Organic Lawn Care | Gardening Solutions
Five tips for organic lawn care
Richard Shasteen, retired from a long career as a project manager for IBM, is ferociously proud of the lawn surrounding the home he shares with his wife, Darlene, in Milton, Vermont, on the edge of Lake Champlain.
And he should be: The grass is about as green as green gets, soft as a blanket, with nary a weed in sight.
“We draw our drinking water right from the lake,” Richard says. “We swim in the lake all summer long, too.” A few years ago, Richard and Darlene began to feel uncomfortable with their lawn care practices, which involved service from a national company that treated the grass indiscriminately with pesticides and herbicides promising problem-free growth.
“I hated the way they put signs up on the lawn and told me not to let any children or animals walk on the grass,” says Darlene. “What about the birds and the squirrels?” The Shasteens switched to NaturaLawn of America, a nationally franchised company that provides organic lawn care and integrated pest management, and they couldn’t be happier.
Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), a watchdog and advocacy organization in Montpelier, and SafeLawns, a Maine-based nonprofit foundation, are busily spreading the word to homeowners that many of their lawn care practices are doing more harm than good. “The most basic piece of information we’d like to transmit is that lawn chemicals are inherently hazardous,” says Ben Davis, an environmental advocate at VPIRG.
Part of the problem, Davis contends, is that “consumers have been conditioned to purchase a product to solve a problem.” And as any hardware store circular will happily demonstrate, for every lawn care problem there’s a chemical solution: Got grubs? Spread this! Crabgrass? Spread that! The problem with chemically based systems is that those compounds kill earthworms and beneficial insects, too. Lawns need nutrient-rich soil to resist drought, weeds, and pests. Trying to keep a lawn green with synthetic fertilizers is like drinking high-test coffee while skipping the food.
Most of our nation’s 50 million acres of lawn are grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which are known to pollute soil and water, and to cause health problems in both people and animals, according to SafeLawns, cofounded in 2007 by Paul Tukey, publisher of People, Places & Plants magazine, cohost of the HGTV show by the same name, and author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual (Storey Publishing, 2007, $19.95).
“Americans are spreading millions of tons of toxic materials and wasting enormous amounts of fossil fuels, all in the name of having a beautiful lawn,” says Tukey. “Our mission is to show people that you can have that nice lawn without the toxic and wasteful side effects.” Tukey himself is a former professional landscaper who switched from synthetic to organic methods after becoming ill.
SafeLawns is working to educate society about the benefits of organic lawn care and gardening, with the goal of getting one million acres of turf organic by 2010. The foundation is working nationally to convince schools, colleges, and corporations to eliminate the use of lawn chemicals; to get state and local governments nationwide to follow Connecticut’s lead by adopting laws that prohibit lawn care pesticides on day care center and school grounds; and to urge real estate developers to switch to organic lawn care.
SafeLawns put its claims on display in Washington, D.C., last fall by taking over the care of a fenced-in four-acre area of the National Mall; the fence came down in late March, the grass is lush, and the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency will now begin a two-year evaluation of comparison test plots before deciding whether to expand organic practices to all NPS land.
Americans must redefine their image of the “perfect” lawn, says the man who helped write the nation’s first organic lawn care standards. A healthy lawn that’s weed- and pest-resistant may contain a little clover or moss, says SafeLawns cofounder Todd Harrington, who has owned an organic lawn care business in Connecticut for 20 years. And that’s okay.