Pesticides and Lawn Care

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL'S online real estate section continues its somewhat unlikely role as a promoter of organic landscaping. In an article titled "'Green Lawns' Spur Neighborhood Wars," Gwendolyn Bounds describes her own effort to create a conventional lawn using only organic methods. Now, personally I regard conventional lawns as pretty silly no matter how they're arrived at. But there's no doubting their popularity. (See "The Sad Story of the American Lawn" for why.) And if people must have them by all means let them be maintained organically.

Bounds does a great--indeed, rather frightening--job of explaining why this matters. She cites research conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health, which "found that individuals reporting exposure to pesticides had a 70% higher incidence of Parkinson's disease than those not reporting exposure. The report notes that among individuals who are not farmers, the significant association is 'most likely explained by use of pesticides in home or in gardening.'" According to Bounds, research at the Mayo Clinic also found a connection between Parkinson's and pesticide exposure, while other research has found a connection between exposure to herbicides in lawns and gardens and cancer in dogs.

To all of this, I hope you will join me in saying a big, hearty "Yikes!"

If you do want a weed-free "perfect" lawn and also want it to be organic, the article makes it plain that the process can take time and effort. The secret to a lush organic lawn, Bounds says, is to attain such a thick planting of grass that weeds don't stand a chance. Recommended steps are:
  1. Get a soil test. With the results in hand, you then have to determine what soil amendments are needed to promote optimal grass growth.
  2. Stop using "unnatural" herbicides. Instead, Bounds recommends using a natural corn-gluten herbicide, which works by preventing seeds from germinating. This is an interesting suggestion, with potential applications even in the "wild" garden. I'll have more to say about corn-gluten herbicides tomorrow.
  3. Use natural fertilizers. Bounds makes heavy use of natural fertilizers such as organic compost in order to ensure thick growth.
  4. Set the mower to "high" (at least 3 inches). Taller grass has a better shot at crowding out weeds.
  5. Water early in the morning, about once a week, making sure the lawn gets about an inch of water each week. Heavy watering is designed to ensure a lush lawn; unfortunately it's not an environmentally benign recommendation because it is very wasteful of water. I mention this only because the article mentions it, but it is not a practice I personally would ever recommend.
  6. Seed bare spots in fall. Bounds suggests adding white clover to the usual lawn mix because it adds nitrogen to the soil and is such a tough plant. Although white clover is not native, it is a very good bee plant, and I think it can be useful in a wild garden. I'll talk more about that the day after tomorrow.
On the whole, however, I much prefer my alternative, which is to give up on lawn altogether.

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