Greener Green Grass
Why Organic Lawns Make Eco-Sense
by Julie Peterson
With its dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, America’s 63,000 square miles of lawns rely on fossil fuels, put pressure
on water supplies and devastate soil, watersheds, animals and people.
Fortunately, green turf can be attained organically, with important benefits. “In addition to protecting public health, eliminating our use of pesticides and fertilizers will allow us to build healthy soil and sequester more carbon as we face climate chaos,” says Mackenzie Feldman, executive director of Herbicide-Free Campus, a San Francisco organization working to transition colleges nationwide to organic lawns.
The Harm Done
Homeowner desire for lush swaths of monoculture grass has been fueled by lawn chemical ads equating model families with flawless lawns. Unfortunately, the “green grass of home” isn’t an ideal dream, it’s a nightmare. Research shows that it exposes people to cancer-causing, reproductive-harming and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, many of which are deemed safe by government agencies. The Pesticide-Induced Diseases database at BeyondPesticides.org holds myriad studies linking chemicals to asthma, diabetes, autism, lupus, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of toxins due to their developing organs.
Exposure to lawn chemicals also comes through the air, on indoor surfaces and in water. A U.S. Geological Survey report found pesticides in 99 percent of urban streams. In mixed land use areas, 100 percent of major rivers and 33 percent of major aquifers were tainted.
While the culture around the aesthetics of landscapes is strong, the tipping point has arrived.
“People are becoming more aware that their children are at elevated risk and that there are deficiencies in the laws that govern toxic chemical use,” says Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, in Washington, D.C.
Lawn chemicals are also feeding climate change. “Not only are they fossil-fuel intensive to produce, they harm the biology in the soil and destroy its ability to sequester carbon,” says Diana Carpinone, president of Non Toxic Communities, a pesticide reform nonprofit, and founder of Non Toxic Dover, in New Hampshire.
Front Yard Activists
Recent lawsuits and climate change have given activists more power to effect sweeping changes in policy. “This isn’t just a niche idea. We have a mandate, given looming environmental crises, to transform our current chemical intensive systems to organic,” says Jay Feldman.
Organic turf experts have devised methods to grow monoculture grass. According to Ryan Anderson, a community outreach specialist at the Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America and leader of Midwest Grows Green, “Homeowners can keep their lawns organic by increasing cultural controls.” These include aerating, over seeding and mowing high to build the soil, turf and plant system.
While pristine lawns are possible, reconsidering aesthetics is another option. “We could let native plants grow and embrace plant diversity as fundamental to ecosystem resilience,” says Mackenzie Feldman.
Indeed, “weeds” are beneficial. Clover feeds nitrogen to grass, benefits soil organisms and stays green long after turf. Dandelions were once considered a source of food and medicine, and all parts of it are edible, including flowers, roots and leaves.
Instead of living with weeds, some homeowners are choosing to tear out lawns and put in indigenous plants to attract pollinators and other wildlife. But it takes time for society to adopt new views and front yards can be polarizing.
“You can’t go from zero to hippie in a day. People need realistic goals,” says Carpinone.
Whether someone rents, owns or only has access to shared green spaces, Shaina Rico, founder of The Generation Ground, an Austin-based organization helping farmers launch regenerative businesses, feels everyone must “take ownership of our green spaces. If you are not the one managing the land, ask questions of those that are. What are we doing to support the soil biology? Can we achieve the goal without using chemicals? How can we increase soil organic matter?”
Concerned citizens are asking local governments and school districts to eliminate chemical turf management protocols at parks and schools. Nonprofit campaigns such as Beyond Pesticides, Non Toxic Communities and Herbicide-Free Campus can sometimes send a spokesperson and provide ample data to overcome common objections. “We can show that organic is viable and economical. Organic systems end up reducing costs over time,” says Jay Feldman, who helps install community pilot sites.
Transitioning to organic practices requires a focus on soil health, building up microbial life and organic matter, understanding the ecosystem and creating a balanced ecology. Once in place, it’s a functioning system that doesn’t need much management.
“You can have a beautiful, organic, green lawn that’s safe for all living things,” says Carpinone.
Make a Difference
Offset climate change and improve health for people and the planet by reaching out to the community or finding helpful experts to assist with local efforts.
Non Toxic Communities (NonToxicCommunities.com) offers resources to create healthier schools, lawns and landscapes throughout the country.
Beyond Pesticides (BeyondPesticides.org) has a database of pest management and lawn service companies that don’t use dangerous pesticides, lawn signs for the organic yard and a sign-up for The Action of the Week to contact elected officials about current issues.
The Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America (ipminstitute.org) provides low-risk pest management solutions for farms, greenhouses, facilities and homes.
Herbicide-Free Campus (HerbicideFreeCampus.org) is working to transition every campus in the country to organic.
The Great Healthy Yard Project (tghyp.com/downloads) has downloads on how to grow without gunk and encouraging others to do the same.
Julie Peterson writes about wellness and environmental issues from rural Wisconsin. Reach her at JuliePeterson2222@gmail.com.