In this interview, organic lawn care expert and founder of SafeLawns.org Paul Tukey explains the benefits of managing your lawn organically, and offers his top 5 tips for keeping your lawn healthy this year.
Q: From your standpoint, what is the biggest difference between organic and non-organic lawn care?
A: Non-organic or chemical lawn care takes a symptomatic approach to the aesthetics of the plants. In other words, if the lawn isn't green enough, the solution is to add more fertilizer or to apply a fungicide, making the lawn less than the ideal green. Organic lawn care focuses on the soil underneath the lawn, specifically the life in the soil. Mother Nature already knows how to grow things. We can tell this from the great forests, that grew by themselves without the applications of fertilizers. When the leaves, pine needles and bark falls off the trees, these items become the food that feeds the organisms in the soil. When the organisms feed on the natural foods, a process occurs called mineralization that creates natural fertilizer. Organic lawn fertilizer is actually soil food. The soil must be alive for organic fertilizers to function well.
Q: Why do you feel organic is the superior method of lawn management? What unique benefits does organic lawn management have to offer?
A: Let us count the ways: 1) It's sustainable, utilizing only materials that come from plants, animals or mined minerals; 2) It's healthier for the soil, water, air and all life forms; 3) It reduces watering, mowing, fertilizing, and therefore lowers the carbon footprint. As far as unique benefits, organic lawn care offers peace of mind for homeowners with pets and children. You'll never have to post your lawn with a Caution, Warning or Danger Sign and wonder if it's safe to let your loved ones back outside.
Q: What advice would you give someone who plans to make the transition to organic lawn management this spring?
A: Begin with a soil test so that you have a baseline for your pH and nutrient levels. Then, find a good local source of compost in bulk. Study the light patterns on your lawn and purchase grass seed according to whether or not it's covered in sun or shade. The how-to videos on SafeLawns.org take you through an entire season of making the lawn care transition.
Q: What are your top five tips for maintaining a healthy, organically managed lawn?
A: 1) Water Well — Morning watering is always recommended so that the surface of the lawn dries off during the day. Water deeply and infrequently so the roots of the grass learn to grow down into the soil to get the water they need.
2) Mow Properly — Recycling your grass clippings by leaving them on the lawn will provide approximately half of your lawn’s fertilizer needs for the season. Keep your mower blades cutting well by sharpening every 8-12 hours of use. Depending on the species — Bermudagrass and seashore paspalum are the exceptions — lawns should be mowed no lower than 2.5 inches, even higher in the summer.
3) Grow the Right Grass — The most common lawn grasses in North America, Kentucky bluegrass and Bermudagrass, also need the most water and fertilizer to grow well. Other more environmentally friendly species such as perennial ryegrass, fescue, seashore paspalum and centipede grass may be better for your region of the country.
4) See Weeds and Insects as Messengers — Weeds and insects usually appear on lawns only when something is wrong with the soil. Even if we kill the weeds and bugs, they will come back unless we fix the underlying problem within the soil.
5) Overseed Regularly — In nature, all plants produce seed to reproduce themselves. In a lawn system, where we mow regularly, grass is not allowed to reproduce and even the healthiest plants get tired. By overseeding in spring or fall, you are introducing robust young plants that will fill in bare areas and compete aggressively against weeds.
About Paul Tukey:
Among the most accomplished and sought-after gardening communicators in the nation, Paul Tukey shares his passion for organic gardening and lawn care through all forms of media.
* In 1995, he founded People, Places & Plants, which is widely regarded as the finest regional gardening magazine in the United States.
* In 2002, he launched a TV show of the same name, which was co-hosted by Roger Swain. Aired for two years on HGTV, the show is now available worldwide as a 46-episode boxed set.
• In 2007, Paul authored The Organic Lawn Care Manual from Storey Publishing, which quickly became the best-selling lawn book of the year.
• Since 1995, Paul has appeared in public more than 1,000 times, speaking about environmentally friendly gardening, organic lawn care, stewardship of the planet and garden photography.
• In 2006, Paul founded www.SafeLawns.org, an international coalition of for-profit and non-profit organizations promoting environmentally friendly lawn care and resource conservation.
• Paul continues to appear regularly on radio, television, print and the Internet, including most of the nation’s major newspapers, Martha Stewart Living and Good Morning America.
Paul was introduced to gardening during summers spent growing vegetables at his grandparents’ dairy farm in Bradford, Maine. After graduating from the University of Maine with a degree in Journalism, Paul spent nearly a decade as a reporter and editor at the Maine Sunday Telegram and Portland Press Herald. In the late 1980s Paul followed his love of the outdoors and founded his own landscaping company, Tukey’s Home ’n Land. Like most commercial landscapers of the era, Paul used conventional techniques and supplies.
But in the early 1990s Paul started hearing about the links between 2,4-D, a synthetic weed killer, and numerous illnesses including cancer. Then his personal physician suggested that his recurrent headaches, nosebleeds and blurred vision were attributable to exposure to those same chemical weed killers. His transformation to organic gardening and building healthy soil was underway.
Paul resides in Maine with his wife, Katie Hoffmann Tukey, and three children, Paul Jr., 17, Aimee, 3, and Angie born in August of 2009. Paul’s oldest daughter, Christina, 25, recently entered medical school at the University of New England after graduation from Williams College. The family’s garden and landscape in Maine is spread across more than two acres of flowers, vegetables, trees and shrubs and, of course, a spectacular lawn. Still addicted to growing and mowing great grass after all these years, Paul’s emerald green carpet is achieved without a single synthetic fertilizer, herbicide or fungicide. “The kids can roll around in the grass,” says Paul, “and I don’t give it a second thought.”
In an effort to make the dangers of lawn chemicals more evident to the masses, Paul recently produced the award-winning documentary A Chemical Reaction (www.chemicalreactionmovie.com).
With a comment, gardening question, or to schedule an interview or public speaking engagement, contact Paul at Paul@SafeLawns.org.