How to plant a safe lawn?
February 28, 2016 8:04 PM   Subscribe

We have a garden that currently only contains mulch (and some weeds). We would like to plant a lawn there. We would like to do this in a way that is natural and 100% safe for our toddler Our concern is the use of various chemicals that may be accidentally ingested or absorbed. What are best practices for planting and taking care of our lawn so we can be 100% sure it is safe and does not pollute the ground in case we want to grow vegetables and fruits on it in the future?
posted by blueyellow to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Spread seeds.

Water liberally.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:15 PM on February 28, 2016 [11 favorites]

Answer is going to depend upon where the lawn is.
posted by pompomtom at 8:16 PM on February 28, 2016

Response by poster: It's in our backyard. Some tree cover. North East coast.
posted by blueyellow at 8:30 PM on February 28, 2016

Rototill , (spray once with broad application herbicide after the weed seedbank sprouts if you're OK with a single application. And stay off it for a couple weeks), then spread grass seeds. Water. Weed anything that is not grass or clover. Done.

There are tons of natural lawn products and blogs. The trick to good grass though is pick a grass that does well in your area and keep it mowed short. That gives the grass an advantage over broad leaved weeds and also if you mow it enough who can tell what how much is grass and how much is weeds really?

Be Ok with some weeds. It's natural.

You can trick small children into pulling up dandelions as sport for several years at which point it transitions nicely to a punishment activity.
posted by fshgrl at 8:39 PM on February 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

You can't be 100% sure or 100% safe. Life is peril. But grass you grow yourself on soil you buy directly from a local organic nursery or landscaper will be less of a potential issue than mulch.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:44 PM on February 28, 2016

Low expectations. If you want a thick, luscious, bright green lawn with no weeds, that takes chemicals. If you want "just grass" with a bit of dead stuff here and there, no chemicals are needed. The vast majority of grass in the world gets no care and does its main job of stopping the ground from being mud.

Just rototill with a bit of compost and peat, spread seed, lightly rake over, and water daily for a couple weeks.
posted by miyabo at 9:03 PM on February 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

To have a lawn free from harmful chemicals, all you need is grass seed, water, and acceptance that you're not going to end up with an all-grass lawn. Embrace the dandelions, the clover, the random other plants that will appear. They're still green and lovely to walk on, and won't poison your kid or look bad as long as you mow it regularly.

My parents embraced this philosophy, and I love it when the rogue patch of daisies pops up every year. My dad makes a point not to mow that random bit of the yard until the flowers start to fade. When I was little, I picked clover flowers, and dandelions, and johnny-jump-ups in the yard, and delighted in it.
posted by burntflowers at 9:05 PM on February 28, 2016 [14 favorites]

You can plant clover on purpose, mixed with your grass seed ... It helps keep down other broadleaf weeds by stealing their niche, and it's nitrogen-fixing so you get healthier, greener grass without fertilizing. It also shades the grass's roots, which keeps it greener in drought and you can water less. You just mow it with the grass, it does fine, and it's resilient to foot traffic. Maybe let it grow too tall once a summer to be sure it has a chance to seed. (White Dutch clover is probably what you want, you can get it at a seed store or by mail any place that sells grazing or cover crops. I want to say we get it from Johnny's Select Seeds but I'm not positive, have to check with my husband the garden boss.) And it's good for bees! Who need our help.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:09 PM on February 28, 2016 [10 favorites]

If money is no object, you can buy turf. But it ain't cheap.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:24 PM on February 28, 2016

If I ever had a lawn again, I would probably throw some native wildflower seeds into the mix, because monocultures are pretty much always unnatural, unhealthy, and require outlandish intervention (chemicals, rivers of water) to maintain and can still then collapse magnificently.

Remember that "weeds" are really just "plants growing in a place I don't want them." You can fork over and plant a mighty veg patch with four sticks, some string, and a good bit of organic material to dig in.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 11:53 PM on February 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

What is the mulch? If it is something like a bark or woodchip I would just get out a nice spade and dig it in weeding as you go. Be sure to rake it over to a fine tith and then spread your grass seed. I would use a mix of grass seeds as then you don't have to worry about getting just the right one, whatever works best will flourish. Be sure to pack the seed in with your feet by treading on it, because unlike with veg you want the soil to be compacted a bit. (Dont compact it to concrete like hardness just be sure to evenly step over all of the area after spreading the seeds)

To ensure lush green plants I would water it with a compost tea made from nettles (or other high nitrogen plants) twice a year or so. Keep the clover you have growing in the lawn, but remove dandelions with one of these and you should have a nice green lawn.
posted by koolkat at 2:41 AM on February 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you live in the Northeast, your soil is probably on the acid side, and wood chip mulch (if that is what you have) will make it more so. So for your initial tilling, add some lime as well as some organic matter (composted manure etc). Then plant and water and, once you have something, mow. Mowing regularly will keep down many weeds, the remainder (crabgrass, clover, etc) you will have to put up with. But from a distance it will look like a lawn.
posted by mr vino at 4:24 AM on February 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Don't use herbicides or pesticides. Talk to your local Cooperative Extension office about which type of grass to plant and get a soil test kit from them which will help you figure out how to nourish the soil. Encourage your neighbors not to use toxic products on their lawns that could spill over onto yours.
posted by mareli at 6:50 AM on February 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just to note that natural and safe aren't synonyms and that some un-natural stuff like glyphosate is only toxic to humans at "You wouldn't want to routinely bathe in it" levels while natural or synthetically made versions of natural chemicals like pyrethrins, which AFAIK count as "organic," are still pretty safe but more toxic to humans than glyphosate.

I get that you don't want to spray stuff on your yard, and that's also our preference, but you shouldn't assume that organic/natural stuff is safe.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:53 AM on February 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

Depending on the size of the yard you can get rid of weeds by manually pulling them out. One thing to help prevent the weeds in the first place is to let your grass grow a little long as this apparently reduces the light that will reach the weeds when they are first growing.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 9:25 AM on February 29, 2016

I use a dethatching rake to get rid of weeds. Because of the shape of the blades, it mostly doesn't damage grass, but kills horizontal plants like clover and crabgrass. The downside is that it does damage grass a little, so your lawn will look terrible for a few weeks after you use it. But then the grass grows back, and outcompetes the weeds for sunlight.
posted by miyabo at 9:56 AM on February 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Once you get your lawn going, I like this guide to care/overview of how lawns work: Organic Lawn Care for the Cheap and Lazy.

It's also cheap and useful to get your soil tested - if you're starting from scratch now is a good time to add any amendments. I've gotten soil tested several times at the UMass Amherst lab - they're very helpful and can also advise you on grass strains appropriate to your area, as well as recommending non- or least-toxic products to use, if needed. I recommend testing again if you do decide to grow vegetables, as the soil may have changed/veggie needs are somewhat different.
posted by hilatron at 11:51 AM on February 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

2nd'ing planting clover. Clover is only considered a weed because herbicides haven't yet been engineered to kill other broad-leaf weeds but not clover. It would be like saying that since a grenade designed to kill enemies also kills allies, those allies must actually be enemies.

Clover fixes nitrogen in the soil (which most of what fertilizers are do), can out-compete and then shade out other weeds (but not grass) and that same shade helps more of the water that falls on the soil (from rain or watering) get absorbed instead of evaporating. Grass and clover grow really well together and they'll make your lawn look REALLY green and feel SUPER lush. All this while requiring a lot less/no input into the lawn (herbicides, fertilizer, and water). I planted some (on a recommendation in a previous, possibly from Eyebrows McGee) and I've not yet had reason to regret it.

The only downsides are that the flowers can attract bees (which isn't always a downside) and it stains a little more readily than grass.
posted by VTX at 11:14 AM on March 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

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