Tukey says: Take your lawn organic this fall



Paul Tukey, one of the top environmental crusaders on the American landscape, brought his message to Washington, D.C., and I just wish you were all there. 

In addition to Paul’s writing, magazine editing and for several years, his TV show, he heads up the nonprofit foundation SafeLawns.org with these important goals: 

  • Reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides AND gas mowers.
  • Reduce lawn size and offer alternatives to lawn.
  • Promote organic lawn care and teach homeowners how to transition to it.
  • Engage the green industry, towns, and public gardens in this crusade.

So what turns a lawn care company owner into
an anti-toxin crusader?  In Paul’s case, winding up in the hospital
with acute toxicity caused by the products he was spreading.  (And acute toxicity doesn’t go away; he’ll be dealing with it forever.)  Despite all that, Paul hasn’t turned against turfgrass itself and
says he loves lawns.  Where else ya gonna play volleyball,
badminton and touch football?  On his own 3 acres he measured exactly
the space needed for those forms of family fun, and the rest is planted in
trees, shrubs, wildflowers and veggies. Mall

Remember the demonstration organic lawn that the SafeLawns folks installed on the National Mall last fall?  You may remember, too, that it was destroyed by the tarp laid over it for a private event, which tarp was allowed to bake in the summer heat for over a week.  Never mind, says Paul, he’s still "thrilled" that they did it and will be renovating the 4-acre plot again this month. That’s the spirit.

Paul gave us the good news that two new selective organic herbicides are on their way – one from Canada and one from Germany.  They work, they’re safe, and they’ll be on the market in 2009.  Overall, Paul predicts a "tsunami" for organics in the next 3 to 4 years.

Here’s my summary of the fall lawn conversion steps in Paul’s talk and his Organic Lawn Care Manual, and I hope he and others will chime in to clarify as needed.  October’s a great month (at least here in Zone 7) to put your lawn on the road to health, and here’s how:

  • Remove weeds, rake up thatch.
  • Optional:  Add lime IF a soil test indicates it’s needed.
  • Mow to 1-2".
  • Optional: Aeration is helpful but not required in most situations.  Hand aerators are fine, as are the larger ones you can rent.
  • Apply
    ½ inch fully decomposed compost.  And Paul has a video showing how it’s done – using rakes or a
    broadcast spreader. 
  • Apply 1 pound nitrogen per 1,000 square feet, using an organic product only.
  • Optional:  For fastest results also apply compost tea.  DIY brewing kits are simple, or use the brew at Whole
    Foods – he vouches for their DC-area distributor.  (Any doubts about the effectiveness of compost tea are quickly dispelled by Paul’s photos of the side-by-side comparison.)
  • Lawns need overseeding every fall, so apply a thin layer over the whole lawn and a more concentrated dose over bare spots.  A mix of several species of turfgrasses is best. Cover those bare spots with a thin layer of compost and tamp down with your feet.  Water regularly to keep the seed moist til it’s germinated.

If your lawn’s still patchy next spring repeat the overseeding, and definitely do another 1/2 inch application
of compost – and every spring forever.  If your soil is really bad
(like dead), apply more organic fertilizer and compost tea.

Paul told us he’s
not a big fan of mowing leaves and letting them stay on the
lawn as mulch because under snow they can cause winter kill. (Living in Maine, he’s no stranger to snow.)  In warm
climates the practice may be harmless, assuming there’s no more than a thin layer of this leaf-mulch.Organiclawn

The for-profit part of Paul’s crusade (and even crusaders have mortgages) is the Safe Lawns and Landscapes Company, which is franchising organic lawn-care services nationwide.  The first DC-area franchisees will be open for business next spring, and they’ll all be giving 10% of their proceeds to the nonprofit SafeLawns.org.

The SafeLawns website has 20 videos and lots of printable resources.  For you iPoders, there’s a radio show.  Also, Beyond Pesticides has compiled good info about landscapes, and has those cool "Pesticide-Free Zone" signs for your yard.                                          


  1. I’m all for organic lawns and applaud all efforts to reduce the impact of high-wattage lawns on our environment. I have written about my laissez-faire lawn care for both my Maryland and Florida lawns. Here in Florida, I don’t need to apply any fertilizer because my irrigation system uses nutrient-rich lake water. Very convenient, eh??

    That said, in order to be educated, gardeners need scientific facts about artificially brewed and aerated compost tea. Please go to Linda Chalker-Scott’s website, http://www.informedgardener.com . She’s written more than one article compiling the results of numerous scientific studies on compost tea. Do I sound like a broken record??

  2. I have a huge lawn and mow close to three acres. Yes, I’m tired of mowing. Yes, maintaining my “volleyball, badminton and touch football” field is labor intensive. And yes, the cost of purchasing good quality trees to plant so I might cut back on the amount of mowing would be a small fortune.

    Not to mention the cost involved with your bulleted list of organic conversion materials.

    Perhaps I sound a bit skeptical, if so I apologize, and don’t aim to offend. But I just don’t have the resources (read: money) to do most of what you or Mr Tukey suggests for a smaller yard.

    As Ms. Ginny said, I too “applaud all efforts to reduce the impact of high-wattage lawns on our environment.” I wish mine could be “un-plugged.”

  3. Great post! We are reducing our lawn more by expanding the annual garden bed and use the leaf blower that has a bag that creates mulch for us!

    Other than Canada’s total ban on pesticides, does anyone have a Town Code that is working that bans pesticide use (that flows right into our drinking water)?

  4. TC,

    You could change your lawn very slowly. Maybe just 1000 sq feet at a time. Mow down as low as possible, top with 1/4 10 gravel and compost. Overseed.

    I’ve been very happy with low mow, no mow seed mixes. The “ecology” and “lawn bloomers” mix from Sunmark Seeds is what I have been using. Tough, dwarf grasses and flowers mixed in with clover for nutrients.

    Its really not that expensive to do.

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