Safe Lawn & Garden Demonstration Site: The Inn on Lake Superior

EAGLE approached the Inn on Lake Superior as a potential Safe Lawn demonstration site in the spring of 2007 because of the Inn’s ideal location: on the Lakewalk, next to Lake Superior. A family friendly and pet friendly hotel, the Inn’s management was excited to learn how to eliminate the use of unnecessary toxins on their lawn.

The key to a healthy lawn is healthy soil. The Inn’s soil was compact and lifeless, topped with a dense layer of thatch in some areas. This is partly because the soil was never very good to begin with, and partly because of the use of toxic herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. Pesticides kill beneficial microorganisms in the soil. Synthetic fertilizers also kill beneficial microorganisms by causing salts to build up in the soil.

Why is it so important to have these microorganisms in the soil? Because they do a lot of work. Plants, just like people, need food, air, and water to survive. In healthy soil, beneficial microorganisms break down organic matter, and provide micronutrients to plants, as well as food for insects and worms. These insects and worms, in turn, aerate the soil, causing air and water to reach the roots.

Healthy soil that is full of life provides plants with everything that they need. To grow plants in unhealthy soil you need to feed the plants with synthetic fertilizers. The more you feed them, the more the soil degrades, creating a vicious cycle of addiction. Soil that has been fed a steady diet of chemicals becomes more and more like cement: compacted, heavy, and devoid of life.

The thatch problem at the Inn was a direct result of this regimen of synthetics. Roots can’t penetrate heavily compacted soil. Nor can water or air. Instead of penetrating the soil, the roots simply grow outward, near the surface, feeding off the synthetic fertilizers.

The first step in converting to organic lawn care was to bring the soil back to life. After topdressing the lawn with a quarter inch of topsoil rich in composted organic matter, EAGLE project coordinators and volunteers applied worm juice from a local business, Lavermes’s Worms. Worm juice is a byproduct of composting food waste with red wriggler worms. One teaspoon of worm juice contains millions, if not billions, of microorganisms.

It is not an overnight process, and the lawn might look worse before it looks better, as it is basically recovering from an addiction. But simple practices will produce healthy soil and a healthy lawn.

We spot-treated weeds as they appeared – mostly dandelions. We used a fatty-acid soap herbicide, which does not persist in the soil or harm people, pets or wildlife. Vinegar or vinegar based products work well, too. (Use a funnel if you are spraying anywhere near desirable plants!). We found that digging up the dandelions was most effective. An incredibly useful and easy to use tool for that project was purchased at Daugherty’s Hardware: a Weed Hound.

Another natural weed deterrent that will be used on the lawn is corn gluten meal. Corn gluten meal is a byproduct of the wet milling of corn, which is used to make corn syrup. It is a natural, non-toxic “weed and feed”. It works by preventing germinating weed (or any) seeds from properly forming roots. It is pre-emergent, meaning it does not kill existing weeds. It is also a slow release nitrogen fertilizer, which greens up a lawn nicely.

Beginning in the fall of 2007, corn gluten meal will be applied twice a year. In order to be most effective, corn gluten meal needs to be applied in early spring — around mid-April, before weeds appear – and again in early fall when the weather cools.

Mowing practices at the Inn have changed, as well. The length of a blade of grass is proportional to the length of the root. Longer grass has longer roots, and is better able to withstand drought and obtain more nutrients. It also reduces the amount of water run-off. Longer blades of grass shade the ground, which prevents the germination of weed seeds. Mowing to a height of 3 inches is recommended.

For more information on non-toxic lawn care, visit the websites listed below:

www.pesticidefreelawns.org
www.safelawns.org
www.organicgardening.com
www.catsdogslawns.org

and to learn more about the Inn visit:
www.theinnonlakesuperior.com

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