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The Dark Side of Lawns: How to Help the Earth with Organic Lawncare

By Kif Corcoran

Have you ever considered the absurdity of how we deal with lawncare in this country? Think about it: poison, feed, water, mow… poison, feed, water, and mow some more.

I admit, I am as guilty as the rest of you. Well, okay…I’ve never actually mowed a lawn before, so I’m slightly less sinful than the rest of you, but…I’ve digressed.

We all have lawns that are way too big, much too time consuming and entirely too environmentally costly, yet we continue to nurture and grow them because everyone else does. My family has taken small steps by following the organic lawncare tips (read on for details), but we still need to do more.

Harmful effects of lawncare products

You may be thinking since most people (including commercial lawn services) use similar pesticide and synthetic fertilizers on lawns, how bad can they really be?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 80 million U.S. households dump nearly 90 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides on lawns in a year. The average American lawn sucks up to 10,000 gallons of sprinkler water annually.

Synthetic fertilizers throughout stores nationwide, but in each bag, there are way more nutrients than the grass can use. One might assume this isn’t a concern, thinking the nutrients get absorbed into the ground somehow. But, actually, every summer in the Gulf of Mexico, an area roughly the size of Connecticut is covered in algae and plankton due in part to tons of synthetic fertilizer runoff from the Mississippi River. As the algae dies and decomposes, it uses up oxygen, making the area uninhabitable for sea life. The polluted runoff water that runs into this area comes from 31 different states.

Lawncare, the organic way

When I lived in North Liberty, Iowa, and my babies were small, I asked my neighbor, Steve, how he takes care of his organic lawn. I noticed he had the greenest, lushest lawn in the neighborhood, so I asked him about it. He explained that he believes in maintaining an organic lawn that is safe for his kids and dogs to play on.

He said it’s important to feed the microbes in the soil rather than the grass directly. Feeding grass synthetic fertilizer is like giving a person sugar. The grass gets a quick fix, but then it’s used up quickly. The grass becomes a “junkie” and has to keep getting its fix of chemical fertilizer.

Organic lawncare tips

Learn how traditional lawncare methods can be harmful to our health and the environment, and discover some earth-friendly alternatives of organic lawncare.

Steve believes feeding one’s lawn organically is like giving someone proteins and complex carbohydrates—in other words, real food. He gave me his list of favorite fertilizers: soybean meal, corn meal, alfalfa meal, and a commercial product Milorganite.

There are pros and cons to organic lawn fertilizers. I’ll start with the cons first.

Cons of organic lawn fertilizer

You have to feed your lawn much more organic feed than you would if it were synthetic feed. For instance, a synthetic lawn needs 3-4 fertilizer applications per year, using about 1 lb. of nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft. On the flip side, an organic lawn needs roughly 10-20 lbs. of organic fertilizer per 1000 sq. ft. of lawn. My neighbor uses about 4 50 lb. bags of soybean meal or 6 50 lb. bags of corn meal per feeding. Realistically, this is a lot of work, and at $8-$12 per bag, this can get quite expensive.

It takes a while to build up the organic matter in a lawn, but once the soil is in good condition, you can use less organic feed. My last bit of advice is to wear gross shoes when laying your organic fertilizer because the soybean meal ruined my summer sandals—I could never get the powder off. I know…catastrophic, right?

Pros of organic lawn fertilizer

The pros of organic feeding are plentiful. First, you will notice more birds in your lawn eating bugs, and you will have peace of mind that nothing in your yard will harm these animals. Second, you can feed a lawn organically anytime (unlike synthetics, which can burn the lawn during the summer).

You want to feed your lawn sometime in April, so it would get the organic nutrients by May (it takes about 3 weeks for the soil microbes to absorb the nutrients and then feed the grass). Also, keep the mower set on high to prevent the soil from drying out so quickly (the grass shades the roots) and this will reduce your overall water needs.

One important environmental advantage is then it cuts down on the number of weeds that will grow because the tall grass prevents the weed seeds from getting enough sunlight to germinate. You can hand pull the weeds that grow, and if a bad weed problem develops, you can spot spray with liquid weed killers.

Spot-treating weeds

Avoid treating the entire lawn with granular weed killer like most commercial lawn care services. According to Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual and spokesperson for SafeLawns.org, “No lawn is 100 percent weeds, but people are spreading harmful chemicals over the entire lawn. So if your lawn is 2 percent weeds, 98 percent of the herbicide product applied to the lawn serves no purpose, and it eventually washes into rivers and streams, leach into groundwater, or volatize into the air we breathe.” The EPA only requires that fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers list “active” ingredients, so there are mysterious ingredients that are not legally required to be included on the label.

One of the most common herbicides in weed and feed products is a chemical called 2, 4-D, which has been linked to an increased risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. According to the magazine Organic Gardening, a study of indoor air pollutants found 2, 4-D in 63 percent of homes. There was also increased levels of 2, 4-D in indoor air and on indoor surfaces after it was applied on lawns.

Eco-friendly alternatives to lawns

Besides starting an organic lawn program, there are more drastic alternatives that could provide us with more lasting benefits. One woman named Heather Flores from Eugene, Oregon, pioneered an urban garden movement that has gained national attention. She has de-lawned several sites in Eugene and encouraged hundreds of fellow town citizens to follow in her footsteps.

Another woman named Patty Hicks from Northern California was frustrated with her city’s water restrictions, and it motivated her to rip up her lawn and plant fruit trees. Check this out.

It makes me wonder if American society has a cultural fear of nature. Perhaps we feel we must control nature or nature will control us. Do we feel empowered somehow by conquering each round of the never-ending fight with our lawns?

Andrew V. Mason, author of And or Love, once said, “If dandelions were HARD to grow, they would be most welcome on any lawn.” Do we just like it when plants play “hard-to-get” and if they’re too easy, we don’t want them? Indeed it does seem as if “lawns are nature under totalitarian rule.”

Appreciating nature in our own backyards

When I went to France and Germany a few summers ago, these were some pictures I took of complete strangers’ backyards.

I was mesmerized by the sweet air and colorful plant life.

I walked outside for hours in Falkenstein, Germany, and the breathtaking beauty surrounding me brought me into my one and only instance of genuine, prolonged meditation. I walked around the small village for hours, feeling completely at ease I finally realized what people mean when they say that they’re living “in the moment.” I will never forget the smell of the air in Falkenstein. It smelled sweet and pure… I’m not sure why it smelled so much better there than it does here, but I can tell you one thing, no one in the village of Falkenstein had a huge manicured lawn.

The last picture I wanted to show is the backyard of my good friend Micaela who lives in San Diego.

Last year, she converted her backyard from a boring lawn into a sustainable garden, and she now donates her produce to friends, neighbors, and the local food pantry. As UUs, is this a trend we should be starting in our own neighborhoods?

This article is based on a sermon by Harmony member Kif Corcoran, and is published here with permission from the author.