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.

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.

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.

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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