Organic vs. Chemical Lawn Care: Which one leads to healthier grass?

By Coach Mark Smallwood
Originally appeared at

The summer season always brings to mind bright green lawns and idyllic images of children running barefoot through the grass. However, lawns are a quintessentially American phenomenon, and when you begin to “dig” deeper into lawn care in America, the picture is not so pretty.

Lawn turf covers more than 40 million acres of land—more than any commercial crop. To keep those lawns bright green and bug free, Americans use 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 78 million pounds of pesticides each year. Of the most commonly used lawn pesticides, many are linked with cancer or carcinogenicity, birth defects, reproductive effects, liver or kidney damage, neurotoxicity, and disruption of the endocrine system.

The fertilizers used on lawns often contain high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen. While this makes the grass bright green, chemicals from the fertilizer leach into rivers and streams, contaminate drinking water, and cause ecological havoc. Lawns also consume massive amounts of water, much more than agricultural crops. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 7.8 billion gallons, or 30 percent of the water we consume daily in the United States, is devoted to outdoor use such as watering lawns. Then there’s the carbon footprint of the lawn: Gas-powered lawn and garden equipment give off toxic exhaust and greenhouse gases and emit as much pollution per hour as 11 cars.

With statistics like this, it was essential that the Rodale Institute research team begin to look more closely at this field to see what we could learn. Working with James Sotillo, arborist and consultant from Ecological Landscape Management, we designed a trial to compare the use of compost tea with using chemical fertilizer on sod. Over the course of one month, three applications of compost tea were applied to three raised beds; fertilizer was applied to another three beds.

The results were astounding, and we’ll be publishing a paper later this year. But to share a few highlights of what we learned:

In the beds treated with compost tea, root length was an average of two to four times longer than in the beds treated with chemical fertilizer, making those areas more resistant to drought and other environmental stresses.

Grass will go dormant and turn brown when it is stressed. This allows the plant to focus resources on the roots. In our study, we found that the amount of dormant grass was much higher in the fertilized beds, whereas no dormant grass could be found in the compost tea–treated beds.

Thatch length decreased in beds treated with compost tea, proving that there is less grass dying out when it is treated with biology rather than with chemical treatments.

These results show that by utilizing compost tea instead of inorganic, chemical-based fertilizers, we are able to cultivate healthy soil while still ensuring that our lawn spaces thrive ORGANICALLY. Please keep an eye on as we begin to share more results from this study. We look forward to helping you convert your lawn to organic.

Coach Mark Smallwood has been dedicated to environmental sustainability, efficiency, and conservation for decades. Since joining Rodale Institute in December 2010, he has brought heritage livestock back to the institute’s 333-acre farm, expanded and enhanced its research efforts, and launched Your 2 Cents, a national campaign to support and promote new organic farmers. In recognition for his sustainability efforts, Coach was chosen as a messenger for Al Gore’s Climate Project, presenting to more than 15,000 people on the effects of global warming. Last, but certainly not least, as a longtime organic farmer and biodynamic gardener, Coach has raised chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs, and driven a team of oxen.

8 Responses to “Organic vs. Chemical Lawn Care: Which one leads to healthier grass?”

  1. Paul Walsh

    Were you able to do a cost comparison of the use of fertilizers vs compost tea? The costs of the product as well as the cost of application. That would be good information as well.


  2. Tina Montone, with The #1 Lawn Guy

    We are totally agreement with your thoughts on the amount of dangerous chemicals that are commonly put onto lawns across the Lehigh Valley and everywhere USA. Our company is committed to creating healthy properties organically with microorganisms, kelp and other important elements to provide a healthy soil. We have been trained by Chip Osborne, so we have a great educational foundation. We have not yet brewed compost tea, but we look forward to doing it in the future. Thank you for posting this.

  3. John Ranta

    A choice between two negatives. The real choice should be between having a lawn, or not. Lawns are ugly, wasteful and unnatural. An “organic” lawn is an oxymoron, far better to have no lawn at all than to have one that uses slightly less fossil fuels and chemicals…

    • Chuck Armstrong

      @John Ranta: I disagree. I provide a carbon neutral lawn care solution with battery operated equipment charged by on-board solar power.

      Grass has many benefits: Grass acts as natural filter by taking up dust, pollutants, and particulate matter from the air and water, up to 12-million tons per year. However, homeowners don’t have a clue how to grow or treat a lawn. Big chemical companies own the minds of men who love their lawns and their power equipment.

      I provide a service that is 100% organic, reduces water usage by as much as 40%, and uses all sustainable energy. It’s the future, at least until robotic mowers take the field, so to speak.

  4. George Madosky


    I am completing my business plan for Organic Lawncare Services. I need to add a graph of growth for the past 3 years to my plan. If there are other statistics that you think would be helpful please add.
    Thank You for your help
    George Madosky

  5. Javi

    I’ve been using compost tea for the past 14 years. I basically stopped using fertilizer in every single garden I maintain. It basically cost me $5 dollars to brew 5 gallons of tea which will cover 1 acre of land.
    Brewing tea is cheap, and you don’t really need to buy those expensive machines, as long as you understand the process. You can build your own for little money.

  6. Frank Tompkins

    I have just retired and would like to start taking care of my lawn organically. My lawn is almost over run with creeping charlie and violets. Is True Green’s organic lawn care really organic? What would your suggestion be to rid my lawn of most of the weeds? Also I would like to start using a reel lawn mower. Everything I read says grass should be mowed at 2 to 3 in. My reel mower won’t cut that high. Is it okay to mow the grass shorter?

  7. Susan

    Is True Green’s Organic lawn service really organic? Do they use anything other than nitrogen & phosphorus?



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