For many of us, living in the suburbs goes hand in hand with maintaining  a weed-free lawn that is as close to a lush, green carpet as possible. Likewise, healthy trees, shrubs and perennials are part of the reason we enjoy our homes.  Historically maintained using chemical fertilizers and pest control, if you are like many eco-conscious homeowners, you now want to make your garden as environmentally friendly as possible…..while still having it look great.

2011 07 12_2448A typical suburban landscape, though it incorporates elements of nature, is not really natural environment at all. In a self-sustaining ecosystem, like a forest, many different types of plants grow and support one another, creating a cycle of growth and decomposition, which creates nutrient rich, organic soil, also known as  “living” soil . When there is just one type of plant (monoculture), as in the case of lawns, that natural cycle doesn’t exist. The soil is often lacking in nutrients, weakening plant health and making it susceptible to diseases, pests and weeds.  Applying chemicals further compromises soil health by killing microorganisms, resulting in dead soil with no nutrients.

girls and catBeyond soil health, anyone with children or pets, as well as anyone concerned about the health of the planet, is looking for alternatives to conventional, chemical based care. However, you may be wondering, “What exactly does organic involve?” and “Does it really work?”

Organic care  involves treating your landscape as a whole living system where the soil, plants, and animals within that system are interdependent and sustain each other. Focusing on soil health will result in healthy plants, leading to an attractive and non-toxic environment that supports balance and biodiversity.

Organic lawn care eliminates the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides, as well as nitrates andlawn phosphates, which run off into waterways, causing problems in aquatic ecosystems. Dial Environmental uses a ‘probiotic’ approach—by  focusing on improving the soil through the addition of beneficial microorganisms. These organisms help break down nutrients so the lawn can absorb them more readily, which in turn, improves the quality and health of the grass without the use of chemicals.

Dial Environmental explains, “ The benefits of organically based plant care start with the soil itself, ensuring plants can absorb all the nutrients to thrive. With the applications, grass and other ornamentals will be healthier and more disease resistant, defend against insects and invasive weeds. By comparison, synthetic fertilizers provide quick bursts of color and growth but do not hold up.  In most cases, improvements will be seen within one full growing season.”

biochar_teaser_imageDiseases and pests that target trees, shrubs and other plantings are most often related to poor top soil, too much or not enough watering, or improper use of fertilizers. Care of the soil and proper irrigation are the basis of organic care. Organic fertilizers and soil amendments  are excellent ways to improve the soil naturally and make landscape plantings more disease and insect resistant.  Biochar, a carbon-enriched charcoal product made from wood, leaves and/or manure, increases microbial activity and improves water retention in soil. In addition, biochar production may remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, actually having the potential to positively impact global warming.

Any use of pesticides should be the last resort after correctly identifying the problem, correcting any underlying problem (s), and monitoring according to the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

When diseases or insect infestations do require pesticides,  organic alternatives like horticultural oil, insecticidal soap, and botanical products like neem oil and chrysanthemum-based pyrethrum are environmentally responsible and effective choices.  The introduction of beneficial predators including ladybugs, lacewings and predatory mites is another natural method used to eliminate harmful pests. It may take several seasons to establish the predator/prey ecosystem in your yard, but it’s well worth the wait.


The Suburban Lot is a monthly blog that highlights topics and issues unique to the suburban landscape.  For assistance with any of the above information, please contact Mierop Design, a complete resource for landscape design, installation and property maintenance services.