What is the most environmentally sound way for me to care for my lawn?
— Aching for some green in S.C.
The “care” of American lawns is poisoning our bodies, land, and water with a deadly deluge of toxic emissions and chemicals. American lawns also waste mind-boggling amounts of money, energy, water and land that could otherwise be used to grow food and provide habitat.
With lawns covering almost 50 million acres in the United States, the impact on our health and environment is considerable. U.S. lawns are doused with about 270 billion gallons of water a week — enough to water 81 million acres of vegetables — all summer long. More chemicals per acre are used on lawns than in agriculture. With 100 million pounds of pesticides used by homeowners each year, that’s up to 10 times as much pesticides as are used on farmland. Add in the 90 million pounds of herbicides applied on lawns every year, and you’ve got a deadly brew.
These fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides pollute water and air, devastating wildlife and greatly increasing our risk of cancer, birth defects and a myriad of other diseases. Some lawncare chemicals are neurotoxic, others are carcinogenic (cancer-causing), and others act like human hormones. Exposure is linked to miscarriage; suppression of the nervous, endocrine and immune systems; asthma; cancer; kidney or liver damage; genetic defects; and developmental and behavior disorders. Kids exposed to pesticides may be seven times more likely develop leukemia than other children.
Most of these chemicals are broad-spectrum biocides used to kill pests, but they are, in fact, indiscriminant killers. This means they are poisonous to a wide variety of living organisms, including garden plants, wildlife, pets, your neighbors, your family and you. Most likely, you are already being exposed. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found pesticides in 100 percent of the people they tested. (The average person carried 13 of 23 pesticides tested.)
The way we grow and maintain lawns is also responsible for consuming tremendous amounts of fossil fuels in the form of synthetic fertilizers, transportation, packaging and fuel for equipment — not to mention the CO2 emissions that go with them.
What to do?
Consider replacing that monotonous stretch of labor- and energy-intensive sod with a diverse mix of flora and fauna. Planting native and edible plants brings texture, color and biodiversity to the land, and it provides habitat and food for wildlife and humans alike. A deciduous tree planted to shade your home can keep your cooling bills down; make it a fruit or nut tree and you get food to boot.
There are several alternatives to the traditional lawn, alternatives that conserve water and help reduce pollution from mowing and chemicals. These alternatives are less expensive, and require less maintenance.
• Xeriscaping is a low- or no-water approach to landscaping. Droughts across North America — long and intense, and likely to only get worse in the coming years — are reason enough to abandon the water-greedy lawn.
• Natives: Plants, flowers and grasses that are native to your region are the most attuned to the soil, climate and water particularities. They are great water-savers and will thrive with less care than tropical and imported varieties.
• Let the moss grow! It is a natural, maintenance-free plant for shade.
• Grow food instead of turf! Growing your own food is one of the greatest things you can do for your health and that of the Earth. A lawn-to-garden movement is taking root across the country (and world) so you should be able to easily find resources, information and support. Food Not Lawns is a good place to start.
• Turn your yard into a habitat for beneficial insects, birds and other wildlife. Check out The National Wildlife Federation’s backyard wildlife habitat program and suggestions from Audubon.
For the turf you keep:
• A cooperative extension agent can advise you on the best type of lawn seed for your region and soil conditions. Planting grass native to your soil cuts down on the need for water, fertilizer and chemical inputs.
• Mow, at most, only a third of the grass's height at a time, and leave it as tall as you can stand — three inches is a good minimum. This allows the grass blades to shade the ground and provides better habitat. The leftover cuttings act like mulch for your lawn, helping it retain moisture and giving it valuable nutrients.
• Don’t weed out non-turf plants such as clover. A more diverse lawn is a healthier and more resilient lawn. Clover is a drought-tolerant, low-maintenance, cost-saving and environmentally sound lawn alternative. It is evergreen, and converts nitrogen into a substance that is usable by other plants. If clippings are left on the lawn, just a 5 percent clover mix can generate enough usable nitrogen to make fertilizing unnecessary.
• Be a water-miser. Water early in the day or in the evening, when there is less loss to evaporation. Keep in mind that most lawns and gardens are over-watered and therefore susceptible to fungus and disease.
• Power to the people! Leaf blowers and power mowers are as many as six times more polluting than cars. They are a source of global warming, responsible for up to 10 percent of air pollution in the summer months. Get a push-reel mower and trade the leaf blower for a broom.
• Feed the soil, not the plant. Chemical fertilizers — besides being fossil fuel-based and dangerous — only treat the symptoms. Organic conditioners, such as compost, nourish the soil and that is the foundation of a truly healthy yard or garden.
• Needless to say, don’t use pesticides or herbicides on your lawn or garden, especially if you have children or pets.
For more information:
• SafeLawns, a nonprofit dedicated to natural lawn care.
• The same group has an informative list of the environmental effects of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides.
Keep it Green — but always choose a safe shade of green,