Organic lawn care on trial in D.C.


by Susan
The nonprofit has planted a patch of lawn using organic growing techniques in that most public of spots – theMall3
National Mall.  So if you’re planning a visit in 2008 or ’09, be sure to include the 4rd to 7th Street section of the Mall on your must-see list.  Take lots of photos and spread the word back home because if organic lawn care can survive in this challenging spot, it’s a good bet for yards across America, where it can replace the tons of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides we’re instructed by certain corporations to dump on our property throughout the season.  Imagine: No more little flags warning neighbors that our lawns are toxic to them.  (Animals, not versed in flag-reading, are just out of luck.)

According to SafeLawns’ partnership agreement with the Park Service, the two lawn panels comprising the 4.3-acre test area have been either aerated or tilled to 8", had compost applied, then were seeded and watered in.  Next, a "liquid compost mulch" is applied.  I’m assuming that mean compost tea because the plan is to apply compost tea throughout the duration of the test, which ends in September of ’09.  SafeLawns is doing all this at no cost to the government.

Oh, and this is research, not a quick PR gimmick.  The EPA will be compiling and reporting findings on "soil compaction, moisture, organisms, fertility, as well as hours worked and type and amount of all machinery and products used."  Excellent!

The compaction findings will be particularly revealing because you can’t imagine how much heavy traffic this strip of land gets.  All those
demonstrations for or against every known cause really add up.  Then there’s the huge 4th
of July event, the yearly Folklife Festival, amateur sports, and even
large, rowdy commercial events (a very controversial new policy of the
National Park Service, you’d better believe).  So the folks at
SafeLawns are really putting their talk to the test here.

After completing this turf-redo, the folks from Safe Lawns didn’t just hung up their gardening clothes and go home; they stayed in town to teach us locals all about safe lawn care and the training they offered is described here.  According to that, public officials (including the governor of North Carolina) are pleading with residents to let their lawns turn brown, trying to convince the public that brown lawns are a badge of honor, but Paul Tukey claims that brown isn’t necessary:

The founder of, however, said that in most cases lawns
and gardens could remain green and lush if homeowners and landscape
professionals utilize organic methods. He’ll offer specifics when his
organization participates in the DC Environmental Conference at the
University of District of Columbia on Saturday, Oct. 20.

“If you avoid synthetic chemical fertilizers and switch to compost and
organic fertilizers, you’ll reduce the need for watering by up to 75
percent,” said Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual.
“These natural soil amendments help the soil store water and,
therefore, help the grass stay green.”Mallturf375_2

Now truth to tell, I didn’t attend the training but then I’m already a convert.  I did pay a quick visit to the Mall this week and took this photo of the new lawn, which is looking darn good.  Kudos to Paul, Shep, and the whole gang at Safe Lawns!

Top photo credit. Middle photo by


  1. What happened to the idea that cold weather grasses are supposed to go dormant (brown) in the summer, and that hot weather grasses stay green in the summer and go dormant (brown) in winter? I’ve never heard the theory that compost can rouse cold weather grasses out of their natural dormancy the way that excessive watering and fertilizing does.

  2. I’m keeping a close eye on their progress and the true test will be when full foot traffic of all the touriss, local soccer players, etc. are allowed on it. A truly green (chemical-free) Mall is a great idea – and I’m hoping it is hardy enough to withstand that daily wear-and-tear. I detest “Keep off the Grass” signs – what is a lawn for excep to run and play on it?

  3. This will come across as something great for organics, but upon closer inspection it may not really prove much at all.

    The problem with this “research project” is that no professional turf person, whether traditional chemical applicator or organically inclined, would argue the fact that if you could improve your soil by tilling in compost to 8 “, and start fresh with new, more durable grass types, and not walk on it until fully established, you will have a much, much better lawn than the old grass in the mall that has been pounded down for decades and decades. All professionals know that better,richer, looser soil will hold water better and give a deeper rooted, healthier lawn. No one argues this. Really. I’m in the business.

    The lawn will look great for at least a couple of years, especially alongside lawns that haven’t been redone. But, we need to be honest when promoting organics. This project won’t prove anything unless you take another section, till in the compost and then have someone treat it in a conventional way. Or, forget the tilling in of the compost and just compare compost tea applications and chemical fertilizer applications. Actually, do we even know if anything at all is done currently to maintain the mall lawns?

    PS. The grass types they plant may be more heat and drought tolerant than what is on the mall now. Probably a lot of tall fescue. Again, we need to compare apples to apples.

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