A Guide to Eco-Friendly Lawn Helpers

Here's what to know about the products and the practices of lawn care without conventional chemicals

lawn products Illustration: Ross Macdonald

If you’re shooting for an environmentally friendly lawn and garden, you need a holistic approach, not just chemicals (see “How to Rehab Your Yard,” below). The concept of integrated pest management involves using practices like mowing, improving soil health, and other non-chemical practices to try and prevent pest outbreaks before they happen. Still, Zhiqiang Cheng, PhD, University of Hawaii at Manoa associate professor and extension specialist, points out that integrated pest management can also include the use of pesticides to tackle a problem, if the instructions on the label are strictly followed.

If you need to use a chemical pesticide or fertilizer, you may wonder if products designed to be more environmentally friendly would be effective. Here’s a guide to various alternatives to conventional lawn products.

Fertilizers
Fertilizers generally release nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The percentages of each element are listed, in that order, in a sequence of three numbers on every fertilizer label, written as, for example, “10-10-10.” Organic types may contain plant or animal material, such as bone meal or manure. These must be broken down by soil bacteria and fungi, so they may work more slowly than conventional fertilizers, but can improve soil health over time, says Chip Osborne, a horticulturist and organic land care industry consultant. As with conventional products, too much organic fertilizer can contribute to water pollution, so test your soil to find out which nutrients it needs. And in general, look for products with a seal from the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI); “organic” alone doesn’t mean much.

Also try: Leaving grass clippings on your lawn, which adds plenty of nutrients. Allow clover to flourish in your grass to provide nitrogen to the soil.

Insecticides
These can include pyrethrin, neem oil, spinosad, and insecticidal soaps. While these do work, some may harm beneficial insects such as bees. They carry some risks of skin or eye irritation, so as with conventional products, you should carefully follow all directions on the label.

Also try: Welcoming natural enemies of pests, such as assassin bugs and spiders. Mowing grass higher and planting a variety of native plants will benefit natural enemies, says Shaku Nair, PhD, of the Arizona Pest Management Center.

More on Lawn Care

Herbicides
Common types include botanical oils, acetic acid, special soaps, and corn gluten meal. Generally, these don’t eliminate weeds as completely as Roundup. Weeds could regrow, and acetic acid can be corrosive.

Also try: Hand weeding. Pulling weeds might seem like a drag, but it is free and effective, especially if you do it in the spring when weeds are young.

How to Rehab Your Yard

Ready to rethink your yard? Try these easy strategies to improve the health of your lawn and make it safer for your family and the environment. Keep in mind that the needs of lawns vary widely, depending on climate, sun exposure, the types of soil and grass you have, and more. A cooperative extension service can provide plenty of advice more tailored to your land. (You can find services in your state here.) But these tips are a good start.

Compost
If you have space, create a compost pile or bin in your yard to recycle table scraps and garden waste. To boost your soil’s health, spread ¼ inch of compost over the top of your grass a couple of times a year.
Water Wisely
Watering grass infrequently can help encourage deeper roots and help your lawn resist drought. Water only in the early morning. Watering at night can promote fungal growth. Becky Bowling, PhD, assistant professor and extension specialist at Texas A&M University, recommends adding a rain barrel to catch water that drains from your gutter—you can use the water for future irrigation.
Plant native plants
Native plants are ideally adapted to the weather conditions and local pests of your area, so they’ll require less water and maintenance, according to Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Plus, they’ll attract birds and beneficial bugs.
Test your soil
Before you add fertilizer or anything else to your soil, you need to know which nutrients it needs. You can send some soil to your local cooperative extension service, where they can test it for a small fee.
Mow Right
Cut your grass to 3 to 4 inches and keep mower blades sharp. Taller grass is healthier, and its shade is inhospitable to weeds. Use the mower’s mulching mode, which will cut the grass into fine clippings and deposit them back into the soil, says Dave Trezza, who oversees CR’s lawn mower testing.
Embrace Diversity
Treat some weeds as welcome. Flowering weeds feed bees and other pollinators, and clover fertilizes your lawn. Young dandelion leaves can even be added to salads.
Seed New Grass
A resilient lawn contains more than one kind of grass. Adding seed, especially to bare spots, can help it grow densely. Ask your local extension about drought- and pest-resistant grass varieties.

For More Advice

A wealth of resources are available for learning more about sustainable and organic lawn-care practices for your particular region and climate. Here are just a few.

For more advice on environmentally friendly lawn-care practices, see:

For more on finding the right plants for the right place in your yard:

Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the May 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.


Catherine Roberts

As a science journalist, my goal is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about health products, practices, and treatments. I aim to investigate what works, what doesn't, and what may be causing actual harm when it comes to people's health. As a civilian, my passions include science fiction, running, Queens, and my cat. Follow me on Twitter: @catharob