Is your lawn organic? (Think barefoot kids and wild salmon)

When spring arrives in Kodiak, Alaska, we’re normally coping with snow and ice. But this winter has been the warmest in 30 years. Hundreds of bald eagles have returned to town, on schedule, to feed on fish scraps, and commercial fishing boats are shuffling in and out of our harbors like a giant video game. But purple crocuses are already poking through the green lawn way ahead of schedule. Did I say green lawn? In Alaska? In March?

Purple crocus poke up through the lawn, Kodiak, Alaska

Weird but true. And that’s why I’m writing this post:

I want to share our favorite way to jumpstart a lawn and maintain it—without the use of chemicals.

Accomplishing this feat took some experimenting, though. Kodiak Island, after all, is a temperate rain forest by nature. The soil is very acidic, low in organic matter, and it’s mostly volcanic ash. The method is very easy and basic, and I’m sure it will work for your patch of green, too.

We started our lawn from seed on a base of peat moss, shredded kelp and compost. Our bed and breakfast guests and visitors touring our gardens are amazed how green it is. We work at keeping it healthy, so it can withstand heavy rain and snow, moisture-sucking northwest winds, freeze-thaw periods, and the pressure of many, many footprints.

Don’t tread on me

In the spring, it’s natural to grab a rake and start scraping twigs, branches, spruce cones, plastic toys, dog poop and other debris. Be gentle. Give it a light combing with a leaf rake, but step lightly when you do it. In other words, try to not walk on your grass too much. It’s one of the worst things you can do to a lawn—especially a soggy one. Wait until it has dried out a bit and the ground is not mushy.

At first the damage occurs underground where you can’t see it. Here’s what happens: when you walk on a soggy lawn, you squeeze out the air between the soil particles. In time this pressure creates a hard, compacted soil. Without these air “highways”, water and nutrients can’t reach the root zone. And then one day, something doesn’t look right and you wonder, “Why does my lawn look so pathetic?”

Turf grass thrives on the same kind of soil found in your garden: Rich, well-drained soil that is high in organic matter.

I don’t know about your situation, but perfect, well-drained soil doesn’t come naturally in Kodiak, so we have to create our own. So what you can do to help your lawn realize its greatest potential of being green and healthy?


It’s easy being green

Now the green part is easy, whether you use organic or chemical fertilizers. There are differences, though. Organic methods enrich the soil which improves root growth. Your lawn survives drought and extreme weather conditions better, it holds onto nutrients longer, and it becomes more sustainable itself. So eventually less maintenance is required.

One thing about organic lawn care I need to interject here: The way you mow your lawn makes a huge difference. Keep your mower blades sharp and leave your grass 3 inches longer. This improves your lawn’s health because the leaves of longer grass have more access to sunlight, which helps the grass grow thicker and create deeper roots.

Real green thumbs are not from chemicals

Chemical fertilizers on the other hand, might turn your grass an enticing, day-glo green, but it’s at a price. (All the promises on the packaging are lies). Chemical fertilizers wash away in heavy rains, and the toxic runoff ends up in lakes, streams, and oceans (we love our wild salmon folks). To say nothing of letting your pets and kids run around the lawn after you’ve applied a load of chemicals. Chemical fertilizers have been linked to cancer and poisonings, and since most Americans follow a “more is better” attitude (to the tune of 3 million tons per year), all that overfertilizing damages the soil and kills helpful microorganisms and fungi with toxic salt buildup.

With an organic lawn, you’re not simply putting down fertilizers four times a year; you’re initiating cultural practices to nurture life in the soil, and in turn, the soil sustains the grass.
~ Paul Tukey, author of  The Organic Lawn Care Manual

Healthy soil = healthy lawn

You may have guessed, I’m a cheerleader for organic lawn care. So here you go:

The one simple step every lawnkeeper should follow is to spread sifted organic matter on your lawn.


We try to do this twice a year, when the lawn is relatively dry, but before a good rain or watering with a sprinkler. Recipe ideas (no exact science here) depend on what’s available in your location. For us in coastal Alaska, the list includes:

  • Spreading a combo of peat moss and compost, or
  • One part peat moss to  bags steer or cow manure, or
  • Straight finished compost plus sifted kelp, or
  • A manure-compost blend

Well-aged manure is like a good wine

You can also mix in soybean meal, cottonseed meal, well-aged manure (like a good wine!), finely shredded leaves and compost. Blend ingredients together in a wheelbarrow and dump it on the lawn. Yes, right on top. Shake it through a screen, toss it by the shovelful, or cast it about as if scattering feed to the chickens. After you apply the organic stuff, spread it around with a leaf rake with a combing, fluffing up action.

Okay, your lawn will look horrible (really bad) for a couple weeks, and the neighbors will probably think you’re crazy. But then something magic happens: new, green growth emerges and the brown stuff settles into the ground and disappears. Your lawn will be ten times healthier, you don’t have to worry about your kids running around barefoot, and the neighbors will stop whispering behind your back.

Thanks for visiting. And may you enjoy every minute when you’re out in nature.

Marion Owen, photographer, organic gardener, Kodiak Island, Alaska

Purple crocus poke up through the lawn, Kodiak, Alaska

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3 Responses to Is your lawn organic? (Think barefoot kids and wild salmon)

  1. daryleone says:


    Peat moss on acid soil?
    Visit your favorite coffee merchant and work a deal to cart off all their spent coffee grounds. Then mix the grounds with an equal amount of cracked corn, sometime called screenings. It’s like coarse corn meal. Spread this on the lawn. Then add a few hundred night crawlers, or whatever native worms you might have, here and there and everywhere. The living rototillers will multiply and enrich the soil better than almost any other method. They will plow miles of tiny air/water passageways, bringing nourishment deep into the soil.

    Daryle Thomas
    UVM EMG ’94

    • marionowen says:

      Hi Daryl!
      Greetings from Kodiak… Yes, a little bit of peat moss when mixed with compost or other organics works just fine to hold moisture and provide tilth. Since it breaks down so quickly we consider it a jumpstart and one-time use. And yes, I LOVE to use coffee grounds. We run them through the compost. As for nighcrawlers, they are truly the unsung heroes of the soil. Great visual, the “living rototillers.” Humans would die without them, I’m sure. How much of a lawn do you have?

      • daryleone says:

        Actually,Marion, not much.

        The bank is doing its best to foreclose. I am accepting unsolicited prayers that I will win a bit more than enough in the lottery and send the bums packing.
        I do a fair amount of consulting … OPL, other people’s lawns. I’ve got an idea for growing food year around and preserving it. I am not opposed to allowing people to give me money to teach them how to grow what they eat. Much of Vermont’s “fresh” food travels about 50 hours from California behind a PeterBuilt. By the time it’s on the store shelf, another two days have past. With California drying up, there will be fewer leaves of lettuce at much higher prices. Stepping out one’s back door into one’s own green house to pluck a salad for dinner just makes more sense. It’s a perfect way to retire and live off the land … the fiddleheads should be out sometime this month.


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