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Organic lawns: it's easy being green

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In addition, millions of pounds of chemicals get dumped on lawns. In 1999, the last year such figures were available, 78 million pounds of yard insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides were sold to US households - not including professional applications, the EPA said. If they're overused (and some would argue even when they're not), pesticide and fertilizer runoff can pollute rivers and groundwater.

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Then there are the millions of gallons of gasoline used in lawn equipment, whose engines are generally not as efficient as cars and can cause significant air pollution, California Air Resources Board says.

"The consumer, science, and the private sector have interacted in a way to come up with the 'industrial lawn,' something that's always green and always watered and fertilized," says Gordon Geballe, coauthor of "Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony."

He argues that a new set of ethics and expectations is needed to put lawn care more in sync with nature. "Why put out a bird feeder to feed birds, but put pesticides on the lawn and kill worms so they have no food?" Dr. Geballe asks.

Each year, the US adds about 2 million acres of residential property, a 2001 US Department of Agriculture study reports. The result is a loss of habitat for birds and other animals, says Tess Present of the National Audubon Society. "We recognize that lawns are near and dear to everybody. But we'd like people to start thinking about whether they need as much area in lawn."

Even industry officials agree that more needs to be done to educate consumers.

"We're making sure we're communicating with consumers that applying the right amount of fertilizer is important," says Jim King, spokesman for Scotts, the Marysville, Ohio, company that is the largest US yard and garden products manufacturer - and part of the new Lawn and Environment Coalition. "Applying twice as much fertilizer or insecticide is not going to get them results that are twice as good."

But lawns also have environmental benefits, these groups point out. For example: Turf saves energy by staying 30 to 40 degrees cooler than bare soil and 50 or more degrees cooler than streets, helping keep homes cool, notes the Better Lawn and Turf Institute, a trade group.

Grass also produces oxygen, with a 50-by-50-feet patch of lawn producing enough for a family of four, the Institute says. One acre of lawn can soak up 100 pounds of sulfur dioxide each year. And a 10,000 square-foot lawn can prevent erosion by sopping up as much as 6,000 gallons of rainwater during a rainstorm.

The coalition between environmentalists and manufacturers of yard and garden products is an attempt to bridge sides. "This [coalition] was a way of gaining consensus between groups traditionally at odds," says Allen James of Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, which represents fertilizer and pesticide companies. But some environmental groups attending the conference disputed the guidelines, which are still under development.

Even defining "organic" remains problematic. "Not all organic care is the same," says Nick Novick, who runs Small Planet Landscaping in Ashland, Mass. "We're at the point in this industry that organic foods were a few years ago. We need standards and government enforcement...."

That seems to be coming. The Northeast Organic Farming Association recently published the first-in-the-nation technical standards for organic yard care.

But the biggest change of all may be the expectations of people like Debora White of Wellesley, Mass., who is in her third year of organic lawn care. She's changed her outlook on what a lawn should be.

Despite living in an affluent community, Ms. White doesn't care anymore if she sees crabgrass here and there - though her husband prefers it "looking like a green carpet." After a transition phase, weeds have been minimal, although a willingness to put up with clover and to use a dandelion fork and pull an occasional weed is part of going natural, too, she says. "My neighbors were recently admiring my lawn, and they had no idea I had dumped the chemical company," she says. "I just thought it was a better way to go. I don't want to be a crusader. I'm just doing what I can do."

Grass roots

• The average American homeowner spends 40 hours per year mowing the lawn.

• Of 103.9 million households with lawns, more than half (58 million) use insecticides; 40 million use herbicides; 14 million use fungicides.

• A one-acre lawn generates almost six tons of grass clippings a year, or nearly 1,000 garbage bags' full.

• The EPA estimates that the amount of pollution emitted by a lawn mower operating for one hour equals the amount of pollution emitted by a car driven for about 20 miles.

Sources: Audubon Science Office; Environmental Protection Agency; Toward a Low Input Lawn by C. Barth (2000) in T.R. Schueler & H.K. Holland (Eds.), "The Practice of Watershed Protection" (Article 130). Ellicott City, Md.: Center for Watershed Protection

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