Mid-Atlantic Regional Reports

Fall Is a Natural Time for Organic Lawn Care

For a better-looking lawn next year, put some life back into your soil

organic approach to lawn maintenance
An organic approach to lawn maintenance puts the main focus on soil health. Soil that is full of life and nutrients is an ideal environment for growing healthy turf. Photo: Adam Glas

The centerpiece of a traditional American landscape has long been a verdant, weed-free expanse of lawn. But all too often conventional lawn care is achieved by applying an onslaught of synthetic fungicides and fertilizers that are detrimental to soil health. In my mind, an organically maintained lawn uses a mix of turfgrass species and clover and has the added benefit of supporting pollinators and a host of soil-dwelling organisms.

close up of lawn
An organic lawn uses a mix of turfgrass species and clover. Compost is added to improve soil health. Photo: Adam Glas

Steps to Improve Your Lawn Organically

Fall is the best time of year for organic lawn renovation, a multistep process that helps to build healthy soil and a dense, thriving plant community. As ambient temperatures drop, soil temperatures remain warm and fall rains hydrate the soil, conditions that create a perfect environment for grass-seed germination. However, it is important to begin turf renovation at least 45 days prior to the first frost to allow time for new grass seedlings to establish.

Step 1: Test your soil

Begin with a soil test from your local extension agency, which will provide a baseline of the overall health of your soil as well as recommendations to improve its health. If your soil is found lacking, be sure to choose an organic fertilizer.

using soil knife to remove weeds
A soil knife makes quick work of broadleaf weeds that have become established over the summer. Photo: Adam Glas

Step 2: Remove weeds naturally

Throughout the summer many invaders may have established. For larger weeds such as broadleaf plantain, hand removal is quick and easy. If you have large patches of crab grass or smartweed, a garden rake or a mechanical de-thatcher can make removal more efficient. Many annual weeds pull up easily after a nice rain.

Spreading compost over lawn
Spreading compost evenly over the surface of the lawn will build healthy soil, which is the foundation of a healthy lawn. Photo: Adam Glas

Step 3: Add compost to your lawn

The next step is to gather or purchase enough high-quality compost to cover the entire surface area of the lawn. Compost adds organic matter to the soil, which increases cation exchange capacity (CEC). CEC describes how well soil can store a particular group of nutrients, which can then be absorbed by the grasses and other plants growing in the space.

High-quality compost also adds beneficial micro fauna and fungi that are the basis of nutrient cycling. Simply adding a quarter-inch of compost over the entire area will have a huge benefit to the overall health of your soil. Learn how to make your own compost here.

aerating soil
Mechanical aeration alleviates soil compaction, helping the soil to absorb water more efficiently and creating a hospitable environment for seed germination. Photos: Adam Glas

Step 4: Aerate the soil

Many lawns are heavily traveled by humans and equipment, resulting in compaction that is detrimental to soil health. Reduced porosity makes it harder for air, water, and plant roots to penetrate the soil. A walk-behind core aerator, which you can rent from a home improvement store, helps to alleviate compaction by punching holes into the soil, creating little pockets for water, compost, and grass seed to settle into. Usually one pass with the aerator is sufficient, but several passes may be needed in high-traffic areas.

spreading grass seed
Spread grass seed evenly over the surface of the lawn to establish a new generation of seedlings. Photos: Adam Glas

Step 5: Broadcast grass seed

Overseeding with broadcast spreader or a drop spreader is an efficient way to apply grass seed. Tall fescue blends are my choice for sunny areas in the Mid-Atlantic region. This type of turfgrass is more tolerant of drought and disease than other options. If you have a shady situation, a shade mix with perennial rye and fine fescue is ideal.

raking lawn after seeding
After seeding, gently rake or drag the entire lawn to ensure that the grass seeds and emerging seedlings have good contact with the soil. Photo: Adam Glas

Step 6: Rake the seed to help it settle

Seed-to-soil contact is extremely important, since small grass seedlings can dry out quickly and perish if their roots are not in firm contact with the soil. After the grass seed has been spread, gently rake or drag the entire area to help the grass seed settle into nooks and crannies.

rejuvenated lawn
Photo: Adam Glas

Step 7: Water as needed

Even moisture is also very important for stimulating seed germination. If rain is not predicted after the seed has been applied, water the entire area with sprinklers, and keep watering daily until germination occurs. Initially you will only need to keep the top inch of soil moist, but after germination you want to encourage the roots to travel deep into the soil. After seedlings emerge, increase watering duration to keep the top 6 inches of soil evenly moist.

Step 8: Mow and fertilize

Once the seedlings have reached 5 inches in height, mow with the deck set at 4½ inches. This will encourage the seedlings to send roots deeper into the soil and to produce lateral shoots. If your soil test indicated that fertilizer is needed, this is the best time to apply an organic fertilizer.


Following these steps on a yearly basis will provide a strong foundation to produce healthy soil and a thriving lawn that is beautiful, aids in carbon sequestration, and reduces the use of harmful chemicals.


Learn more:

Are Low Mow Grasses the Way to Go?

Exploring Native Lawn Alternatives That Thrive in the Mid-Atlantic

Suppress Weeds Organically with Corn Gluten Meal


Adam Glas is a garden supervisor and rosarian at the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

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