Do you feel enslaved by your lawn? Concerned about the safety of chemicals used to maintain it? Wondering if there are safer solutions? Consider these suggestions for the maintenance of a sustainable lawn.
The Cost of the Modern Lawn
Lawns are a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the post-Civil War era when people slowly transitioned from small fenced-in vegetable gardens or natural vegetation to a foreign set of grasses brought over from Europe.
The invention of the lawnmower in the late 1800s spurred the acceptance of lawns, while the post-World War II years brought lawns to the masses with the advent of chemical fertilizers like 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D).
The “perfect” lawn—and all the stress that goes with it—became the norm, with few questions asked.
In his book American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, author Ted Steinberg traces this history, offering the following assessment of the “cost” of the modern lawn.
- Between 1994 and 2004, an estimated average of 75,884 Americans per year were injured using lawn mowers—roughly the same number of people injured by firearms.
- Using a gas-powered leaf blower for half an hour creates as many polluting hydrocarbon emissions as driving a car 7,700 miles at a speed of 30 miles per hour.
- Nearly half of the households sampled in one study failed to carefully read and follow the label directions when using pesticides and fertilizer.
- In the process of refueling their lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and other garden equipment, Americans spill about 17 million gallons of gasoline every summer, or about 50 percent more oil than marred the Alaskan coast during the notorious Exxon Valdez disaster.
- A single golf course in Tampa, Florida—a state that leads the nation with over a thousand golf courses—uses 178,000 gallons of water per day, enough to meet the daily water needs of more than 2,200 Americans.
- Lawn chemicals are commonly tracked into the home where they build up in the carpet, thus placing small children, whose developing bodies are far more vulnerable to toxins, at risk of chronic exposure.
This last point is critical. Research suggests that these common lawn chemicals are hazardous, even in small doses. Chemicals like 2,4-D are classified as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs)—chemicals that mimic or block a natural hormone. (See Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals 101.)
In the case of 2,4-D, the chemical mimics the natural growth hormone auxin, but stays at high levels in the plant instead of fluctuating. As a result, weeds die when their transport systems become blocked or destroyed by abnormally fast growth. (See Agent Orange in Your Backyard: The Harmful Pesticide 2,4-D.)
If it does this in plants, what does it do to humans? Why not skip the chemicals and try a natural approach to lawn management!
How to Maintain a Sustainable Lawn
1. Let go of the “perfect” lawn.
Accept the presence of some weeds. In fact, consider adding dandelions to your diet! Many weeds offer tremendous health benefits, ranking in the top four green vegetables in overall nutritional value. Purslane tops the list of plants with omega-3 fats. Stinging nettle is hard to handle, but the young leaves offer a multitude of minerals.
2. Follow the advice of the EPA.
Even with my “good weeds,” how do I care for my lawn without the use of harsh chemicals? There are numerous resources dedicated to helping you provide a safe, attractive addition to your home.
The EPA offers these tips for safe lawn care:
- Keep grass at a height of 3 inches.
- Make sure mowing blades are sharp.
- Water 1 inch per week on average.
- Allow your lawn to go dormant in July/August.
- Consider non-chemical pest/weed control methods.
The EPA outlines this approach in the following four-minute video:
3. Practice grasscycling.
Grasscycling (leaving grass clippings on the lawn when you mow) adds plant nutrients and organic matter to your soil and keeps the clippings out of landfills. It also saves you time! Researchers estimate that grasscycling reduces fertilizer needs by 25 percent. It works best if you frequently mow, when the grass is dry, and with sharp mower blades. Mulching mowers have an extra blade that finely chops and distributes the clippings, but you can use a regular lawn mower for grasscycling just by removing the bag.
4. Consider a natural weed killer.
The ideal natural weed killer is you. Pulling weeds is a workout and offers valuable outside time. (See Health Benefits of Natural Light.)
If you’re looking for a simpler method, consider the following natural alternatives.
One of the best natural weed killer recipes utilizes three simple ingredients:
1 gallon white vinegar *
1/2 c. liquid soap
2 tbsp. salt
* Some find horticultural (20%) vinegar to be more effective. (See DIY Weed Killer.)
Combine and shake. Place in spray bottle and spray leaves and stems of weeds only. Avoid surrounding plants.
(Vinegar weedkillers can be very harsh and are often more suitable for sidewalk cracks and rock gardens.)
- EcoSMART Organic Weed and Grass Killer (water, baking soda, lecithins, potassium salts)
- Weed Zap (clove and cinnamon essential oils)
- Corn Gluten Meal (corn gluten acts as a natural pre-emergent, inhibiting seed germination)
Other resources designed to help you avoid toxic chemicals include:
- Read Your Weeds: A Simple Guide to Creating a Healthy Lawn. An excellent fact sheet offered by Beyond Pesticides.
- Taking Care of Your Lawn Without Using Pesticides. An article written by Caroline Cox, detailing the subject of grasscycling.
- Tips for Weeds, Lawns and Landscaping. Numerous downloadable fact sheets from the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides.
With these resources, you may soon find yourself with a thriving lawn free of harmful chemicals!