Earth Matters: The real cost of a green lawn

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By Patti Wood

Amongst the daffodils, forsythia and flowering trees are the other harbingers of spring we have become accustomed to — yellow pesticide warning flags dotting lawns across Long Island. Lawn service crews and do-it-yourselfers are performing the first chores of the season, including applications of a “weed and feed” product, a combination of fertilizer and weed killer. It is that time of year when homeowners are seeking to have the greenest, weed-free lawn in their neighborhood.

But long after the pesticide warning flags have been removed, there will still be residues of a highly toxic herbicide, and children and pets should stay off these lawns, not just for the 24 hours indicated on the warning flag, but at least until there has been a heavy rain.

Most consumers, and even some landscapers, are unaware that these innocuous looking bags of “lawn food” contain 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, one of two substances that were combined to create Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant chemical used extensively by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.

The health effects from exposure to Agent Orange are numerous and still impacting Vietnamese families as well as U.S. service men and women. On the Veterans Affairs website they list seven specific cancers or groups of cancers and seven other diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange for which one can claim disability compensation. They don’t list all the well documented birth defects that are found in the offspring of those exposed.

Manufacturers of pesticides would like us to believe that their products are safe, but common sense tells us that any product designed to kill living things is inherently dangerous. Unintended exposures in the form of run-off or drift, as well as granular pesticides being mistaken for food, impact many non-target species. There are documented reports of wild bird deaths, pollinator die-offs, mutations in frogs, fish kills, poisoning and cancer in dogs and higher-than-normal cancer incidence in human populations near sites with high pesticide use.

Probably most disturbing are studies linking childhood diseases with pesticide exposures. Children are uniquely vulnerable to toxins in their environment due to a variety of physiological and behavioral factors. Due to their small size, children take in proportionally more air, water and anything else in the environment than adults. They also have immature immune, detoxification and elimination systems which put them at greater risk.

A child’s normal hand to mouth behavior increases their exposure, along with their natural tendency to play inside on floors or outside on the grass. Studies have shown that households with small children and pets have more pesticide residues in carpets and upholstered furniture, simply because pesticides are tracked indoors regularly on shoes and paws.

So how can homeowners or their landscapers maintain lush, resilient lawns without any risk? Not surprisingly, it turns out that nature has already figured this out. The answer lies in the fastest growing segment of the lawn care industry… natural lawn care.

Natural lawn care begins with a simple, inexpensive soil test. Just as a doctor wouldn’t usually write a prescription without a blood test, a soil test is required to understand the condition of your soil biology, and tells you exactly what your lawn needs. The pH of your soil might be too high or too low. You might need more calcium or potassium. If your soil chemistry is out of whack, you won’t be able to grow healthy grass without a steady diet of chemical inputs.

“Feed the soil” is the mantra of natural lawn managers, so you want to feed your soil microbes with the food they need to do their job. Applications of good compost or compost tea can stimulate those microbes to get busy providing nutrients to grass plants.

Apply a low-nitrogen fertilizer (12 percent or less) that contains water insoluble nitrogen. This kind of fertilizer relies on your soil microbes to release nutrients, so it works over time, unlike fertilizers with mostly water soluble nitrogen, which pollute both our ground and surface waters.

Finally, mow high — anywhere from 2.5 to 3.5 inches. This gives grass plants more surface area for photosynthesis and shades the soil, discouraging weed seeds from germinating. Always leave grass clippings on the lawn; doing so can contribute up to a full pound of nitrogen per season. And be sure to over-seed with a good quality blend of grass seed varieties in the fall and early spring. Aeration is optional, but probably needed if you have high foot traffic.

Maintaining your lawn using natural methods can produce green, healthy plants with deep roots that resist drought and disease, and create a lawn surface perfect for children, pests and wildlife, all while protecting our environment.

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