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The Grass is Greener

May 6, 2010

By Jennifer Chaky

This post is about lawn care, but even if you live in an apartment, it is important stuff to know. Whether you take care of your own property, hire someone, or your building has a lawn care service, you should be informed of why it is so important to avoid treating lawns with deadly chemicals. In New Jersey we are inundated by pollution from big industry and heavy transportation corridors. We do not need to be adding to this assault on our health by spraying herbicides and pesticides on our home properties.

I was first introduced to the effects of these chemicals by the film A Chemical Reaction (it can be viewed at I was amazed to learn that a town in Quebec succeeded in banning the use of chemicals on all municipal and residential properties. The Supreme Court ruled against the chemical companies using the Precautionary Principle that use of their lawn chemicals can indeed cause fatal harm to people. But we will likely never see such a ruling here in the U.S. because the chemical companies protected themselves from allowing any government to ban chemical use here. So it is up to us to pledge not to poison ourselves!

It is interesting to note that the chemical company that lost their case in Canada was ChemLawn, and to detach itself from the bad press, they changed their name here in the states to Tru Green. But don’t be fooled, they are still a chemical company and no greenwashing will make their product safe.

Many lawn care products, including Miracle Gro and Scott’s products, are essentially petro-chemicals (meaning a by-product of the oil industry!) and do nothing for your plants and grass other than boost them temporarily in the same way that steroids boost muscles in the short-term and keep you addicted to these artificial stimulants. Not only are they not truly beneficial to plants, but they are very harmful to us. They can contain cancer-causing “inert” ingredients that are not required to be on the label due to gaping holes in government regulation. Also not on the label are toxic metals, such as lead, mercury, and cadmium. A local dump would not legally be allowed to accept these metals, but they can be spread on the ground and left to seep into our ground water supply.

Children and pets are especially susceptible to these chemicals because they are lower to the ground and often are putting their hands (or paws!) into their mouths. So, if the label of a product has the following warnings, it is not safe: “harmful if absorbed through skin,” “wash hands thoroughly after using,” “avoid inhalation,” “keep pets off treated areas for a specified amount of time” etc.

Bottom line: just because it is sold in a store for private use, does not mean it is safe!

Luckily, you do not need chemicals to have a green and healthy lawn, and once you are educated, you can pass the word on to your neighbors, your lawn care professional, or your building maintenance manager. Here are the basics of truly green lawn care:

Feed the soil, not the plant. Instead of using chemical fertilizers that pump up the plant, focus on creating good soil that is the basis for healthy grass and plants. Applying ¼” of one-year-old fully decomposed compost on your lawn is the easiest, most cost-effective way to feed the soil. So get that compost pile started now!

Over-seed in the Spring and the Fall. Weeds will not compete well in a dense turf. Weeds generally take hold in bare spots, so moderate, repeat seeding will help prevent that. Simply loosen up the soil, spread ¼” of compost, and over-seed. If you are adding any product to raise pH, apply it before the compost.

Mow high. Mowing to 2 1/2 – 3″ inches will keep the ground shady and deter sun-loving weeds. Mowing with a good old-fashioned push mower is most environmentally friendly, and is a great workout alternative to the gym! Letting grass clippings lay will also return natural composting nutrients to your grass.

Finding a contractor. Not all contractors are created equal, and not all “natural” lawn and garden companies are all natural. Do not be fooled: organic and chemical methods are not compatible, because the chemicals disturb or kill beneficial microorganisms. There are some companies trying to offer “hybrid” services. Go with the ones who are truly stewards of nature, and are 100% organic. Ask for their credentials (e.g. where did they get trained or certified in organic landscaping), and ask for three client references and call them. Also, be sure the company is licensed to do business and fully insured.

NOTE: Did you know that Peat Moss has a huge carbon footprint? It is harvested in the northern tundra and trucked from a long distance. And it is a finite resource that takes years to replenish. Better to use organic soil, compost, or coir made from coconut shells.

Let’s not forget what sustains us every single say- a healthy, wholesome planet!

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