Gardening

Confessions of a Laidback Gardener: I Don’t Fertilize My Lawn

I know. It’s a horrific revelation. And I’m so ashamed!

Well, actually I’m not. In fact, I’m kinda proud of the fact that I managed to buck the system.

I mean, what with lawn maintenance companies galore promoting the superior fertilizing services they offer, plus all those fertilizer companies with their 3- and or even 4-part lawn fertilizer programs (I know, crazy isn’t!), you’d think I would have succumbed to the pressure long ago. But I have held steady over the decades.

My lawn, now it’s 27th year, has always gotten along pretty much on its own, other than for mowing. I’ve never fertilized it, nor have I watered it. Except for that first fall (I sowed it in September). That first year, yes, I did water. I watered in the seed after sowing and kept the soil moist by watering until frost. Giving it a chance to settle in.

The lawn has pretty much taken care of itself ever since … except for mowing.

In a Nutshell

Lawn with mix of grass and other plants.
A pretty typical section of my lawn. It’s nowhere near rectangular, but more like a swath of small lawns linked around and between trees, shrubs, a path, a deck, etc. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

Although I live on an average-sized suburban lot (about 70 ft × 120 ft/21 m × 37 m) for Canada, my lawn is actually pretty small. About 800 square feet (75 m2). That’s because I took out all the lawn in the front and sides of the house (now they’re now mostly covered in beds, borders and renaturalized woodland) and only reserved a small part of the back yard for lawn. It was one of the few flat surfaces on the property … and mowing on a slope is quite an enterprise! One I certainly wasn’t interested in continuing.

Lawn in early spring with lots of crocus in bloom.
Wave after wave of spring flowers emerge from the lawn in the spring. It’s just so energizing! And it makes you forget the lawn is still brown and the snow is still in the background! Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

And the truth is that my lawn is really a disguised spring bulb garden. Its main purpose is to allow me to naturalize the small spring bulbs that bring me such joy in the spring. When the snow finally melts in late April (yes, we have over 6 months of winter here) and the lawn immediately bursts into full bloom, I just feel like dancing! It keeps me happy for months and months. What great therapy a bulb lawn can be!

The downside to spring bulbs, though, is that they’re so ephemeral. Two months of bloom and growth in earliest spring and then they’re gone. No blooms, no leaves, nothing. They just melt away and retreat underground into their bulbous storage organ. And that would leave, in my case, a bare space for the rest of the summer and fall. And I’d rather see green lawn than brown dirt.

My Lawn 27 Years After I Sowed It

So, what does my bulb lawn look like today, after all those years of “neglect”?

Well, like a lawn, a normal lawn! It’s a short, green carpet. You can walk on it, picnic on it, jump and run and dance and play on it (although that would more likely be the grandkids than me).

Yes, but it is a classic lawn? You know, with only Kentucky blue grass, and looking absolutely identical and sterile—short green grass leaves clipped off at the tip like a golf green—throughout? Absolutely not!

And it hasn’t from the start, as what I sowed over the bare surface was a blend of a low-maintenance grass seeds (composed of varied lawn grasses, some of them containing beneficial endophytic fungi), to which I added wild thyme and white clover seed.

Low-maintenance lawn grasses were new at the time and hard to find. No so anymore. They’re now widely available.

The More, The Merrier

Lawn with mix of grass and other plants.
All these wonderful plants come together to create a lovely blend of plants. It’s much more interesting than my neighbor’s boring herbicide-sprayed bluegrass lawn. And costs a lot less in time and money too! Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

There is much more variety in the lawn today, though.

Some are plants others might consider weeds. But I feel weeds are in the eye of the beholder. So, I choose not to see them as weeds and, miracle of miracles, they no longer are! Talk about a fast and efficient herbicide!

Here are some of my lawn inhabitants:

Perennial grasses

I’ve never tried to try and identify them. I don’t know if the original low-maintenance varieties are still there, or whether local grasses have seeded themselves in and taken over. And no, I don’t have crabgrass (Digitaria spp., an annual grass). I don’t know why. In spite of my negligence, perennial grasses still dominate my little lawn.

Azure Bluet (Houstonia caerulea)

Azure bluet with pale blue flowers.
Azure bluet (Houstonia caerulea). Photo; Linda M Morgan, Wikimedia Commons

This native plant showed up on its own and creates a lovely carpet of pale blue in mid-spring. Someone should market this plant as a lawn flower!

Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans ‘Atropurpurea’)

Purple bugleweed in a lawn
I’m sure some people would object to purple bugleweed in a lawn, but I think it’s quite original! Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

One of the purple-leaf cultivars. It wandered in from a neighboring flower bed and just kept spreading. Does it clash with the green plants? Probably. Do I care? Not in the least.

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)

Actually, in spite of the name, it isn’t just blue. There is an array of colors, including several shades of blue and purple plus white, spotted and near pink, as I’ve selectively brought in new colors obtained from other people’s lawns.

Creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides)

This plant has pretty purple bell-shaped flowers … but not in a lawn, as it blooms on tall stems. Since they are about 12 to 30 inches (30 to 100 cm) tall, that the lawn mower will necessarily mow them down long before they bloom. All you see of it in a lawn is its somewhat heart-shaped leaves here and there. This is not a plant I want, but it’s firmly entrenched. It was here when we bought the place and will still be here when we’re dead. Since there’s nothing I could do to get rid of it, I’ve called a truce and now just ignore it.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Charming flowers! They’re surprisingly rare in my lawn, though. Why that is so has always been a mystery, as so many of my neighbors complain about having too many of them.

English Daisy (Bellis perennis)

Tiny white daisies of English daisy.
English daisy (Bellis perennis): such a perfect lawn flower! Photo: Willow, Wikimedia Commons

The wild type: very short, pink in bud and white in bloom. I originally started this one from seed and it formed little clumps here and there on its own.

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)

What a charming little plant! Such pretty blue flowers and attractive leaves! It arrived all on its own, possibly carried in as a hitchhiker in the pot of a perennial.

Johnny-Jump-Up (Viola tricolor)

Johnny-jump-up in bloom.
Cheery johnny-jump-ups (Viola tricolor) are always welcome, no matter where they appear. Photo: MrGajowy3, pixabay.com

It pops up here and there with its ever-so-cute little moustachioed flowers. It moves around a lot. You never know where it will show up next!

Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia)

A ground-hugging creeping plant with circular leaves and occasional yellow flowers. It wandered into the lawn from a nearby flower bed and just started mingling. It’s mingling still!

Orange hawkweed (Pilosella aurantiaca, formerly Hieracium aurantiacum)

orange hawkweed in bloom.
When orange hawkweed (Pilosella aurantiaca) comes into bloom, with its startling orange flowers, you won’t want to mow them down…. so give yourself a 2-week mowing break! Photo: DoF, Wikimedia Commons

Very pretty orange flowers on fairly tall stalks! Their seeds blew in on little white parachutes, much like dandelion seeds.

Plantain (Plantago major)

There’s not much, but there is some, especially in places that get a lot of foot traffic and thus where the ground is very compact.

Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris)

Self-heal in bloom with purple flowers.
Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris). Photo: kunstler 1, depositphotos

There’s lots of this mint-like plant with short spikes of purple flowers. It just showed up on its own.

Thyme-leaved speedwell (Veronica serpyllifolia)

A small creeping plant with blue flowers. Nice!

White Clover (Trifolium repens)

It’s still here, there and everywhere after all these years. Sporadic white flowers throughout the summer. And it helps enrich the soil in nitrogen.

Wild Thyme (Thymus praecox)

Wild thyme (Thymus praecox) keeps the lawn humming with bees. Photo: pxhere.com

A specially robust culinary thyme that looks as good as it smells and tastes. And it makes the bees sooo happy! Also, when you mow the lawn, the whole yard smells deliciously of thyme! And so do you! That alone would be reason enough to include it.

Spring Bulbs

Squills, glory-of-the-snow and other bulbs blooming in a home lawn.
Same section of lawn as in the third photo, two weeks after the crocuses. The grass is now green and squills and glory-of-the-snow have replaced the crocuses, yet there are more colors to come! Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

Finally, the pièce de résistance, thousands upon thousands of spring bulbs, including squills (Scilla spp.), puschkinias (Puschkinia scilloides), crocus (Crocus spp.), glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa spp.), fumeworts (Corydalis solida), winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis), snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis and others) and Grecian windflowers (Anemonoides blanda, syn. Anemone blanda).

Some of the plants above found their way into my lawn on their own, but others I proudly planted. Yes, I purposely planted plants my neighbors would consider weeds. Bucking the pressure towards growing golf-green lawns, indeed!

Notably Absent

You’ll note that there are no woody plants in the lawn, because they just aren’t mowable. Any seed trees that sprout in the lawn (and there are many) are simply clipped off by the mower blade and then die and decompose.

Nor is there anything prickly. Because that is the one thing I will not tolerate in a lawn. I like to walk barefoot and let the grandkids play barefoot. Indeed, I see lawns as a surface especially designed for barefootedness. So, anything that pricks the skin is banished.

Canada thistle
Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) with its oh-so-prickly leaves. You don’t want this plant in your lawn! Photo: PantherMediaSeller, depositphotos

At one point, Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) tried to move in, but I dug it out. When it sprouted again, I dug it out again. And again and again. And then it stopped trying. I will not allow prickly plants in my lawn. Attractive spiny ones are welcome in my flower beds and shrub borders, but not in my picnicking space!

Plus Animals

Of course, my highly varied lawn also hosts all sorts of animals. Some quite visible, others that go unnoticed. Birds are frequent visitors and fully welcome, as are butterflies, bees, hoverflies, itsy-bitsy wasps and other pollinators. Yes, I do have slugs and snails, but not in huge numbers … at least, not in the lawn. I’ve never had moles, but there are lots of voles and shrews that I just ignore. And all sorts of creepy crawlies (ants, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, sow bugs, toads, etc.) live in the lawn, as in any lawn not poisoned by chemicals. I don’t pay much attention to them. Nor do they pay much attention to me. I know they are there and just let them live their lives.

Getting Along Without Commercial Fertilizer

Man carrying lawn fertilizer.
Not everybody fertilizes their lawn, you know. But lot of home gardeners have come to feel it’s an obligation. There can be a lot of social pressure to keep up with the Joneses! Photo: Ron Leishman, depositphotos

The idea that lawn grasses need fertilizer is, of course, an invention of the fertilizer industry. Most get along fine without it. Not perfectly. But fine … from my point of view.

The fertilizer industry, of course, is right in that if you gave plants better conditions, they’ll grow better. So, yes, you can improve lawn growth by giving it more minerals. But then you would have to mow the lawn more often, as it will grow faster. I don’t want to.

So, I find the compromise quite acceptable. No fertilizer means less expense and less effort, but still you get a surface you can call a lawn. And a “no-fertilizer regime” keeps my lawn acceptably green and full, although maybe not as much like a golf green as some neighbors might want.

Minerals From Other Sources

It’s important to understand I’m not starving my lawn plants. They are receiving minerals, just not from fertilizer. They receive NPK and other elements from:

Grass clippings falling onto lawn.
Just let grass clippings fall onto your lawn and you’ve already met many of your lawn’s fertilizer needs. Photo: Katkov, depositphotos
  1. Grasscycling. (Leaving grass clippings on the lawn after you mow it). I’ve always done this, starting long before the term “grasscycling” even existed. Lawn clippings fall on the lawn, decompose, and return nutrients to it.
  2. Dust and plant materials that blow in and land on the lawn;
  3. Rain. It brings minerals it picks up as it falls. Lightning, for example, charges rain with nitrogen;
  4. Bird and Animal Droppings. Yep! More than you’d think!
  5. Beneficial Fungi. They latch onto plant roots and help them draw in minerals, even from quite a distance.
  6. Fall Leaves. My lawn receives an autumn mineral boost though fall leaves that land on it.
    • Where the leaves fall thinly, I just leave them where they land and when I mow, the mower’s mulching blade chops them into pieces. They then decompose quickly, on the spot, and fertilize the turf.
    • Where the leaves fall very thickly, however, they cut off all light to the lawn. And that would harm it. So, those I remove for use as mulch elsewhere in the garden, as well for use in the compost pile. Still, as I mow these thick fall leaves where they fall on the lawn (the first step in picking them up it to chop them into little pieces), little bits of leaf still end up covering the ground under the lawn plants, again fertilizing them.
  7. The other plants that make up my mixed lawn also have leaves that die, decompose and enrich the soil. Clover, a legume, is especially good at supplying nitrogen.
  8. Plenty of other sources of minerals exist.

So, I figure my lawn gets “enough” minerals. Certainly, enough to grow well. There is no sign of bare patches or nutrient deficiencies that I can see. And because I don’t feed with fertilizer, the lawn grows more slowly and I don’t have to mow all that often.

As for Watering…

Sprinkler watering lawn.
You might also want to water your lawn less or even not at all1 Photo: HotPhotoPie, depositphotos

Since my goal for the bulb-garden-that-became-a-lawn was minimal human intervention, it wouldn’t be logical to water either, would it? So, I don’t.

Fortunately, the type of lawn grass that grows in most temperate climates has the ability to go summer dormant. That is, go dormant during hot, dry periods and turn yellow, but then green up again when temperatures drop and rain returns. So, I just let it do its thing.

To be honest, my lawn almost never turns yellow. Or even any shade close to yellow. It’s just not hot enough and dry enough where I live (eastern Québec) for that to happen very often.

I Figure My No-Fertilizer Lawn is Socially Acceptable

From a distance, my lawn would just look like … most lawns in my neighborhood, really! (If anyone could see it than my actual next-door neighbors could see it, that is. Because it’s out back, far from the street, and therefore very private.) Most home lawns have more that just grasses mixed into them—dandelions, plantain and others—and I see nothing wrong with that. Mine just has more variety than most. In fact, that’s something tremendously right about a lawn that where plants and animals are allowed to intermingle much as they wish.

Don’t feel yourself pressured into maintaining a perfectly manicured grass lawn if that just doesn’t suit you. Such artificially maintained lawns do not make up the majority of lawns. One recent study showed that less than half of all American lawns are fertilized, so mine is far from alone. Certainly, where I live, only a fairly small percentage of lawns get all the care fertilizer companies recommend. So, I feel that what I do is quite acceptable!

No, I don’t fertilize my lawn … and maybe you don’t need to either!

Garden writer and blogger, author of more than 60 gardening books, the laidback gardener, Larry Hodgson, lives and gardens in Quebec City, Canada. The Laidback Gardener blog offers more than 2,500 articles to passionate home gardeners, always with the goal of demystifying gardening and making it easier for even novice gardeners. If you have a gardening question, enter it in Search: the answer is probably already there!

12 comments on “Confessions of a Laidback Gardener: I Don’t Fertilize My Lawn

  1. Oh heck! I lived with my lawn for many years, and NEVER fertilized it. I hated it anyway; but it was always adequately green.

  2. Your lawn is now cutting edge and called a bee lawn. Very trendy. The author Ken Druse calls it a cropped meadow. And of course bulbs in the lawn are more au courant if you refer to it as Stinzenplanten. That was at the Philly Flower show some years back.

  3. When we moved in 3 years ago in late August, a lawn care guy showed up and “sprayed for weeds” in early September. The company hadn’t been told there were new owners who didn’t want or need this service. The back lawn looked terrible, with lots of thistle growing here and there and mossy areas. I top dressed with some compost and then over seeded with grass seed and white clover. Three years later the lawn looks great, the thistle is gone and I, too, have not used fertilizer.

  4. Bill Russell

    Quote of the day: “So, I choose not to see them as weeds and, miracle of miracles, they no longer are! Talk about a fast and efficient herbicide!” Love it.

  5. Love your post and approach! I removed lawn & replaced it with native plants & grasses while living in Texas and am now doing the same in New Mexico – but here it’s replacing rock mulch expanses in front and invasive Russian thistle forests in back. (They are not only prickly plants but produce 150,000. – 200,000 seeds per plant!😳)
    I have a small 500 sq ft area like your lawn: it is blue grama and buffalograss, native to our high desert pinyon-juniper habitat, mixed with volunteers (stemless daisy, desert marigold, globemallow, chocolate flower, lupine, liatris, & more). I watered the first 250 sq ft last year after seeding and added the next 250 sq ft after watering/weeding the area for 9 months, to remove thistle & “puncture vine” (Tribulus terrestris). Next year, the area should survive on natural rainfall, with a mow / shear once or twice during the growing season. Then it will go to seed beautifully and remain brown through winter snows, with attractive seed heads for wildlife, until it begins to green and grow in late spring the next season. I so agree with your way of treating the natural world and sharing your knowledge with others! Thank you.🙂

  6. Great post! We live on the coast of Lake Michigan, so we don’t want to add pollutants to the Lake. Our bluff has mostly clay and sand, so I’m hoping to plant grasses and flowers that will add nutrients. I have Dogbane, white clover and Indian Grass now but what others would be helpful as they grow and decompose? We can’t mow but we kind of like the taller grasses anyway!

  7. I agree wholeheartedly & do not fertilize my grass or water it. I only cut it when it is growing, never when the soil is dehydrated.

  8. Maribeth

    Love the idea of all your little spring bulbs popping up in the middle of the lawn. I’m copying that paragraph to my shopping list. I’ve always been reluctant for fear of having to look at dying foliage (like narcissus and tulips). The idea of these tiny bulbs “melting” back into my NH soil is hugely appealing.

  9. John HW Cole

    I haven’t fertilized or watered in 20 years. And now I go one better, and have an electric mower. The liquid fertilizers of these chemical lawn companies particularly contribute to the pollution of our lakes and growth of algae, like red tide.

  10. Christine Lemieux

    Great post! I, too, have taken out most of my lawn and what I have is full of buttercups, clover and dandelions on one side, and moneywort and ajuga on the other. Nobody can see our lawn as we live in a rural setting. I am going to start adding in some of your suggestions. What fun!

  11. Susan MacMillan

    Great post. Thanks. I too, do not fertilize my grass and have learned to live with what nature brought to me via the wind or bird droppings. The only one I thoroughly dislike that emerged with a vengeance is creeping Charlie; a chore to keep out of the garden beds.

  12. Patricia

    Love this article and the way you think. I too eschew fertilizer and watering and have Johnny jump up violas, English daisies, dandelions, clover and weeds and lots and lots of animal (even the occasional woodchuck in an urban lot because they love my violas and clover flowers) and bird visitors who visit the lawns even more than the bird feeders. Nature is wonderful if we’d just let it be.

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