Organic lawns: it's easy being green
Americans love their lawns - so much so that they've planted some 30 million acres of them - from the White House to the California desert.Skip to next paragraph
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If you lumped them all together, they could cover an area the size of Mississippi.
But concerns are rising that those lush, weed-free lawns represent an environmental hazard. The problem isn't the lawns themselves, which benefit the environment in many ways, critics say. It's the way they encourage overuse of everything from fertilizer and pesticides to water.
Such practices are coming under increasing scrutiny, not only from environmentalists but also from lawn-industry companies, which are keeping a wary eye on the amorphous, but rapidly growing, organic lawn movement.
"Lawns probably haven't risen to the level of a major national environmental issue - yet," says Paul Parker, executive vice president of the Center for Resource Management in Salt Lake City, a nonprofit environmental group that encourages collaboration among business leaders, government, and environmental groups. "But the acreage of lawns is so significant that water, pesticide use, and loss of wildlife habitat are increasingly important."
• For the first time ever, lawn equipment, fertilizer, and pesticide industry representatives have joined with environmental groups and the Environmental Protection Agency to create a "Lawn and Environment Coalition." In March, the coalition unveiled the first-ever draft guidelines for national lawn-care practices to help Americans protect the environment while they green their lawns.
• By most accounts, the number of lawn care companies touting a natural, organic approach is rising rapidly. At least one traditional lawn care company is developing its own line of organic products - although there's no agreement on what "organic" means.
• San Antonio's water department is working with builders to encourage the use of more drought-tolerant grasses in subdivisions. In Milford, Conn., residents hold "freedom lawn" competitions, giving awards to the best-looking lawns that eschew the standard chemical approach.
• Across the border in Canada, Quebec will restrict the cosmetic use of lawn and garden pesticides beginning next year. Dozens of other Canadian municipalities have also restricted pesticide use.
• The National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society are among several groups now campaigning to convince Americans to plant more gardens and plants and less lawn. If attendance at organic lawn-care classes is any indication, consumers are beginning to listen.
Two years ago, Leticia Safran told her husband she was dropping their traditional lawn-care service to go the natural route. "What made me switch was my three kids and our dog," says the Natick, Mass., homemaker. "On the days when the chemical company came to spray the lawn, I just didn't have a good feeling about the little sign they put on lawn - telling us to stay off for two days."
Instead, she hired an organic specialist who treated her lawn with a combination of gypsum, compost, humate shale - and a combination fish-emulsion and seaweed spray. This spring her lawn received those ingredients plus a "compost tea" that also included yucca extracts and sugar.
The Safrans could be on to the next big thing. About 4 out of 5 US households have private lawns, according to a 1998 academic study. They are typically about a third of an acre, and in 2003, Americans spent $38.4 billion tending those yards and gardens, about $457 per household, says the National Gardening Association. A growing portion of that money appears to be going organic, observers say.
"Hybrid mowers, water conserving sprinklers, and organic fertilizers are all potential gold mines for industry players," wrote Don Montuori, acquisitions editor for Packaged Facts, in a market-research report last spring. "Consumers who want to tend their yard in an ecologically sound manner will pay big money for the right tools, and as the industry stands right now, the big players are missing out on all of that revenue."
That may be changing. Scotts, the big fertilizer and yard-care products manufacturer, is developing a new line of organic lawn-care products.
But whether lawns really represent an environmental threat remains hotly debated. Environmentalists point out that all those lush, weed-free acres sop up gargantuan quantities of water and chemicals. In a typical year, the average lawn consumes about 10,000 gallons of water over and above rainfall, the Environmental Protection Agency reports. Nearly a third of urban water use in the Eastern US goes to watering lawns, it adds.