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Lawn Time Coming: Measuring Healthier Living By the Yard

Publisher: Seventh Generation, April 30, 2007

Lawn Time Coming: Measuring Healthier Living By the Yard

With spring springing up all over the place, homeowners across a thawing land are throwing off their mittens and turning their attention to the Great Outdoors, which for many means their yards and gardens. According to biology sage E.O. Wilson, human beings have a natural genetic affinity for lawns because their grass-filled open spaces remind us of the African savannahs we evolved upon. It’s what we do to maintain those environments, however, that’s often quite unnatural.

Lawns are big business in the United States. Depending on who you ask, they cover somewhere between 30 and 40 million total acres and surround about 104 million homes, or roughly four out of every five. Each year, the average homeowner spends approximately 40 hours mowing and trimming his or her greensward. According to a 2006 National Gardening Association report, he or she also spent an average of $387 on lawn and garden care in 2005, which helped lawn care spending increase 9% to $9.65 billion.

That’s a lot of money being dumped onto a lot of lawns, and it’s not the only thing our lawns are soaking up either. As largely artificial environments, lawns require a huge amount of water. According to the EPA, the typical lawn needs about 10,000 gallons of water in addition to natural rainfall. In some places, as much as 60% of summer water consumption is dedicated to watering thirsty grass.

Chemicals are another common part of modern lawn care. There are 200 different lawn care pesticides and herbicides approved for consumer use, and 75% of American households use at least one. EPA figures show that over 100 million pounds of active chemical ingredients are applied to lawns each year. More than half of America’s 104 million lawn owners use insecticides, 40 million use herbicides, and 14 million use fungicides. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that homeowners use up to 10 times more chemicals per acre than farmers!

This summer, an organization called SafeLawns is launching a national campaign to get people to green up their outdoor acts. The initiative kicked off on April 4th with an event on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and a challenge to Americans to convert one million acres of conventional lawn to organic lawn by 2010. In addition, SafeLawns is asking colleges, universities, schools, and day care centers to stop using synthetic chemicals on their turf. The organization is also launching a new program with realtors, which will alert home buyers to those properties that have safe-to-play-on organic yards.

How can you create such a healthier yard yourself? Here are some suggestions for making your home’s grounds greener in more ways than one:

Forget the pesticides! 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.
And pesticides aren’t any good for your lawn either. In addition to their targets, they also kill valuable soil microbes, bacteria, beneficial insects, and earthworms, and actually weaken grass plants. Homeowners using chemicals face a downward spiral in which more and more pesticides must be applied to lawns as increasingly pesticide-weakened grass becomes more vulnerable to pests and disease. Keeping chemicals of all kinds off our lawns actually keeps them greener in the long run.

• Plant the right kind of grass.
Look for grass types that are well suited to your region and will therefore require less in the way of water and care. In the Northeast and Midwest, good choices include 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 better bets.

• Consider a smaller lawn.
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. That’s 2 million acres of natural habitat lost annually. Planting smaller lawns preserves some of this habitat.

• In drought-prone areas, consider no lawn at all and plant native plants instead.
The use of local, drought-resistant plants in landscaping is called xeriscaping, and it has lots of advantages. Plants endemic to your region evolved to thrive in its typical conditions and don’t need much in the way of watering or coddling. They’ll also provide natural beauty and create valuable wildlife habitat.

• Let your grass grow!
Don’t mow your lawn to within an inch of its life. That places unnecessary stress on your grass and makes it more susceptible to problems. Instead, let grass grow 2–3 inches high. At this length, grass will shade many weed seedling and prevent 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 without any other measures.

• When you do mow, let the clippings fall back on the lawn.
The only thing we’re doing when we cart bags of clippings off to the dump is needlessly clogging landfills and gradually removing all the nutrients from our lawn’s soil. Clippings left where they fall, on the other hand, return these nutrients to the ground to help maintain 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 that water 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 it’s needed while a rising sun ensures that any water left on the surface will evaporate to discourage 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 safer old-fashioned way.
Weeding your lawn may seem like a lot of 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 lawn weeds, 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 the way to the ground 5–6 times a year will cause their roots to eventually tire and die.

For more information about healthy lawns, join the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides free Healthier Homes and Gardens Program at http://www.pesticide.org/HHG.html. For additional resources and more about SafeLawns, visit http://www.safelawns.org.

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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