Organic Gardening: How to Make Your Backyard Organic

For many of us, change begins at home. There’s no place better to start reducing pesticide use in your community than in your own garden or yard. Saying “no” to store-bought synthetic pesticides does not mean saying “yes” to a lawn filled with weeds. It simply means changing to a new way of getting rid of them. Thankfully, organic land management and care is a great solution.

“Kicking the chemical habit can vastly improve lawn health and decrease environmental problems. Synthetic chemicals are like junk food for plants; they are used quickly and then you are left with no reserves.” – Midwest Pesticide Action Organization

Starting at Home

At Stonyfield, we know a lot about organic land care because we’ve been buying milk from farmers who manage their cow pastures organically for decades. Organic land care is much more than saying “no toxic persistent pesticides.” Changing from conventional pesticides to organic is not a simple product swap out. It’s a completely different process, shifting from an input intensive system to a knowledge-based system. It starts with healthy soil built with natural inputs and natural sources of fertility. This approach is pretty much the same whether you’re feeding your cows on organic grass, gardening at home, or caring for your school’s athletic fields.

4 Tips for Healthier Lawns and Gardens

Want to make this transition yourself? Here are four easy tips to get you started down the right path of changing your backyard to organic!

Soil testing is key – Most of us are not taught to test our soil. We put products down based on a manufacturer’s recommendation and it doesn’t occur to us to think any differently. The appropriate way to fertilize grass though is to take an initial soil test. That soil test will tell you what is going on in the soil and what you might need to do to correctly balance it for the best health of the grass and the life in the soils. You can test the pH of your soil at home with a Cabbage Test! For a more comprehensive assessment of the nutrients in your soil, you can send in a soil sample to your state university’s agriculture extension program.

Stop using harmful pesticides – The easiest change you can make in your backyard starting today? Stop using harmful pesticides and herbicides! Many pesticides used in lawn care can contain harmful chemicals that are potentially detrimental to the health of your family, along with the environment in and around your yard. Insecticides or herbicides are usually used to address a specific pest or weed, but butterflies, bees, frogs, and other creatures that might come into contact with the pesticides used in your yard could also be severely harmed by these chemicals. These pesticides and herbicides can also come into your home on your family’s clothing, shoes, or skin and stay in the fibers of your home for quite some time.

Use organic fertilizers exclusively – If we are trying to “go organic” and eliminate a dependence upon synthetic pesticides, we also have to eliminate the use of synthetic fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers are manufactured using fossil fuels, are salt-based, and are generally water-soluble. This kind of fertilizer directly feeds the plant and can be detrimental to a healthy biological soil system. In contrast, organic fertilizers that are generally water-insoluble, feed the life in the soil, and in turn the soil feeds the plant.

Think about mowing height – It’s generally accepted for most grasses (with the exception of some warm season grasses) that the ideal stress-free mowing height is around three inches. This height allows the grass to achieve its maximum health efficiently, produce its own food through photosynthesis, begin to outcompete annual weed seed germination, develop deep roots, and stand up to drought conditions. For those of us who are used to cutting their lawns very short, this may seem like a big change. Once most people move to a three inch height, they appreciate the lush look that comes as the result.

Other Great Resources

If you want to learn more, there are some first-rate guides on how to change your lawn from conventional pesticide-based care to organic care. Here are a few resources you might want to check out:

Non-Toxic Neighborhoods (NTN) helps cities, school districts, HOAs, private businesses, and major developers transition to organic landscaping practices successfully by sharing their proven and replicable methods. NTN’s Toolkit and step-by-step playbook explains how you can do this where you live—from supporting research, to shareable documents.

“Chip” Osborne, Jr., the founder of Osborne Organics and the Organic Landscape Association, has decades of experience in creating safe, sustainable, and healthy landscapes and athletic fields through natural turf management. He shares his expertise here.

Beyond Pesticides, a national non-profit, keeps it clear and simple with their eight steps to healthy lawn care.

Northeast Organic Farming Association has written a thorough guide for organic land care.

Harvard University has more land than what most people consider a “backyard” but the university has written an excellent brief on its organic maintenance program and its transition from pesticides.