Organic Is Not Just for Vegetables ; How to Wean Your Yard Off Chemicals

When my husband and I bought our home, our son had just turned two. As I stood on the patio with our young baby and watched my husband distribute fertilizer on the grass, I noticed the bag laying to the side. This fertilizer was nothing special, was just ordinary fertilizer that can be found at any local home and garden shop. It was chemically produced to ensure the correct combination for a “healthy lawn”. At the bottom of the bag, I noticed the enormous WARNING label. I am not naÃ?¯ve, I have always known that fertilizer was toxic and have been identified as possibly carcinogenic or thought to cause cancer in large doses with prolonged exposure. I just hadn’t really thought about it before. I looked back at my young son and made a fast decision. I stopped my husband and made the committment to my son, my family and my neighbors to use only organic methodis for our lawn. One of my son’s favorite activities was to crawl through the grass looking for those little black bugs that roll up in a ball and I couldn’t think of him crawling around among the harsh toxic chemicals applied through fertilizers. It was an easy decision, our son’s health over a perfect lawn.

Many believe that organic methods are too expensive or too difficult to fit into their busy lives. We are conditioned to believe if we must eliminate insects from our lawn and that our grass must be the right shade of green in order to have a healthy lawn. So we buy fertilizer to feed it, insecticide to kill bad bugs (and good bugs too, insecticides do not discriminate) and herbicides to kill weeds. We spend our weekends mowing and pouring chemical after chemical on the lawn in an effort to have the greenest grass in the neighborhood. Then our lawns become junkies. Literally, your lawn is a junkie. The chemicals have disrupted the natural balance of beneficial insects and microorganisms designed to kill the bad insects and microorganisms. Therefore it needs more chemicals to maintain a balance. In fact, since the application stays close to the surface, it promotes shorter root systems making grass more vulnerable and requiring more frequent watering. We strive for super green grass, which doesn’t even exist in nature and we turn our lawns into junkies.

But you can break the cycle. Organic lawn maintenance is creating a balance to allow your lawn to work for itself. Make no mistake, it will be difficult and takes a commitment to wean your lawn off of the chemicals it has come to crave. It can be done, but the lawn will not be pretty for at least one season. It will go through withdraws and parasitic insects will find the weak spots, coming in to destroy it. However, with patience, a little knowledge, and dedication to your health and the environment, you can have a beautiful, healthy organic lawn. After the initial period, organic methods do get easier and then you too can sit back and enjoy the beauty of your small ecosystem while your neighbors mow their grass and treat the diseases that come with disrupting the natural cycle.

First, take all of your chemicals to the local hazardous waste facility. It cannot be good for you to be walking on ground that is treated with something considered hazardous waste. You bring those chemicals back into your home on the bottoms of your shoes. Your children and pets play in that grass. Second, find a local source or internet source for purchasing organic lawn care products, including bulk organic soils, organic fertilizers such as manure and/or compost, and other items designed to assist in establishing and maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Bix box retailers such as Lowes and Home Depot are beginning to recognize the demand for organics and have begun carrying a line of organics that are readily available and reasonably priced. Third, take up large patches of grass to create native flower beds. This gives your yard texture, reduces water usage as, unlike thirsty grass, native plants rarely need water after they have been established, and native plants attract beneficial insects that keep the pests in check. Fourth, research and implement natural alternatives for problem areas. For example, plain white cider vinegar is an excellent weed killer. It doesn’t stay in the ground causing toxicity issues either. It is great to pour in the cracks of your sidewalk, driveways and paver patios to get rid of pesky weeds. Just make sure not to pour it where you want something to grow, without giving the area a few weeks to recover. Cinch bugs are a big problem in our area. They come in and create dead patches in the lawn by eating the grass roots. Cinch bugs can kill and entire yard in a few months. A natural alternative for cinch bugs (and other pests such as aphids) is applying a mixture of water, liquid dish soap, and Tabasco sauce sprayed out of a pressure sprayer on the problem areas. Baking soda makes an excellent fungicide for gardens and my tomato plants have never had to have more than a light soaking once a season to keep all fungus at bay.

Once you have done the above research, your implementation stage begins. Remember, it will take an entire growing season to wean your yard from its chemical dependency. Think of the long term goals when you see the grass yellowing. Apply a quarter inch layer of organic compost to your entire yard early in the spring. This will give your lawn a boost of nutrients as it enters the tough growing season. Eventually, as your organic lawn becomes established, you will be able to skip springs and apply compost every few years rather than every spring. Be sure to water down to allow the nutrients to seep into the lawn. Throughout the first growing season, apply a monthly application of diluted liquid seaweed to assist your grass’ immunities as it begins to establish itself. Mow the lawn with a mulching lawnmower and leave the mulched grass on the lawn. This will break down and provide nitrogen for the growing grass. In the fall, give your lawn an application of organic fertilizer and apply a layer of crushed lava sand to assist in aeration. Finally, mow high, leaving grass to protect the roots from the sun and water deeply and sparingly to encourage deep root systems that will survive the harshest days of summer. The most important thing you can do for your lawn is to recognize that insects can be beneficial and lawns don’t have to look perfect. In nature, nothing looks perfect. However, within a few years of consistent, organic practices and you will notice that you are working less and your lawn is looking better. Organic lawns grow slower, which means less mowing.

Occasionally, you may find that you will need to apply direct chemical application in order to correct a dangerous issue. When this happens, try to find a certified organic solution and only apply as needed. This year, after trying many natural alternatives, we resorted to using fire ant bait. Fire ants are a particular problem in our state and can be quite dangerous, attacking in groups. Fire ants have been known to kill pets who have unwittingly sat in a fire ant mound. We consulted an organic gardening specialist and selected bait that is certified for use in organic gardens. We do not apply it as a preventive measure to keep as many beneficial insects from contacting the bait. Instead we only do mound treatment, which has taken care of the problem. We continue to treat mounds as they appear but can now safely walk in our yard without fearing the merciless stings of fire ants.

We began organic lawn maintenance in 2001, right after we bought our home. To this day, we have a beautiful yard full of interesting creatures. We only apply compost every two years now and we mow once every two weeks instead of weekly like our neighbors with chemically treated yards. We water less, even for an extremely dry summer, and we are confident in the food that comes out of our little vegetable garden. As well, we don’t worry about our son and his friends playing in the grass or digging dirt around the yard. We know they are safe from unnecessary toxins.

In the US, chemicals from lawn runoff make up the majority of pollutants in our drinking water and polluting our soil. Each chemical using lawn takes about 10-20 lbs of pesticides/fertilizers per year. That doesn’t sound like much but when you multiply it together you get the statistic that Americans are putting around 90 MILLION pounds of chemicals on their lawns each year, according to the Pesticide Action Network North America. That is a lot of chemicals simply so one can have a perfect green lawn. In other words, we are poisoning the environment for ascetics.

Join the millions of Americans who have said NO to chemical lawn care and instead, opted for more earth friendly organic methods. The earth and her children will thank you.

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