The Gardening Guru

David Daehnke
Mahwah, NJ 07430

The Gardening Guru's Organic Lawn Care Manual

This manual is available for those who wish to print it out. Understand that this will be at least 27+ pages, so it will take some time and you will need a stack of paper. The information is well worth it and hopefully will convince you to stay away from chemicals. Good Luck!


I. History

a). Americans love lawns - its in our blood/genes. Lawn care is the most popular gardening activity in the country, outpacing vegetables, flowers, fruit and houseplants. More people tend lawns than read books, go to movies, or watch sporting events on TV. There are 5 million acres of HOME lawns in the USA (150 trillion grass plants under cultivation). Americans spend $6 BILLION a year to keep them looking good.

b). A well maintained yard (including lawns) can add 15% to your home’s value. Lawns help muffle noise, moderate temperatures, reduce dust and pollen, control erosion, improve soil, improve air quality by reducing CO2 levels, cushions the legs, and , though some may disagree, helps keep dirt out of the home.

c). In Medieval times, lawns were called “flowery medes”, because short stemmed plants were used more than grasses (chamomile). One can actually find references to “grassy garden carpets” back in the Persian Empire, but lawns as we know it is a more “recent” invention. In Europe, the lawn was born due to pasturing animals that grazed too close to the home (safety area). Then the Medieval lawns took on a new form; sod was dug from pastures, planted on estates, and “mowed” by hand with scythes. Only the rich could afford this lawn. It wasn’t until the 19th century that lawns came to most homes. Edward Budding made it possible with his invention, the lawn mower. He worked in a textile factory, and in 1830, he watched the blades of the textile machines cut fabric, and figured the same action could be used to cut grass. When his 19” wide lawnmower (reel mower) went on the market, he described mowing as “amusing, useful and healthful for everyone”, but today, that is not the case.

d). Homeowners apply an estimated 5 to 10 lbs. of pesticide per acre of lawn per year. This does not sound like a lot, but figure in that the active ingredient (the actual pesticide) is .01 to 1% of the product. Some examples;

1). 2,4-d - a common weed killer, was a component of Agent Orange and is a carcinogen. Other pesticides are just as dangerous. The good news is that since the mid-1980’s, the tide has turned on chemical use. I am not trying to tell you not to use these chemicals, just be responsible.

e). This class will teach you how to be more responsible and what to look for before it becomes a major problem. Look at lawn care as grass gardening, and you should consider your lawn as another plant in your landscape (i.e.. if you have a weed in your garden, you would pull it. If a tomato has a disease, you would buy a disease resistant variety). Just as when you buy a plant, you check the soil, moisture, light conditions and nutrient needs, you should check into the seed you are buying (Check the label also).


Weeds, diseases, insects are all problems, but more importantly, they are signs that your lawn’s “system” has broken down somewhere else. This is where you come in and save the day. Just as with IPM, you, the homeowner, will have to take time and look at your lawn and understand what to look for when a problem arises.

a). Know your soil! - A lawn is only as good as the soil that is beneath it. Your soil is composed of minerals, organic material, air and water. Plants and soil have a symbiotic relationship -- plant roots aerate and break down the soil into smaller particles, and eventually die, decompose, and add nutrients back to the soil. The soil provides support for the plant and nutrients. 1/2 of the bulk of the soil is made up of space in a good soil. This is comprised of water and air, which fluctuate during certain times of year.

b). How to tell what soil you have 1). Take a pinch of soil and roll it between your thumb and forefinger. If it feels gritty, its a sandy soil; powdery, its a silt soil; hard when dry and slippery when wet, it a clay soil. 2). Wet a clump and squeeze it into a lump. Clay will form a long ribbon that will hold together; sand will not stay together; silt will somewhat hold together but not form a ribbon. 3). Quart jar method. Put 5 inches of dry soil in a quart jar, fill with water and shake for two minutes. Let settle for 24 hours and measure the layers. There should be three distinct levels - sand at the bottom, silt in the middle, clay on top. Lets say there is 2” of sand, 2” of silt, and 1” of clay, your soil would be 40% sand, 40% silt, 20% clay, which is a nice garden loam.

All soils can be improved by the addition of organic material. Sandy soils will improve their water holding capacity, while clay soils will improve the aeration of their soil.


As each new gardening year approaches, it seems as though there are several new varieties per seed type - again, the educated consumer will win. There is not one “super” grass that can do everything yet, which means you have to know your conditions and what types of seed apply themselves to that condition. The new “hot” grasses of today are turf-type tall fescues and perennial ryegrasses, but don’t let this fool you. As much as the new wonder grasses tout they can be the ultimate turf, conditions still have a major effect on the growth of these grasses.


Texture (listed fine to coarse) - red fescue, bentgrass, Kentucky blue, perennial ryegrass, turf-type tall fescue

Nitrogen (listed low to high needs) - red fescue, tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, bentgrass

Heat Tolerance (listed low to high) - bentgrass, perennial ryegrass, red fescue, Kentucky blue, tall fescue

Cold Tolerance (listed high to medium) - Kentucky blue, bentgrass, perennial ryegrass, red fescue, tall fescue

Drought Tolerance (listed high to low) - tall fescue, red fescue, Kentucky blue, perennial ryegrass, ..........bentgrass

Compacted Soil Tolerance (listed high to low) - tall fescue, ----- Kentucky blue, perennial ryegrass, red fescue, bentgrass

Wear Tolerance (listed high to low) -tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, Kentucky blue, red fescue,----- bentgrass

Establishment Rate (listed fast to slow) - perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, Kentucky blue, bentgrass, red fescue

Thatch Production (listed low to high) - tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, fine fescue, Kentucky blue, bentgrass

Tall Fescue

This grass started out as a pasture grass, that is a cool season grass that is great for this area. It is adapted to a wide range of soil conditions, including acid soils with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 (acid). To seed a new lawn, use 8 lbs. for 1,000 square feet of lawn area. This will create 13 plants per square inch, which is a dense planting. Tall fescues do NOT mix well with other grasses due to its clumping habit. Mow at a height of 2 to 4 inches.


“Apache” - a lower growing variety with a cutting height of 1 1/2 to 2 inches. “Clemfine” - a Clemson University variety that can withstand shade. “Rebel 3D” - Twice as dense with a narrower leaf, good dark green color. “Falcon” - fine leaf, dense, will take a pH range of 4.5 to 8 “Mustang” - A Rutgers hybrid of meadow fescues, tall fescues, and perennial ryegrass (of the first germ plasm crosses, aka the DNA make-up was exchanged.)

Perennial Ryegrass

This grass also started out as a pasture grass, but did not make a great lawn grass. At first they were stemmy, coarse and short-lived, but were found in seed mixtures (prolific seed producer and seed was inexpensive (filler)). It germinates quickly and establishes rapidly, so it would get a hold in the soil until the Kentucky bluegrass established itself. Turf breeders discovered that some species of ryegrass hosted endophytes, which are fungi that produce a neurotoxin that caused serious illness in grazing cattle. The endophytes are passed down through the seed from generation to generation. These endophytes also protect the grass plants from sod webworm and other insects. Not only do ryegrasses fight insects, but are fine-leaved, persistent, deep green color, improved heat and cold tolerances, take up to 60% shade, take well to mowing, multiple disease resistant, and still relatively low priced. Seeding is recommended @ 4 to 8 lbs. per 1000 square feet with a cutting height of 1 1/2 to 2 inches.


“Allstar” - one of the best bug fighting and disease resistant cultivars, prefers full sun. “Omega” - resistance to winter injury ( ryegrasses tend to go limp in winter, originally one of the major problems of ryegrass, with up to 40% damage in winter). “Manhattan II” - greater density, dark green foliage, fine-leaved, shade adaptation, mixes well with Kentucky bluegrass, germinates in 7 days (a winner!). “Pennant” - a lower growing variety, so it requires less mowing, but it is medium for other qualities. “Citation II” - stands up to heavy traffic and wear, high endophyte levels.

Kentucky Bluegrass - “The King”

For most of the country, nothing makes a better lawn. It can withstand the heat and drought of the middle south, the frigid winter of New England and the humidity of the Northwest. With its fine textured, deep green blades, its spreading habit and quick sod forming ability, it makes the great lawns neighbors envy.

The problem is that not all Kentucky Bluegrass is perfect.....there is quite a difference between varieties. The cheapest is called common Kentucky Bluegrass, and you will find it in inexpensive mixtures. It is the offspring of grass selected from the wild, not much changed from colonial times. Over the years, breeders bred new varieties selected for their better qualities. It wasn’t until “Merion” came along in the early 1950’s. It was hailed as a miracle grass because of its resistance to dreschleria leaf spot and crown rot, two diseases that ravage common Kentucky Bluegrass, and two minor diseases. “Fylking”, a late 1950’s Swedish development, was also resistant to leaf rust, stem rust, crown rot, dollar spot, red thread, fusarium blight and fusarium patch. Today there are more than 80 varieties that are tailored to different areas of the country.


“Adelphi” - Known for maintaining its deep green color all season long, low growing, and resistant to most diseases. It is well adapted through most of the country. “Arboretum” - A tall growing type, well situated for low maintenance lawns. “Eclipse” - Grows well in the shade and produces a medium textured turf. It is resistant to a wide range of diseases. “Glade” - Shade tolerant and disease resistant, but this one grows quite slowly and requires less mowing. “Merit” - Dark blue-green color and produces a dense turf, moderately low-growing, medium to coarse textured, is mainly known for its seedling vigor. It is a top rated cultivar in Northeast trials.

Fine Leaf Fescues

They have the finest leaves of all grasses, hence the name. Their upright growth habit creates a high degree of uniformity for an even-looking lawn. They are the most shade tolerant of all cool season grasses.

There are three types of fine leaf fescues;

1). Red Fescue - A sod forming grass that spreads through short rhizomes. It is especially good for cool, humid regions, acid soils, but does not tolerate moist soils. Some of the best varieties are; Flyer, Fortress, Pennlawn, Ensylva and Ruby. They are all resistant to red thread.

2). Chewings Fescue - Similar to red fescue, but it is a bunch grass with a more erect habit and no rhizomes. It also stands shade better than most. Some good cultivars are; Agram, Atlanta, Waldorf, Jamestown and Banner.

3). Hard Fescue - A non-spreading bunch grass, has a deep green color, but is short-lived. Until lately, it was found in cheap lawn mixtures, but breeding has made it useful on infertile soils, low maintenance turf, and in shade. Some good cultivars are; Aurora, Biljart, Scaldis, Tournament, Reliant and Waldina.


Bentgrass is fine textured, sod forming grasses that are known for putting greens. Twenty years ago they were thought of as the epitome of grasses, but today they really don’t belong because of its HIGH MAINTENANCE. To keep them looking good, you have to mow and water them constantly. All that pampering leads to diseases, which then calls for fungicides. They don’t mix well with other grasses because they are so aggressive and force other grasses out. There are four types of bentgrass;

1). Colonial Bentgrass - Grows in acid soils that will not support Kentucky Bluegrass. 2). Creeping Bentgrass - Thrives in poor, wet soils. 3). Velvet Bentgrass - Grows in infertile soils and will tolerate partial shade. 4). Redtop - Coarse member of the bentgrass family. It establishes well on poor and acid soils, but dies under close mowings. It is considered a temporary grass.

NO-NO Grasses

If you learn nothing else in this class, please learn this. You get what you pay for. You will find the following grasses in cheap seed mixtures - STAY AWAY!

1). Annual (Italian) Ryegrass - This one is a bunch forming grass that the texture is coarse when seeded thinly, fine when seeded thickly. It is over-used in grass seed mixtures for it’s ability to quickly germinate. When Winter comes, annual rye is gone and your lawn is full of holes and you have to begin again in the Spring ( a waste of time and energy!).

2). Orchard Grass - This is a coarse perennial bunch grass that will never, ever, ever leave. You will also find this grass growing in waste areas and roadsides.

3). Timothy - Another coarse bunch grass that will never, ever leave.

4). Annual Bluegrass - It is an annual bunch grass that is unattractive in lawns.

Southern Grasses

1). Bermuda grass - A coarse and invasive grass, considered a weed in some areas. But as with all warm season grasses, it turns brown in the Winter, which in this area is October through April.

2). Bahiagrass - Slow growing, coarse grass and invasive, it forms a thick turf. It is the most shade tolerant of all southern grasses.

3). Buffalo grass - It is one of the few native American grasses used for turf. Drought resistant, less mowing, less fertilizer, but seed is expensive @ over $10 per pound.

4). Centipede grass - Medium to coarse textured, sod forming (by stolons) that look like centipedes. It grows in poor soils, with a mature height of 3 to 4 inches. Mow it every 10 to 20 days. Seed is expensive ($15 per pound).

5). Zoysia - Coarse to fine textured, low growing, spreads by stolons and rhizomes. It is green through the driest of summers, but browns out by middle of September and doesn’t green-up again until May. Its’ dense growing habit chokes out weeds, it takes wear, and does not need frequent mowing.


Shade is one of the most common problems facing the lawn owner today. 1/5 of the lawn area growing in the United States is in some sort of shade. Shady areas tend to be patchy and weak, invaded by weeds, and infected by diseases. It doesn’t have to be this way. Many grasses hold their own in up to 70% shade.

The Best In The Shade (Listed in Order)

“Rebel” Tall Fescue “A-34” Kentucky Blue “Reliant” Hard Fescue “Scaldis” Hard Fescue “Jamestown” Chewings Fescue “Biljart” Hard Fescue “Banner” Chewings Fescue “Kentucky 31” Tall Fescue “Pennfine” Perennial Ryegrass “Fortress” Red Fescue “Nugget” Kentucky Bluegrass “Highlight” Chewings Fescue “Ruby” Red Fescue “Park” Kentucky Blue “Glade” Kentucky Blue “Linn” Perennial Ryegrass

Shade Warfare

Shade does more than reduce the amount of light available for photosynthesis. It can encourage disease, because the grass stays wet and the air is usually stagnant, and these conditions usually favor most disease fungi, especially powdery mildew.

The first thing you can do is to choose disease resistant varieties. Increase the air flow through the area by trimming and thinning shrubs. Reduce the shade by trimming lower branches and thinning upper ones. Since photosynthesis is reduced, grass in the shade need all the surface area it can get, so mow 1/2 to 1 inch higher than your normal turf. Grass also faces competition from trees for moisture and nutrients, so increase fertilizers by 1/2, and deeply water regularly, making sure to stop watering by 2:00 p.m. so the water has time to evaporate before sundown.


When buying grass seed, you get what you pay for. Fortunately, every package of grass seed has a label, which is required to contain specific information. It must list the amount of five things that might be in that bag or box. First, there is the turfgrass, which is listed in percentage. There may be one or more species with several varieties of each. The next three are grouped in a general category of “other ingredients”, which may include weed seed, inert matter and crop seeds, also listed in percentages. Finally, noxious weeds, as determined by our state agriculture department, will be listed seperately, not by percentage but by numbers per pound.

Noxious Weeds - wild garlic, buckhorn, plantain and annual bluegrass. A top-quality seed will contain NO noxious weeds.

Crop Seeds - these can be more troublesome than noxious weed seed. It can contain seeds such as timothy, rough bluegrass, orchardgrass and bentgrass. Just 1% of these contaminants can produce up to 40 plants per square foot, and that can ruin the look of your lawn. A good seed mix should contain well below 1% of this.

Inert Matter - This includes chaff, hulls, stones and such. It will not harm the look of your lawn, but why pay for something that won’t grow? You want to have less than 3% in you seed.

Weed Seed - This includes common weed seeds that are not noxious. There should be none in your seed.

The Turfgrasses - They are listed by descending order by the percent present in the mixture (also called purity) and the germination percentage of each. Combining those two numbers gives you the real value. The real value is a good measure of the seeds’ quality. To determine the real value, multiply the percentage of contents by the germination percentage and divide by 100. Example; Let’s say we buy a box of “Merion” grass seed. It is listed as 90% pure and the germination percentage is 80%. 90 x 80 /100 gives you 72. 72 percent of what is in the box will germinate to “Merion” bluegrass, with the other 28% being other. To figure the real value of a mixture (different species) or a blend (different varieties of a same species), do the same procedure as above for each seed, add them together and divide and divide by the number of seed types.

Finally, when buying seed, look for a variety of names. Buy only named varieties and stay away from mixes that just list “common Kentucky Bluegrass,”, or “Tall Fescue”. These seed types will only lead to trouble. Last but not least, when you are shopping, remember your yards conditions (such as sunny, dry, moist, etc) and remember which seed types meet those conditions.


This is one question that you will have to answer yourself, but I do have an opinion. First, are you starting with an existing lawn or starting fresh? If it is a new or old lawn, have the soil checked for nutrient content and pH. This is one of the major problems with grass not performing the way it should. Simple soil testing kits can be purchased at your local garden center or home center. The pH should be in the 6.5 to 7.0 range for best nutrient availability. Now concerning seeding or sodding, my opinion is that seeding is better. Why? Because the grass that you seed is grown in your soil conditions instead of being grown in optimum conditions, which most of us do not have. Then there is the watering problem. Since the sod’s roots only go down 1 to 2 inches, it needs constant watering until it is established, whereas the seed’s roots start traveling downward from germination and is established quicker than the sod which means less watering. The sod is also fertilized heavily to get the desired growth and sale as quickly as possible. If you do not keep up with the fertilizer, the lawn will be like a drug addict going through withdraw. I always recommend seeding because it is less expensive and does better in the long run than sod. Now, if you are overseeding an existing lawn, there is a rule of thumb; if the lawn has less than50% turf, you are better removing the old and starting fresh. If it has more than 50%, overseeding is your route. The next table will help with your computations.

How much seed do I need? Type of seed lb./1,00sq.ft Time to germinate Bentgrass 1 to 2 Fast (7 to 12 days) Kentucky Blue 2 Slow (20 to 28 days) Chewings Fescue 3 to 5 Med. (10 to 21 days) Creeping Fescue 3 to 5 Med. (10 to 21 days) Red Fescue 3 to 4 Med. (10 to 21 days) Tall Fescue 5 to 6 Med. (10 to 21 days) Perennial Ryegrass 4 to 6 Fast (7 to 14 days)

Before seeding, remove any accumulated leaves and debris in the area to have a good seed-to-soil contact. After seeding, ruff the seed into the soil; do not just seed and walk away. Seed to soil contact is important! The key to seeding is to never let the soil completely dry out until the turf is 2 inches tall. Do not water deeply until the turf is established, and do not mow until it is 2 to 3 inches tall. Perennial ryegrass will be quick to cover, with 90% being covered in 5 weeks, while bluegrass can take until the following season to cover well. Be patient and let nature take its course.


At the end of a long Winter, most of us are “Green” deprived. Forget the robins, the first true sign of Spring is a green lawn, especially if it is yours and not your neighbors! This causes the first gardener’s phenomenon known as the Spring suburban fertilizing frenzy. As soon as the first Garden Center gets its delivery of fertilizer, an almost immediate line of cars pull in right behind it. They take it home and dump it on their lawns to be the first ones with a deep, dark green lawn. It works. The grass blades shoot up and they are such a dark green its almost blue. But the problem is weeds thrive right along side of the grass. Diseases strike the overworked grass plants. Lawnmowers barely have enough time to cool off before the grass needs cutting again. The worst part is after the lawn comes back to its normal color, the homeowner rushes back to the Garden Center and buys more fertilizer to start the cycle all over again. The sad part this constant fertilizing instruction was coming from “Turf Experts”. Today the word is enough is enough!

Researchers have now found out that all that fertilizer is actually harming the lawn instead of helping the lawn. Studies at the Alabama Polytechnic University shows that 1/2 of all the soluble nitrogen leaches out of the soil before it can be absorbed by the grass plants. And even the remaining half may be doing more harm than good. Grass plants are very efficient in their use of nitrogen, and can even be considered “fuel efficient”. Babying the lawn by putting all the fertilizer on it may actually reduce the natural efficiency. The is a ton of microorganisms in the soil that are harmed when excessive fertilizer is used, and this can upset the efficiency of the grass plants. Basically you are growing your lawn to death. The best lawn I have ever seen was on Crescent Avenue in Ramsey. The homeowner used 5-10-5 twice a year and the lawn was a beautiful green color for most of it.

When you fertilize, all the nutrients remain at the surface area of the soil. The natural tendency for grass is to have a deep and quite expansive root system. The roots do not have to travel to find nutrients when it is at the soil surface, and compaction can occur, and more importantly, in the summer the lawn will die without excessive watering. Another problem is fertilizer (non-organic) can actually acidify the soil and kill beneficial biological processes. A seven year study at the University of Kentucky showed that increasing fertilizer amounts drastically decreased the pH. The amazing thing learned was that the lawn that had the least amount of fertilizer had the lowest levels of thatch. At the highest levels, there were 65% less earthworms than at the lower level, which was due to the lower amounts of calcium, which is important to the earthworms metabolism.

In this class we will address the soil instead of the topgrowth. A lawn can only be as good as the soil it is growing in.

Organic fertilizers take time to break down and add nutrients to the soil. As the break down, they feed the roots and allow them to produce carbohydrates, which is the energy source in plants as well as people. The goal of fertilizing is to build up this reserve of carbohydrates for times of stress, and to keep the plants growing steadily and healthily during these times.

Lets think about the normal fertilizer application schedule for one minute. In Spring, they suggest a high nitrogen fertilizer to get the lawn growing. This high nitrogen application causes the grass to have spurt growth, and it draws upon its carbohydrate reserves. The grass gets “hooked”, just like a drug addict, dependent on more fertilizer. The excessive growth also draws again on its carbohydrate reserves to help heal its wounds from the grass cutting. The roots don’t develop as they should, so when the hot weather comes, they are unable to dig deep for moisture. During the second application towards Summer, another high nitrogen application is suggested to continue your lawn to look its best. This application increases the respiration of the plants which again reduces the carbohydrate reserves. The grass weakens. At the end of Summer, you have to reseed and use a fall fertilizer to get the grass growing. And before you know it, it is Winter and the lawn goes into this dormant period without adequate reserves of carbohydrates to get it to Spring. And then the cycle begins again.

Let’s discuss what the grass plant actually needs.


Of course nitrogen is still an important nutrient. It makes the grass blades grow and green up. On the plus side, nitrogen makes a sturdy rapidly maturing, quick spreading grass, which in itself fights weeds. On the negative side, excessive nitrogen causes shoots to grow too fast, making the succulent and tender, which reduces the ability of the roots to support them. Over extended grass is susceptible to diseases such as brown patch, fusarium patch pithier and powdery mildew.

GRASSES NITROGEN NEEDS (lbs. / 1,000 SQ.FT/year) Type Low High Kentucky Bluegrass 2 3 Fine fescue 1 2 Tall Fescue 1 2 Perennial Ryegrass 2 3

Synthetic fertilizers are here today, gone tomorrow. There are two forms of nitrogen; water-soluble and water-insoluble. The solubility determines how fast the nitrogen becomes available. Water-soluble start breaking down as soon as they hit the dirt, while water-insoluble takes time to break down with the help of soil microorganisms. It may sound great that the nitrogen is readily available, but remember that it is also leached through the soil just as readily. Chances are that there is more water-soluble than water-insoluble in the bags of fertilizer. The three types of water-soluble nitrogens are urea, which contains 45% nitrogen and is sometimes combined with formaldehyde (a suspected carcinogen)to create ureaform, and there is also Ammonium Nitrate, a very strong and very soluble fertilizer that quickly leaches from your soil.

Organic fertilizers are the best type to use because the are slow-acting. This type of fertilizer will help green-up your lawn without the excessive growth. Less growth also means less watering and less fertilizer in the long run. They are moderate in nitrogen content, neutral pH and water-insoluble - just like the lawn likes it. They are usually lower in nitrogen than synthetic fertilizers and may be more expensive, pound per pound in the short run. The idea is that since 1/2 the synthetic nitrogen is loss to leaching, you are closer to being price competitive than you think. There are many organic fertilizers on the market today, so take your time and look at the back panel of the fertilizer bags to make sure.


The numbers on the fertilizer bag explains it all. Lets take for example a 50 LB. bag of a 5-10-5 fertilizer. The numbers are the actual pounds per 100 pounds of fertilizer. Also lets say that the 50 LB bag covers 5,000 square feet. There is 2.5 lbs. of nitrogen in the 50 lb. bag. Divide the 2.5 by the SQ.FT. and times by 1000(2.5/5000=.0005x1000=.5 pounds) If your grass type needs 2 lbs. per 1000sq.ft., you would need to apply this 4 times a year, or buy a 10-10-10, etc

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