Louis Finkelman Contributing Writer
Some homeowners turn to organic lawncare to limit chemical and pesticide use.
A professional turf care service advertises that it “provides complete turf care for homeowners interested in a beautiful lawn. We can maintain a healthy lawn for you year after year.”
But what does “a healthy lawn” mean?
The words that recur in advertisements for lawn care services and do-it-yourself videos describe a healthy lawn as inviting, lush, green, soft, weed-free, with no brown areas or bald spots. A healthy lawn looks like a putting green or the outfield at Comerica Park, right there in front of your house. It is perfect, the envy of your neighbors.
At least some of that perfection might come from chemical pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.
In the spring, lawns sprout signs warning passers-by not to step on the newly sprayed lawn while the grass remains wet. When the grass has dried, those signs imply, the pesticides have become safe, and then everyone can frolic in the weed-free grass.
Sometimes, pesticides are necessary, according to Dave Smitley, professor of entomology at Michigan State University and MSU Extension Service expert. He says that, for example, if you have a serious infestation of grubs, “there are no non-chemical products that are effective (milky spore has not worked well in university trials). For those who want to use a safe pesticide that controls grubs — they can use imidacloprid, clothianidin or chlorantraniliprole, available in several different products at the garden center. We have another bulletin on how to use them correctly to prevent harm to pollinators.”
Smitley sees pesticide use as a matter of personal choice. “Regarding the ‘controversy’ about using pesticides — it is not really a controversy,” he says. “Every homeowner can make his own decision.”
Honeybees in Michigan, as elsewhere, have suffered from hive collapse and other mysterious illnesses. In Europe, governments have in recent years banned some neonicotinoid pesticides and has seen a rebound in bee populations.
In the United States, these pesticides remain legal although some retailers, including Home Depot and Lowes, are phasing them out. Dave Smitley, professor of entomology at Michigan State University, recommends protecting bees by mowing before applying certain pesticides, so that the lawn will not have flowers.
Not everyone feels so sure about the safety of these chemicals. Pesticides work by disrupting the vital processes of unwanted weeds (herbicides) and harmful insects (insecticides). In theory, these products do so without disrupting the vital processes of other plants, insects, animals and humans. But is the theory accurate?
In the United States, industrial chemicals may be used unless the Environmental Protection Agency shows that the chemical presents “an unreasonable risk.” Alissa Cordner, writing in the Smithsonian, summarizes that rule: “Chemicals are presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
Drew Toher, the community resource and policy director of Beyond Pesticides, notes that environmentalists play “whack-a-mole” with possibly dangerous chemicals. When the evidence accrues against a specific chemical, the corporation can produce a slightly different chemical, which again benefits from the presumption of innocence, he says.
The Case Of ‘Roundup’
It’s hard for consumers to get a straight answer about the safety of certain chemicals.
To pick one example, regulatory agencies around the world have issued conflicting recommendations about Monsanto’s glyphosate, the active ingredient in the company’s pesticide Roundup, the world’s most widely produced herbicide.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared glyphosate non-cancer causing. On the other hand, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the United Nations classifies this chemical as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (although published reports indicate the final report did not include “non-carcinogenic findings” present in its first draft).
Conflicting determinations may be based on conflicting evaluations of the same scientific studies.
Monsanto maintains that “glyphosate-based herbicides are supported by one of the most extensive worldwide human health and environmental effects databases ever compiled for a pesticide product. Comprehensive toxicological and environmental fate studies conducted over the last 40 years have time and again demonstrated the strong safety profile of this widely used herbicide.”
The company currently faces a lawsuit by 4,000 plaintiffs in California, who claim exposure to Roundup is responsible for their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The judge in the case ruled that the jury “could consider the claim that Monsanto suppressed evidence of the dangers of its product.”
The case is still pending, and consumers are left to make up their own minds on the product’s safety.
Sue Salinger, managing director of Hazon Detroit, the regional office of Hazon, the Jewish environmental sustainability education organization, says Hazon recommends that everyone involved in lawncare use organic methods.
“Many large-scale organizations in the Jewish community have already made the change to fully organic. Of course, it also helps when individual householders make the change,” she says.
Linda Weiss of Ann Arbor follows that advice. She hires a professional service that uses only organic methods to care for her lawn and reports that her lawn looks nicer than any other in her neighborhood.
“I see my neighbors carrying sacks of organic groceries from Whole Foods and then spraying chemical pesticides on their lawns. It does not make any sense,” she says.
Salinger says, “Organic lawn care in Michigan can have a big impact. Hazon has a systems point-of-view. We are one planet. All systems flow into each other.”
Impact On The Environment
“Toxicity in one place does not stay in one place,” Salinger warns. “Nearly everywhere in Michigan is located near a natural waterway. Natural wetlands provide a rich, biodiverse habitat. Chemicals from your lawn go somewhere and eventually wind up in those wetlands.”
Even fertilizer can cause trouble.
“Any chemical nitrogen fertilizer not taken up by a plant immediately goes into the groundwater or into runoff, eventually finding its way into lakes,” Toher of Beyond Pesticides adds.
The excess fertilizer feeds toxic blooms in Michigan lakes, including the blooms that sometimes make the water of Lake Erie undrinkable.
Some local lawn care companies now tout that they use chemicals that are “lake-safe” and don’t adversely affect Michigan waterways.
Still, Toher recommends another way to fertilize your lawn. “It involves organic materials such as compost, kelp meal, chicken litter and similar products,” he says. “The nitrogen in these products is locked up and slowly released by microbes in the soil. Thus, it becomes available to the plants only gradually. A healthy, diverse community of microorganisms in the soil makes this nitrogen available in time. Not much of this nitrogen works its way into the lakes.”
Smitley, the entomology professor, has similar advice. “Those who do not want to use pesticides can irrigate, fertilize and raise the mowing height to 3.5 inches,” he says. “This will produce a large root system tolerant of grub feeding and, therefore, they can avoid using pesticides.”
No Need For Perfection
Toher agrees that “a perfect lawn could be achieved through organic practices if one is diligent and managing toward that goal, though we would encourage folks to ease up on the need to achieve a perfect lawn.”
This might mean tolerating some micro-clover (clover with tiny, unobtrusive flowers), other broadleaf plants and other grasses scattered in a lawn that consists mostly of soft grass.
Nelson Haynes of Clarkston, a registered sanitarian (an old term for environmentalist) retired from the Oakland County Health Division, has a different definition of a healthy lawn. Haynes welcomes all sorts of plants and animals to his yard. The biodiverse community sustains itself.
“If we define a weed as a plant growing where we do not want it, then my yard has no weeds,” he says. “It does have dandelions, chickweed, alehoof, plantains and various species of grasses, but I don’t mind any of them.”