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Ten Questions to Ask an Organic Lawn Care Provider

Q. What questions should be asked when trying to find a 'green' yard care company? I live in a condo community and the current landscaper says they're organic, but sprays. I would like to help the Board find someone to creatively deal with weeds and pests.

    ---Jan in Columbia, MD
Can you give me any recommendations for organic lawn care services in my area?
    ---Darryl in Wilmington, Delaware
I'm trying to hire an organic lawn care company. I found one that uses a fertilizer with an NPK ratio of 10-2-8, made from "meat, bone, blood, poultry, fish, and feather meals and humates". They would apply it six times a year; five times in Spring, Summer and Fall, and once more in the Winter. Does this sound right? Thanks,
    ---Lorraine in Collegeville, PA
A. One of the biggest difficulties in finding ANY kind of good lawn care is that these businesses generally only have a very short season in which to make a year's worth of profit, and so face a huge temptation to pile on unnecessary products, services and visits—like Lorraine's prospective company that wants to feed her lawn six times a year, a whopping four times too often for turf in PA. I don't care if it is organic, that's WAY too much food!

We get this basic question a lot. And while I can't recommend specific companies, I can help you pick and choose from the choices you have locally. Here are ten questions to ask and the answers you should receive from a prospective sustainable lawn care company. Note: Lawn needs and timings vary greatly by location and turf type, so first make sure which kind of grass you have. Read some of our lawn care Questions of the Week for help in identifying whether you have a cool or warm season grass, for starters. Look under L in the list.

And because proper lawn care generally involves a lot fewer visits, see if you can negotiate a flat price for the entire season instead of per visit. (Most American lawns need to be left alone more, not cared for more.)

  • #1: What will you feed my lawn?

    The answer should be a natural, high-nitrogen fertilizer. That means the first number on the bag should be the biggest—typically between 7 and 10; nothing higher than 11 or 12 or it can't be natural. Lawns don't need a lot of phosphorus and potassium, so those second and third numbers on the bag should be low—between zero and 3 each. Good organic lawn foods include: Composted poultry and/or horse manure; and/or feather, blood, cottonseed and/or corn gluten meal. If the company says they'll spread compost on the lawn to feed it, sign them up and kiss them on the lips. (AFTER making sure they mean compost made from fall leaves, not sewage sludge or 'bio solids'.)

  • #2: When will you feed it?

    Cool season lawns like bluegrass and fescue should be fed twice: once in Spring and again in Fall; never in the summer, when feeding stresses these kinds of lawns. (If you're on a 'Four-Step Program,' you need a 12-Step Program!) Winter feedings are wrong EVERYWHERE. (I hear the robot yelling "Warning! Warning!" on that one.)

  • Warm season lawns (like Bermuda and zoysia) should be fed while they're actively growing in Spring and Summer; two small feedings for low appetite grasses like zoysia and centipede; three normal-to-big ones for the others. A good lawn service should use true mulching mowers that return the pulverized Nitrogen-rich clippings to the turf, providing a gentle feeding every time they mow.

  • #3: How will you cut it?

    Cool season lawns should never be cut lower than three inches for grasses in sun and three and a half inches for grasses in shade—otherwise they won't be able to survive summer heat. Cool season lawns should never be cut during a dry heat wave, when they need their blades to stay intact to retain moisture. Warm season lawns take a closer cut; two inches is a good average. No lawn should be cut when it's wet; it tears the grass blades to shreds instead of cutting them cleanly.

  • #4: How will you control lawn weeds?

    Cut at the proper height, feed at the right time of year, water deeply and infrequently and most lawns will beat up weeds and steal their lunch money without any other help from humans. If crabgrass is a problem, the first feeding should be corn gluten meal.

  • #5: Oh, c'mon! What about clover, dandelions and wild violets?

    Clover and dandelions are signs of poor lawn care; learn what they mean and fix it. There are organic ways to remove dandelions mechanically and/or fry their seed heads, but if you water, feed and cut your lawn correctly, they will vanish, even if all you do is yell at them from a lawn chair. The clover will also vanish if you feed the lawn correctly and stop over-watering. And until it does vanish, that clover will feed your lawn with every cutting. (It's full of Nitrogen, as am I.) Violets are beautiful, edible, nutritious and invulnerable. They're also ephemeral, so eat some, enjoy the color and sit on your Round-Up; they will soon disappear.

  • #6: What about insects?

    In general, insects don't bother healthy lawns. If you have lots of beetle grubs, have the service apply milky spore disease to the lawn in the fall; not in the Spring. Or have them water beneficial nematodes into the turf on an evening in the Spring, when the grubs are close to the surface, preparing to emerge as armored adults. (Don't apply the sensitive little nematodes on a hot and sunny day; a cool and cloudy one would be fine, however.)

  • #7: Lime?

    Only if a soil test indicates it's needed to raise the soil pH.

  • #8: Aeration?

    Absolutely! It's a great cure for compacted soil and gives the service something non-destructive to do. Aerate cool-season lawns in the Fall; warm season ones in the Spring.

  • #9: What about seeding and re-seeding?

    Sow seed to create or repair a cool-season lawn in Fall; never in Spring, and never, never, never in Summer! However, Spring is the time to plant or repair warm-season lawns. Shady lawns always need to be over-seeded every couple of years.

  • #10: What about other landscaping?

    Learn when and how your plants should be pruned and do not let the service deviate from this schedule. No pruning of any kind in the Fall. Don't let them spread mulch deeper than two inches anywhere, and never let it touch any plant. Compost mulch is vastly superior to any kind of wood mulch. If they insist on spreading wood mulch (they get paid to get rid of this trash and then get paid by you to spread it), have them accept responsibility—in writing—for cleaning your house if artillery fungus stains appear. And if the service suggests volcano mulching your trees, crumple the proposed contract into a ball, loosen up one edge, set it on fire, hurl it at them and yell "NEXT!"

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