For the last 70 years, billions of marketing dollars have been spent fostering the vision of a perfect lawn that is the envy of the neighborhood. Applying chemicals to lawns began just after World War II when chemical companies shifted their focus from war-time chemical production to the promotion of a new range of synthetic chemical lawn care products. And now, every spring, homeowners begin the annual process of applying bags of “4-step” lawn care products or hiring a chemical application company to care for their lawn. This lawn care approach is simple and easy because you just open a bag or write a check, but that’s where the trouble begins. Most people have no idea what is being put in their yards. In fact, many lawn care companies have no idea what they are putting on their customers’ lawns or why — just ask them. They know that the product is being applied multiple times a year and that it is presumably safe and effective because it is being applied or sold by a well-known brand or company.
Just because something is sold in a retail store or is heavily marketed, doesn’t mean that it is safe.
In fact, lawn care products can be downright harmful to you, your
children, pets, neighborhood and the environment.
Let’s take a closer look:
1 Synthetic chemical fertilizers apply heavy doses of nitrogen to the soil, which is a waste of money. Only 30-35% of synthetic lawn fertilizers ever reach the grass roots; the rest leaches through the soil and creates major pollution problems in streams, lakes and drinking water supplies. Of the synthetic fertilizer that does reach the grass plants, it is still too much for the grass to properly utilize.
2 Chemical synthetic fertilizers are manufactured through chemical processes using non-
renewable resources that chemically alter their ingredients. Chemical synthetic fertilizers:
• are loaded with mineral salts which sterilize and disinfect the soil, killing beneficial earthworms, microbes, fungi, bacteria and organisms.
• make soil increasingly acidic every time these fertilizers are applied, inviting more weed growth and hindering strong turf grass growth.
• over-stimulate grass plants with high levels of nitrogen beyond what they can handle which forces lush, rapid growth. This rapid grass growth actually stresses and weakens the grass and encourages lawn pests and diseases to set in.
Then, a harmful cycle is set into motion. Because of the increased pest and disease presence created by the chemical fertilization, chemical lawn care companies routinely apply pest and disease control chemicals which non-selectively kill more of the beneficial microbes, fungi, bacteria living in the soil. With no beneficial organisms left in the soil to support healthy grass growth, this cycle of ‘high-nitrogen fertilizer, forced lush-but-weakened grass, increased pests, increased diseases, pest chemical application, herbicide and fungicide application’ repeats over and over again. This cycle is why you often see chemically treated lawns look worse and worse as the years go on. The grass plants just cannot handle the onslaught of chemicals.
3 High nitrogen chemical fertilization in the summer helps weeds more than the turf grass. In this region, cool season turf grasses predominate. These grasses grow best in the cooler months of the spring and the fall. In the heat of the summer, they go dormant. Summer application of high-nitrogen, synthetic chemical fertilizers over-stimulates and forces rapid grass growth during periods when grass is trying to go dormant to store energy. Weeds on the other hand, are warm-season plants that love to be fertilized in the heat of the summer.
4 Using a chemical lawn care program to create a lush green lawn that is the envy of your neighbors is creating a chemical “dump” in the lawn that causes cancer and other health problem in pets and a growing concern for people as well. There are numerous studies by respected researchers and universities that confirm the undeniable link between lawn herbicides and pesticides and dog cancers:
a) In 2013, “The Science of the Total Environment” published the findings of a Purdue University and University of North Carolina study that reported that lawn chemical exposure was widespread in dogs, and that “dogs may serve as sentinels for potentially harmful environmental exposures in humans”.
b) The January 2012 issue of Environmental Research reported the findings of a Tufts and UMASS study of over 700 dogs, which concluded that “the use of professionally applied pesticides was associated with a significant 70% higher risk of malignant lymphoma (in dogs)” and because malignant lymphoma in dogs closely resembles non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (in people), the study expressed concerns that “specific chemical components of lawn care products … may potentially contribute to human NHL (Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) as well”.
c) In 2004, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association reported the results of a Purdue University study that concluded that exposure to herbicide-treated lawns and gardens increases the risk of bladder cancer by four to seven times in Scottish Terriers.
d) Early research by the National Institute of Health in 1991 concluded that there was an increased risk of malignant lymphoma in dogs that were exposed to commonly used lawn herbicides.
5 Lawn care product manufacturers have said for years that it’s safe for children and pets to go on lawns immediately or “after the product dries” but don’t believe it. Many lawn care chemicals are not safe even when they dry. They can remain active for months and release vapors when walked on or when the grass is cut. Airborne dust from these products can blow around the neighborhood from excess fertilization (Think about what you smell when you are in the garden center fertilizer department — it’s the airborne product)
6 “Weed and Feed” products are a combination of herbicides and fertilizers which are intended to kill both weeds and fertilize grass in one “easy” application. There are many on the market, but they all contain toxins that are poisonous to a wide range of living things, including you. Children and pets that play or crawl on lawns treated with weed and feed products can easily absorb the toxins through their skin or by licking their fingers (or paws). Both pets and people track them into the house. In Canada, all combination weed and feed products have been banned.
7 “Weed and Feed” products apply herbicides and toxins over the entire lawn, including where it is not needed. The combination of fertilizer and herbicides in one bag puts two incompatible products together. Fertilizer is intended for the entire lawn and herbicides are intended to kill weeds that may only be on 5% of the lawn, but get spread on the entire lawn anyway, spreading completely unnecessary toxic chemicals.
Natural, organic lawn care is now
The major difference between a natural, organic lawn care program and a synthetic, chemical lawn care program is the attention paid to the health of the soil. Chemical programs work directly on the grass plants by overdosing them with frequent, high levels of nitrogen, basically “hooking them on drugs” and sterilizing the soil. Organic lawn care is a science-based approach that focuses on building a healthy eco-system in the soil that promotes robust growth of grass plants.
The organic approach combines three things: establishing good soil health, using naturally occurring organic products and applying improved turf management principles. When grass gets the proper nutrients in the proper amounts at the proper time, grass plants flourish, naturally crowd out weeds and help keep diseases and pests under control. Organic fertilizers provide slow-release nitrogen that feeds the grass steadily over a longer period of time than synthetic fertilizers, which peak in 7-10 days and are completely gone from the soil in 4-6 weeks. Organic fertilizers and organic practices build the population of beneficial earthworms, microbes, fungi, bacteria and organisms in the soil which help decompose and recycle organic matter, grass clippings and thatch and turn them into fertilizer the grass can use. This makes a thicker lawn that requires fewer mowings.
The initial step in any organic lawn care program is to get a picture of what is going on with the health of the soil by performing a comprehensive soil test. Some soils are so damaged by prior chemical lawn care programs that improvement in soil health can take an extended period of time which requires patience to see results, as the turf recovers from the chemicals. Once soil tests are evaluated, a customized organic lawn care program is developed for your lawn that combines steps for overall needed improvement in the soil, regular application of the correct type and amount of nutrients to the grass and improved turf management practices.
Here’s what these practices look like in action:
1) Perform an annual soil test to determine the pH level (grass likes a pH of 6.5-6.8), percent of organic content; calcium and magnesium levels and several other parameters. A word of caution: never put lime on your lawn unless you have done a soil test first to tell you how much and what type of lime is needed. You can do damage if you apply too much.
2) Cut your grass between 3½”- 4” during the growing season which strengthens the grass and crowds out weeds. Cut with sharp mower blades to make clean cuts and minimize disease.
3) Mulch your grass clippings into the lawn. Leaving mulched grass clippings saves a tremendous amount of additional fertilizer and provides organic matter for the soil. Scientists tell us that for every 1 percent increase in organic matter content, soil can hold 16,500 gallons of plant-available water per acre. Leaving your clippings will help drought-proof your lawn. Mulch some of your fallen leaves in the autumn as well.
4) Core-aerate your lawn at least once each year to relieve soil compaction and allow oxygen to get to the root zone of the grass plants. Compaction hinders grass from growing and encourages weeds.
5) Slice-seed or over-seed your lawn each fall to help strengthen the turf and replace the plants that naturally die each year. Over-seeding your lawn in the fall begins effective weed control for the following season. Strong, healthy lawns crowd out weeds without applying chemical weed-killers.
Founded in 1997, Sprigs & Twigs is a 100% organic, national award-winning leader in the creation and care of beautiful outdoor living spaces. The company has been repeatedly selected “Best Landscape Company” and “Best Tree Service” by Day readers, and specializes in custom carpentry, landscape design, installation, maintenance, expert tree care, organic lawn care, custom stonework and floral and decor. Sprigs & Twigs is a member of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), the premier organization devoted to training professionals in organic land care practices. Twelve of their staff are Accredited Organic Land Care professionals (AOLCPs) who have passed the rigorous NOFA training program. This is one of the largest staffs of NOFA-accredited, trained organic professionals in the country, according to the association. For more information, visit sprigsandtwigs.net and SprigsandTwigsFloral.com or call 860-235-0752.