse landscape. Biodiversity in the landscape is a healthier approach long term and is more sustainable and lower maintenance. Native plants are often used in organic landscapes since they have adapted to our native climate and soil conditions and have learned to combat insects and pests over a long period of time as well as being important to our native wildlife.

6. Use water resources in a responsible and sustainable way

Every plant needs a certain level of water. When soil is healthy, it is able to better retain moisture and naturally get plants the water they needs. Different areas of your landscape may require varying water amounts, so it only makes sense that any irrigation systems, from manual to automated, take into account the difference between a lawn, a perennial bed and a shrub/tree area. When plants are first installed, it is critical to water them properly until they get established, which could be 2-3 years. The amount of water required under normal circumstances will be reduced over time for newly planted landscapes. During severe drought conditions, watering will be needed to ensure that the plants can survive and do not go into stress. Water requirements also need adjustment from season to season in order to ensure that optimal water levels are used.

7. Be stewards of the environment

Organic land care means that as professionals, we have agreed to be stewards of the environment. We try to make the best decisions for the environment in all that we do, even when there are conflicting goals at hand. We recognize that certain practices are preferred but may not always be possible given the circumstances. These practices could include a variety of activities such as composting on site and minimizing the amount of disturbance.

These recommendations are based on the functions we are trying to accomplish while at the same time creating a long term healthy environment that minimizes harm to the natural environment. Organic land care uses nature as its guide to create healthy landscapes that are sustainable and require less maintenance.

Photos by Risa Edelstein
Frank Koll is a Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor, an Irrigation Contractor, and a NOFA-accredited organic land care professional. You can visit Frank’s website at Greenscapes Lawn and Garden Services