How to Care for Your Lawn Safely

Guest Post by Tom Kelly

As the final whistle blew on our Thanksgiving football games this past week it also signified the last time most people will have any involvement with grass in 2010.  Whether your blowing the whistle on the football field or blowing the whistle on that final effort to get the leaves off your lawn it&;s pretty clear that as December progresses, we here in New England will turn our attention to snow blowers instead of lawn mowers.  However,

as we look at the window anticipating snowstorms sometimes we daydream about the hot summer days and all the time we spend on our lush, green backyard lawns.  Most of us would rather be cooking on the grill and not shoveling the walk way or playing catch with the kids and not scraping the car windshield from its ice cover.  This off-season when you think back about the thick green lawn you yearn for you should take a moment to consider the environmental and health concerns that the care of that carpet creates.

Over the last ten or fifteen years our obsession with lawns has gained serious momentum.  What&;s better than a back yard baseball game on a lawn that resembles the outfield at Fenway Park and there is no doubt that a vast sprawling green lawn accentuates the appearance of our homes and many would say even increases our property values.  However, what most people don&;t know is that as we&;ve become more and more obsessed with the appearance of our lawns we&;ve created a significant environmental concern. The fact is, if you can believe it, that we as a country apply more chemical fertilizers and pesticides to turf now than we do on farms for agriculture.  The chemical business has absolutely gone through the roof when it comes to creating that nuclear green lawn and based on the plethora of television commercials for weed killers and lawn fertilizers it doesn&;t look like the momentum is slowing.

Or is it.

In just the past couple of years, and in 2010 specifically what can only be defined as a “movement” has developed when it comes to awareness concerning the costs of that perfect lawn.  One has to look no further than recent legislation that was passed in the state of New York called “The Child Safe Playing Field Act.”  This legislation that was signed by Governor Patterson this year prohibits the application of pesticides on turf around any building where children generally congregate.  This includes schools, day care centers and playgrounds just to name a few.  Similar legislation has been enacted in Connecticut and the New Hampshire House of Representatives just completed a study that will give birth to it&;s own version of a pesticide repeal act.  If you are a parent of school age children this should give you significant cause for alarm.  In our haste to build the perfect lawn along with a little bit of brainwashing from corporate advertising we may have overlooked the health concerns that go along with that emerald carpet.

Even if you think all the fuss about childhood exposure to chemicals designed to kill things is just propaganda you should take a moment to consider the impact that many of these chemicals are now being looked at for their impact on wildlife.   Imidacloprid, the most commonly used pesticide to control grubs in lawns is now being blamed for something that could have implications that go way beyond our current obsession with grass.  It appears that many scientists are blaming the overuse of this chemical on what is known as “Colony Collapse Disorder.”  “CCD” is a phenomenon that is causing the rapid depopulation of honeybees.  Evidently when bees leave their hives to go do what they do best, pollinate our flowers and vegetables, they are exposed to this chemical and become disoriented. They lose their way back to their home base after they have been exposed and eventually die due to their inability to find their way home.  The experts believe that the product that we are using to control insect damage in our lawns and landscapes could be killing one of the very cornerstones of our food supply.  Can you imagine the impact of having plants that aren&;t pollinated?

Finally, and this one is scientifically proven, is the fact that the over application of water-soluble nitrogen and phosphorus found in all chemical fertilizers is causing a significant issue in terms of our surface water.  Every time we fertilize our lawns, or perhaps over fertilizer our lawns, a large percentage of the components in the fertilizer never get a chance to be absorbed by the root system of the lawn.  The state of Maine actually has a law that prevents the application of any fertilizer during a period of rain because the nitrogen and phosphorus winds up in the storm drains and inevitably the lakes and streams that are fed by them.  When a nutrient load is built up to excess in bodies of water it actually feeds what are called algae blooms.  Instead of fertilizing our lawns we end up fertilizing the vegetation in our water and when the algae bloom grows to excess it removes all the oxygen from the water and inevitably kills all the life in the lake.

This is hard to believe but every year towards fall there is a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  As chemical fertilizers run off into streams and tributaries of the Mississippi River they eventually are dumped into the gulf.  As levels of nitrogen and phosphorus rise they feed algae, which then literally creates an area the size of Rhode Island that is void of any life whatsoever.  The lack of oxygen in the water makes it impossible for any aquatic species to exist.   A dead zone the size of Rhode Island in the Gulf of Mexico because of chemical fertilizers?  I know it&;s hard to believe but it&;s absolutely true.

As awareness of the environmental and health concerns associated with lawn care continues to build many homeowners are making a conscious decision to reduce the amount of chemical fertilizers and dangerous pesticides they apply annually.  New technology has allowed for chemical free methods to be employed on our lawns with the same effectiveness and at the same cost.  No matter if you are worried about your children&;s exposure to chemicals or if your concerned with the environmental impact associated with water soluble fertilizer the way in which we care for our lawns is changing and it is changing quickly.  Make it a priority to question your lawn care service provider as to what their stance is on these issues.  Be certain that you know exactly what it is that they are applying.  Perhaps the most important thing is to be slightly more tolerant of inconsistencies in your lawn.  One dandelion popping up amidst the green carpet is not the end of the world and perfection is difficult to achieve.  This winter as you long for those spring days and green lawn perhaps take the time to consider alternative ways to create a beautiful landscape for your home and family.

Tom Kelly is the founder of Fire Belly Organics.  Fire Belly manufactures and distributes environmentally friendly, organic solutions for lawn and landscapes.

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