It starts in the spring, when the salesmen go from door to door offering their lawn care programs. A popular service in the 18045 ZIP code, according to Trugreen, is the TruHealth Lawn Plan. This plan offers “pre-emergent and targeted weed control,” fertilizer treatments, and “grub prevention and control.” Many homeowners choose this type of treatment for their lawns, but is it necessary? More important, is it safe?
It is easy to see how the TruHealth service, with its starting price of $263.60 per year, is part of a massive chemical lawn product industry, estimated in 1989 to be worth $30 billion per year nationwide. Given the other uses a Lehigh Valley family can find for a few hundred dollars during the summer, it is worthwhile to consider alternatives to chemical lawn treatments. Organic gardeners have developed many concepts for lawn care without the pricey synthetic chemicals sold by popular national chains, and these concepts are taking hold: just five years ago, 12 million American families eschewed synthetic lawn treatments.
What perceived lawn problems need to be addressed? First, many homeowners consider various plant species to be weeds. One interesting fact is that plants that many consider to be weeds today, such as clover, were intentionally added to grass seed mix in the 1950s because of their ability to enrich the soil with nitrogen. Homeowners should consider whether they truly want to eliminate certain plants, or feel pressured by neighbors to remove them. Keeping clover as part of a natural lawn can be beneficial as well as aesthetically pleasing.
Some plants, however, impair a family’s ability to enjoy a lawn for recreational purposes. One of these is the thistle. Wits its windblown seeds, the thistle is a perennial trouble source for yards. However, quick action when thistles begin to sprout can prevent these plants from spreading. Removing the head of the thistle and sealing it in a bag prevents the seeds from dispersing around the yard. Pulling the entire root of the thistle out of the ground is the final, crucial step, for thistles can regrow from severed roots. Natural yard maintainers can use the same approach for dandelions and other plants considered unsightly or otherwise undesirable enough to remove.
What about fertilizers? Paul Tukey of SafeLawns.org advises that homeowners start with a soil test to determine what, if anything, their lawns require to be healthy. Compost is a natural way to produce your own lawn fertilizer and reduce waste at the same time.
What about lawn pests? Aren’t aggressive chemical remedies necessary to prevent grubs and other creatures from ruining a lawn’s appeal? Apparently not. First, many chemical lawn treatments can kill more animals than intended, including valuable pollinators like honeybees. It’s important to decide which bugs are actually pests and use a targeted approach to reduce their incidence; there are many natural techniques to accomplish this, including milky spore for lawn grubs and baking soda for fungal infestations.
Is there anything to be gained from a natural approach, aside from burning calories out in the yard and saving some cash by doing it yourself? Emerging research indicates that many common lawn chemicals are detrimental to human health. In toxicology, the expression “the dose makes the poison” is foundational; however, homeowners generally have no idea regarding the dose of lawn poisons to which they expose themselves when enjoying their yards or even being home when the chemicals are applied. Glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup) can have an endocrine-disrupting effect on its own, and is potentially more harmful when mixed with typically used adjuvants, inducing cell death. Commonly used surfactants increase this toxic potential. Other pesticides have been implicated in neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Developing a natural lawn — with clover, butterflies, and the sweat of one’s own weed-pulling — seems a prudent alternative.