Guiding Principles

Guiding Principles of the Organic Landscape Association

Organic Landscaping Definition

Organic landscaping is inclusive of both lawn care and plant maintenance. Organic landscaping is the creation and maintenance of naturally sustaining systems whereby soil and plant nutrition and plant health are the byproducts of a chemical free management program based on a system’s approach.

Guiding Principles

The basic principles of organic landscaping are principles of health, ecology, and care. To properly develop sound natural programs for managing landscapes, it is important to mimic natural ecosystems. Conventional landscaping practices are generally focused on product applications while managing the organic landscape focuses on building a healthy system. A systems-based approach focuses on soils and soil health, sound horticultural practices, and the use of natural, organic products when indicated or necessary.

Organic landscaping should be focused on continuing to improve soil health. One should embrace the concept that a healthy, biologically active soil is fundamental to plant nutrition, plant health, and resistance to many pest pressures.

Organic landscaping should operate from a position of precaution. It is the responsible and precautionary nature of organic landscaping that removes synthetic materials from management and focuses not only on system health but also the long-term health of the environment and the elimination of synthetic exposures to human populations.

Organic Landscaping Strives To:

  • Protect biological and ecological diversity
  • Enhance the microbial populations in soils
  • Build resiliency and sustainability in landscapes and ecosystems
  • Avoid excess product applications for fertility
  • Encourage the landscape system to function on its own over time
  • Encourage basic practices that enhance the soil and plant system
  • Embrace the concept that landscape management is site-specific
  • Move towards the goal of minimal input to the managed landscape
  • Have all inputs for fertilizer and soil amendments be natural or organic in nature
  • Make sure that the right plant material is used in every location
  • Encourage the use of native plant material within individual regions


The Organic Landscape Association models its basic tenants and principles after the National Organic Program. The NOP is a marketing program housed within the USDA that has developed national organic standards and an organic certification program. The Organic Landscape Association will primarily provide educational opportunities and business relationships within the organic industry, and it is not a certification program.

OLA educational programs will offer accreditation on a voluntary basis to those who successfully complete courses that may be offered. The purpose of our principles and protocols is to provide a framework for landscape management and continuing education that will allow professionals to apply the practices of organic management to landscapes where people reside. These landscapes may be residential, institutional, governmental, educational, or any public or private space.

The Organic Landscape Association will work to build professional competency in organic landscaping and work to protect the public by virtue of the responsible use of products and inputs. By connecting advocates, practitioners, and product developers and suppliers, the Organic Landscape Association will realize the goal of establishing a strong industry.

Site Analysis

An appropriate site analysis should precede any organic land management plan, decision, or program. Observation of the site including the strengths and weaknesses, testing the soil for chemistry, texture, or biology, and site characteristics should all contribute to the decision of how the land is managed.

Organic landscaping should be knowledge-based. It is the basic understanding of organic landscape principles combined with the knowledge of how a landscape system operates. It is this understanding of the landscape that allows the practitioner to make the right judgment when implementing a program based on product input and cultural practices.

Soil Health

The basis for success in organic landscaping and land care is a knowledge of soils and particularly the biological life. The analysis of the site combined with proper soil testing gives us an understanding of the soil and how to work within organic protocols to establish soil health and quality. The more we can increase biological activity in the soil, the better success we have with growing healthy, disease-resistant plant material.

The organisms in the soil have become collectively known as the soil foodweb. This network in the soil consists of microscopic organisms including lower trophic levels and higher-level predators. It is an intimate understanding of the functions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, among others, that lead us in the direction of establishing a sustainable system that requires less input over time.

The concept of nutrient cycling, whereby nitrogen can be cycled on a regular basis to plant material, is a core concept of nutrition within the biomass. It must be understood that nutrition is not exclusively provided by product input. A healthy biomass cycles nitrogen retains nutrients in a non-leachable form, improves soil structure, end imparts a degree of disease resistance to plant material.

Soil Testing

Although not a requirement, it is strongly recommended that soil testing precedes product input in any naturally managed landscape. A soil test gives information to the practitioner that allows for the appropriate product input for either fertilizers or soil amendments.

Fertilizers and Soil Amendments

A fertilizer is a material that has a guaranteed nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium analysis. An amendment is a material that primarily balances, adjusts, or changes soils in relation to soil tests. Amendments may have some minor nutritional value but not to the degree that would classify them as a fertilizer.

Any fertilizers or amendments used in the management of an organic landscape should be certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) or the equivalent. All materials must be natural, organic in nature with no synthetic component unless it is a synthetic that has been approved by OMRI on a case-by-case basis. Bio-solids, which are the byproduct of wastewater treatment, are also prohibited in in an organic landscape. It is the ongoing concern regarding the introduction of heavy metals and pharmaceuticals with the use of these products that necessitates their prohibition.

Many states either have or are in the process of developing regulations regarding the input of nitrogen and phosphorus into turfgrass systems. Nitrogen is being restricted within any individual application and is also being addressed from the cumulative amount introduced in a year. The timing of applications can be restricted in some cases. In those states that have regulated phosphorus, it is prohibited when a soil test shows that it is within the optimum range. It can be used however as a starter fertilizer when beginning a lawn or other turf area, either from seed, sod, or plugs on bare soil.

Lawns and Lawn Alternatives

It should be recognized and understood that grass is not always the appropriate plant in many situations. Historically, we have put grass liberally in landscapes for aesthetic or functional reasons. In some cases, it was intentionally done to provide a peaceful area where we could enjoy the outdoors in either a private setting around our homes or in a public setting such as a park. In other cases, grass ended up in the landscape by default because of a lack of thought regarding alternative plant material.

Currently, lawns comprise an area roughly the size of the state of Nebraska. Golf courses cover an area the size of Connecticut and increasing. It is important to understand that all grasses, both warm season and cool season, grown in the United States for non-forage purposes are not native. The warm season grasses have their origins in Asia and Africa. The cool season grasses came from Western Europe and the British Isles. In their native regions, they generally grew as part of diverse systems. Since the early 1950s, we have become accustomed to growing them as monocultures. Much of this came about with the emergence of readily available synthetic materials after World War II.

Turfgrass alternatives play a major role for future development of healthy, sustainable ecosystems. Grass is not always the right plant to use. Strong attention should be paid to alternative plant material to reduce a dependency upon turfgrass management in the future.

All grass should not go away. It is appropriate to have a reasonable amount of grass around our homes as a lawn for enjoyment. Grass grown in public parks, sports fields, and golf are entirely appropriate and should not be restricted. For the grass that remains, it is fundamentally important that we learn to manage these systems with nonchemical methods. By following good Organic IPM practices, we can manage these to a reasonable aesthetic that meets most expectations.

The concept embedded within IPM protocols discusses developing threshold levels of pest populations. IPM does not talk about monocultures or reducing insect populations to zero. Rather, it speaks about a tolerance level before we experience significant economic or aesthetic injury. Managing a turfgrass system to less than 5% weed pressures should be adopted as an appropriate threshold level.

Organic IPM

Organic IPM is a problem-solving strategy that prioritizes a natural, organic approach to turf and landscape management without the use of toxic pesticides. It mandates the use of natural, organic cultural practices that promote healthy soil and plant life as a preventative measure against the onset of turf and landscape pest problems.

The US EPA and CDC recommend the use of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program by local governments. IPM promotes the use of nonchemical methods for pest prevention and management, such as physical, mechanical, cultural, and biological controls. Least toxic pesticides may be selected for pest control only after all other reasonable nonchemical methods have been exhausted. The use of even allowed pest control products should be used on a rescue basis as opposed to incorporation into routine management programs.
This approach will eliminate or significantly reduce the use of, and exposure to, pesticides in the management of lawn areas, playing fields, and landscapes. Furthermore, it will mitigate the potentially negative impact of landscape management on local waterways, air quality, and ecosystems.

This protocol will rely on a systems approach that integrates soil health and plant vigor with proper cultural practices. The goal is to put a series of preventative steps in place that can naturally attenuate pest issues before they become a significant concern. Careful monitoring for pests and the development of the threshold levels within this system will allow for easier control of pest problems if they do arise. This protocol is knowledge-based utilizing an intimate understanding of soil dynamics, grass biology, and pest/disease morphology to establish the proper procedures for maximizing the health of the landscape. This protocol should mitigate most serious pest pressures.

When a pest has not been satisfactorily controlled by the above strategies, the rescue approach follows the path to the use of the least toxic pesticides. Recommendations are for the use of Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) section 25b minimum risk, pesticides listed by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Materials that are bio-rational in nature can also be used. Bio-rational pesticides are EPA registered. They have been approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) or an equivalent certifying body.

Essential Organic Integrated Pest Management Practices Include, But Are Not Limited To:

  • Regular soil testing
  • The addition of approved materials for soil fertility and amendment as necessitated by soil test results
  • Selection of plantings using criteria of hardiness; suitability to native conditions; disease and pest resistance; and ease of maintenance
  • Modification of outdoor management practices to comply with organic horticultural science, including scouting, monitoring, watering, mowing, pruning, proper spacing, and mulching
  • The use of physical controls, including hand weeding, and over seeding
  • The use of biological controls, including the introduction of natural predators, and the enhancement of the environment of a pest’s natural enemy
  • Through observation, determining the most effective treatment time, based on past biology and other variables, such as weather and local conditions
  • Eliminating pest habitats and conditions supportive of pest population increases