What you can do: Fix the underlying problem before you resort to unhealthy chemicals.
By some estimates, our chemically addicted lawns are as polluting to our health and to waterways as chemical agriculture. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that Americans apply 90 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides every year in order to get lush green yards, and surveys have found that because their use is so heavy, those chemicals can drift into our homes—even if they started out on a neighbor’s lawn and not our own.
However, like many problems for which chemicals seem like a quick, easy fix, lawn problems can usually be corrected without nerve-damaging and ecohazardous chemicals like glyphosate (used in Roundup) and 2,4-D (used in products made by Scotts and Weed B Gone).
Here are some of the most common lawn and yard problems you’ll encounter, what they signify, and how to fix them:
Some weeds you can eat, some weeds are pretty, and other weeds are signs of a problem. If you want your lawn to be healthy, clover is a good weed to have in the landscape. It usually appears when your soil is low in nitrogen levels, but it helps fix the problem by bringing nitrogen to the soil. Solution: Leave it alone! When you mow, the clover clippings will add nitrogen to your lawn, helping to fix the problem without fertilizer.
Dandelions indicate that your grass isn’t developing healthy roots, or that there are nutrient problems in your soil. The turf may be either low in calcium, too high in potassium, or too acidic. Get a soil test to find out what’s out of whack, and use the results to strategize ways to balance out the nutrients. You can use a spray of undiluted white vinegar to kill the existing weeds (aim carefully so you don’t zap too much nearby grass), or dig out their deep root systems with a dandelion weeder.
Next spring, spread corn gluten on the lawn. Corn gluten prevents dandelions from germinating, and it also feeds the grass, making it stronger and more resistant to weeds. Use flowers as your guide; Paul Tukey, founder of SafeLawns.org, recommends applying corn gluten when forsythia blooms in the North and dogwoods bloom in the South.
It only takes a little bit of sunlight breaking through your grass to allow crabgrass to grow, and usually it appears when you’ve mowed the lawn too short. Dig out the crabgrass, roots and all, and then set your mower’s blade higher. Corn gluten will help prevent crabgrass, too. But, again, it has to be applied in early spring, before the crabgrass has taken root.
Bare spots in your lawn may be a sign of nothing more than heavy traffic or too much dog stuff. If heavy traffic is the culprit, consider replacing grass with a gravel walkway, and make dog-poop cleanup part of your weekly lawn maintenance. However, bare spots may also be caused by armyworms, which you’ll probably be able to see crawling around in the soil. Rather than resort to fertilizers or additional grass seed, kill the armyworms off with beneficial nematodes, which you can buy from online retailers.
This is usually a sign of overmowing, which prevents the grass from getting enough water. Set your mower a little higher and mow less frequently. The higher you allow your grass to grow, the better it retains moisture, especially during hot, dry spells. Sometimes brown grass is a sign of nutrient depletion, in which case you may want to plant some clover to help affix nitrogen in the soil. A soil test will tell you if your soil needs added nutrients. Brown grass may also be caused by white grubs, a pest that can be eliminated with the same beneficial nematodes used to fix bare patches.
An overly watered or overly fertilized lawn is prone to mildew, which can coat your grass with a white sheen. Lay off the fertilizers, and water in the morning rather than early evening. Leaving grass wet overnight makes it more prone to mildew and other fungal diseases. Also, water infrequently and deeply, which not only cuts down on mildew problems, but it also allows your grass to grow a deeper root system that makes it less prone to weeds. Grass that gets a lot of shade can be prone to mildew. If you see it in a shady area, consider replacing the grass that’s there with a more shade-tolerant variety.
Who wants their chemical-free lawn that’s safe for kids and grandkids contaminated by pesticide drift or fertilizer runoff from the yard down the street? Talk to your neighbors and ask them not to spray pesticides in areas that border your lawn. If you live in a rural area, talk to local authorities about not spraying along your property when they clear brush from roadways (offer to cut back the brush yourself, and post “no spray” signs, in case roadworkers forget).
If fertilizer runoff is a concern, Harriet Behar, organic specialist from the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, recommends digging a ditch between your yard and the offending neighbor’s. You just need a shallow ditch—about a foot wide and six inches deep—she says, lined with woven landscape cloth (black plastic garden tarps won’t work because water needs to be able to drain through) and filled with gravel. You can use decorative gravel if you’re worried the ditch may be unsightly.
This article originally appeared on Rodale.com.