North Fork Real Estate: The Ins and outs of organic lawn care

03/24/2013 8:00 AM |
Organic lawn care on North Fork

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Master gardener Nancy Gilbert cuts back last year’s leaves on a Hellebore in bloom in her yard in Jamesport. Witch Hazel and Snowdrops are very early blooming plants next to the Hellebores.

Spring is in the air (at least, it should be), meaning property management and landscaping are in the near future.

As people become more aware of the environment and the role fertilizers and pesticides can play in its demise, the trend toward organic lawn and garden care is taking off.

“It has probably doubled over the past three years, as far as money being spent and people using organics,” Dee Merica, an organics expert, said while giving an organic lawn care seminar at Talmage Farm Agway in Riverhead last week.

Bill Van Schaick, Talmage general manager, said he also is seeing increased customer interest in organic products.

“Even if they are not completely organic people, the average person is starting to say ‘I don’t want to keep dumping endless amounts of chemicals on my yard.’ People are just wanting to do things more naturally and less invasively,” Mr. Van Schaick said.

In the past, many people turned to chemical-based fertilizers for a rapid lawn green-up.

The main chemicals in most fertilizers include nitrogen, to make things nice and green; phosphorus, to promote root and flower growth; and potassium, to form sugars, which make plants strong and healthy, said Larry Kaiser of Kaiser Maintenance in Jamesport.

These common fertilizer chemicals are now more strictly regulated.

“New York and California basically have the strictest laws,” said Mr. Van Schaick. “Long Island in particular is really tough when it comes to any lawn and garden use. A number of things are legal in the rest of New York that aren’t legal here on Long Island.”

As of Jan. 1, 2012, the Department of Environmental Conservation prohibited the use of fertilizers containing phosphorus on lawns throughout all New York State, except when a new lawn is being established. And no fertilizers may be applied to lawns between Dec. 1 and April 1, according to the DEC website.

Kevin McAllister, head of the Peconic Baykeeper environmental advocacy group, said he would like to see more stringent laws during the time fertilizer can be applied. “We have become obsessed with the trophy lawn. It is a significant problem that we have to address in the interest of protecting surface water quality,” he said. “Individual property owners have to be a part of the solution.”

So, how do you start if you want to cut down on the chemicals?

“The best thing that people can do if they want to go toward the organic program is to start rebuilding all the microbes and fungi in the soils, to make the soil healthy,” said Mr. Kaiser, who offers customers a range of organic and chemical product packages. “You don’t have enough if you’ve been using chemical fertilizers.”

Ms. Merica compared fertilizers with chemicals to chemotherapy, saying they “wipe out the ecosystem of the lawn.”

Adding products with microbes starts to build that ecosystem back up.

“Instead of having nitrogen, these products take microbial action in the soil and start breaking it up,” Mr. Kaiser said.

Phosphorus, for example is naturally bound up in Long Island’s soils, Ms. Merica said. Re-establishing microbes is an organic way of activating that phosphorus.

“Read the labels, see which fertilizers have them,” Mr. Kaiser said.

They both said “bio-packs” of microbes are available at most home and garden stores. The small packs are water-soluble. “You mix it up in a small sprayer. They include all the beneficial microbes and microbial fungi to really enhance the natural process. You are building up the microbial population, so it’s a lot stronger.”

Cutting down on nitrogen is another good step, Mr. Kaiser said.

Three different types of nitrogen can be present in any fertilizer, Mr. Kaiser said: water soluble, which melts instantly in water; water insoluble, in which nitrogen is released over time; and sulfur or polymer coated, in which the nitrogen is coated and water or microbes eat away at it, releasing it over time.

“The best advice I can give,” said Mr. Kaiser, is to make sure that the percentage of water insoluble nitrogen in the fertilizer is higher than that of water soluble nitrogen. This will cut down on the amount of excess nitrogen entering the water table.

As for combating weeds, corn gluten is the natural route. It is 100 percent organic and works by inhibiting root formation in weeds when they start to germinate, Ms. Merica said. It doesn’t inhibit roots of mature plants or transplants unless it is used at a very high rate. You do not want to use it if you are laying down grass seed, because it will prevent it from germinating.

“It does work but is somewhat costly,” Mr. Kaiser said. “It doesn’t work immediately, it takes at least one to two growing seasons to really set up a mat of protection against seeds growing from the ground.”

It is known as a pre-emergent, so it does not work after a weed has already grown.

“If you have a dandelion, to the best of my knowledge there is no organic thing to spray on it,” Mr. Kaiser said.

As for weeds that have already sprouted, “pull them,” said Nancy Gilbert, a master gardener who has taught the master gardener program at Cornell Cooperative Extension since 2002. She relies on compost as a natural fertilizer. Adding microbes to a compost pile is also beneficial, as it will help speed up decomposition and cut down on any odors, Ms. Merica said.

For weeds in the garden, planting thick, dense layers of plants will help keep weeds from breaking through, Ms. Gilbert said.

“You want lots of different heights, and plants that are going to flower and bloom at different times,” Ms. Gilbert said. “You don’t want a lot of bare soil.”

“A good garden is a balance of lots of different insects and lots of different plants. It’s that balance that keeps a garden healthy,” Ms. Gilbert said.

Tossing boiling water on gravel driveways is one of many tricks for keeping weeds from overtaking the stones, Ms. Gilbert said.

Pure straight white vinegar is another alternative but be applied in sunlight. One thing to remember, however, is that these methods are “non-selective,” so they will kill anything they are applied to, Ms. Gilbert said.

“There isn’t a good organic thing out there for everything, but there are things that are generally lower impact,” Mr. Van Schaick said.

“If someone wants a perfect pristine lawn with no weeds, no issues, that’s unicolor, I would suggest organic may not be the way to go initially,” Mr. Kaiser said.

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