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Where the Grass is Greener: Naturally Better Lawn Care

Publisher: Seventh Generation, July 28, 2004

If America loves anything, it’s a perfect lawn. There’s something about a broad weed-free expanse of well-manicured grass neatly clipped to a uniform height that inspires even the most hardened souls among us to get all gushy with praise and admiration. Perfect lawns, however, do not occur in nature, and creating them at home is often a chemically-intensive effort that’s neither green nor clean. Fortunately, there are ways to make beauty grow without involving anything ugly, and we’ve got more than a few ideas right here.

There are roughly 30 million acres of lawn in the United States. Approximately 4 out of 5 households have one of these private postage stamp-sized pieces of paradise. That’s almost 104 million homes with lawns whose average size is about 1/3 of an acre. Each year, the typical homeowner spends about 40 hours mowing their lawn. Most use gasoline-powered mowers, which produce the same amount of air pollution in one hour that a car makes on a 20-mile drive.

According to the National Gardening Association, in 2003, Americans spent roughly $38.4 billion on their lawns and gardens, or about $457 per household. For every one acre, nearly 6 tons of clippings are produced each year, an amount equal to about 1,000 garbage bags. Our lawns are thirsty, too. According to the EPA, the average lawn needs about 10,000 gallons of water in addition to natural rainfall. In the eastern U.S. alone, one-third of urban water use is for lawn care.

All this grass is not without its benefits. For example, turf can save energy by keeping the ground surrounding a home 30-40° cooler than bare soil and 50° cooler than pavement. This natural air conditioning can dramatically reduce the need to use the artificial kind. Grass also creates oxygen and lots of it. A 2,500 square foot expanse of grass, or just a 50' x 50' parcel, produces enough for a family of four. That same patch can also absorb as much as 1,500 gallons of rainwater during a storm and around 12 lbs of the air pollutant sulfur dioxide every year.

The question is not whether we want or even need our lawns. It’s how can we grow and maintain these pastures in such a way as to make them a boon and not a bust for the environment.

There are a wide variety of strategies homeowners can use to have their lawn and green it, too. They keep your yard prettier, the people who use it healthier, and the earth safer. Here’s a checklist for truly better homes and gardens:
  • Rule Number 1: No herbicides or pesticides! About 55% of all households use insecticides, 38% use herbicides, and 13% use fungicides on their lawns. In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, 78 million pounds of these chemicals were sold to consumers, and that’s not counting the quantities used by professional lawn care companies. According to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, homeowners using pesticides use up to 10 times more chemicals per acre than farmers. The EPA allows over 200 different pesticide chemicals to be sold for use on lawns, 35 of which are used in 90% of all applications. These poisons can cause a variety of health problems including reproductive and developmental disorders, and cancer. According to the EPA’s own estimates, 95 percent of the pesticides used on residential lawns are possible or probable carcinogens. Children living in homes where pesticides are used have shown increased odds of childhood leukemia, brain cancer, and soft tissue sarcoma.

    Ironically, pesticides aren’t any good for our lawns, either. In addition to their targeted pests, they kill valuable soil microbes, bacteria, beneficial insects, and earthworms, and actually weaken grass plants. Ultimately, homeowners using such chemicals face a downward spiral in which more and more pesticides must be applied to lawns as grass gets weaker and more vulnerable to pests and disease from repeated applications. Keeping pesticides of all kinds out of our homes and off our lawns actually keeps them greener in the long run, not to mention our families safer.

  • Plant appropriate grasses that require as little help as possible in your region. In the north and Midwest, good choices are varieties of Kentucky bluegrass like Glade and Adelphi, tall fescue grasses like Falcon and Mustang, and perennial rye grasses like Fiesta and Omega. In the humid south, choose Bermuda grass, carpet grass or zoysia. In the dry southwest and the Great Plains, blue grama grass and buffalo grass are fine choices.

  • In drought-prone areas, consider forgoing a traditional lawn altogether and planting native plants instead. Plants endemic to your region evolved to thrive in its typical conditions. They don’t need much in the way of extra watering or special coddling. The use of local, drought-resistant plants in landscaping is called xeriscaping. In addition, to providing often eye-popping natural beauty, these natural “lawns” form mini-ecosystems that are valuable habitat for local wildlife. Owners of such environments often find them to contain more butterflies, birds, and other creatures than lawns.

  • Let your grass grow! Don’t mow your lawn to within an inch of its life. Such a “crew cut” places unnecessary stress on grass plants and makes it more susceptible to problems. Instead, let it grow 2–3 inches high. At this length, grass actually shades weed seedling and prevents their growth. Tests conducted on crabgrass, for example, found that a lawn mowed to 2.2 inches decreased the presence of this nuisance plant from 30% of total lawn area to 7% in just 5 years and without any other measures being taken.

  • When you do mow, let the clippings fall back on the lawn. The only thing we’re doing when we cart off bags of clippings to the dump is needlessly clogging landfills and gradually stripping all the nutrients from our lawn’s soil. Clippings left where they fall, on the other hand, return these nutrients to the ground and maintain nature’s natural recycling process for healthier soils and grass.

  • Use only natural fertilizer. If fertilization is necessary, use a natural fertilizer like compost or cow manure. In the north, apply this fertilizer once in the fall, after grass goes dormant for the winter. In the south, try two or three light fertilizations stretching from late spring to early fall.

  • Water only in the early mornings. When lawns are watered during the day, much of the water applied ends up evaporating into the air in the heat of the midday sun. Lawns watered in the evening get a good soaking but are at risk for fungal invasions. Lawns watered in the early morning hours are able to soak up this valuable resource and deliver more water to the roots where its needed. A rising sun ensures that any water left on the surface will not remain to encourage fungi.

  • Measure your rainfall to gauge the need for watering. Set an empty, wide-mouth can out to collect and measure rainfall. As long as you’re getting about an inch of rain a week, your lawn doesn’t need any watering.

  • Water less often but for longer periods when you do. A single intensive soaking rather that a series of short waterings will encourage the formation of deep root systems that help grass plants go far longer between waterings and better resist dry spells.

  • Beat weeds the safe old-fashioned way. Weeding your lawn may seem like too much work, but it sure beats the problems herbicides cause, and it’s fairly simple with the right tools. Get a weeding fork with a long handle that allows you to weed while standing. To defeat dandelions, one of the most common problems, dig out 4–5 inches of the root when the plant is flowering and there’ll be an 80% chance it won’t come back. Clipping dandelions with shears, leaves, stems and all, all that way to the ground 5–6 times a year will cause their roots to eventually tire and die.

  • Consider a smaller lawn or no lawn at all. Less lawn = less maintenance + more natural habitat, and that’s an equation that’s easier on homeowners and better for the earth. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, America adds about 2 million acres of residential property every year. Put another way, that’s 2 million acres of open space lost annually. Planting smaller lawns preserves some of this space for creatures that need it. Instead of manicured grass, plant beds of wildflowers, grasses, and native plants. They’ll attract all kinds of wildlife and offer far more color and variety than a plain lawn.

    This article originally appeared in "The Non-Toxic Times," an e-newsletter published by Seventh Generation. Each month, Seventh Generation researches their extensive library and network of experts to bring you important tips, resources and news about the issues that affect the health of your home, family and the environment.

    Seventh Generation offers a full selection of non-toxic household products for a clean home, a healthy family, and a safer world. They are committed to providing products that perform as well as conventional products, and are also safe and environmentally responsible. For valuable coupons and to subscribe to their e-newsletter, "The Non-Toxic Times," visit www.seventhgeneration.com
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