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Weeding Out Pesticides
Alternatives for your lawn

BY ALISON DYER
FREELANCE WRITER
first published: The Telegram, May 8,2000

My dictionary calls it a turf-covered pleasure ground. Now that conjures up its original purpose. Dating back to the 1700's lawns were places where outdoor games were played. But the lawn, that flat green terrace, was only one component of the gardenscape. The Victorians, for example, preferred to use the lawn as a backdrop around which trees, flowering shrubs, and beds of perennials and annuals were planted.

The earlier Ďpleasure groundsí were a heterogeneous mix of grasses, legumes (like clover), and wildflowers. In some gardens dandelions, dare I say it, were not only tolerated but cultivated.

A big problem with our lawns today is our lack of inspiration and unrealistic expectations. We create great swathes of a monotonous green monoculture... and habituate it to chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

For hundreds of years lawns, of various manifestations, were maintained organically.

Then came pesticides. Based mainly on research into chemical warfare, pesticides were a product of the post World War II boom. And they helped usher in the contemporary idea of lawn.

A big problem with our lawns today is our lack of inspiration and unrealistic expectations. We create great swathes of a monotonous green monoculture, obsess over a few weeds (an herb by another name), and habituate it to chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Thus a cycle is set to keep our lawn dependent and forever susceptible to pests and diseases.

Fortunately, a new trend is showing the way to greener pastures. A growing number of municipalities, landscapers, lawn care companies and individual homeowners are choosing to get off the chemical treadmill.

the City of Toronto... manages one of Canadaís largest urban park inventories. One method it employs in its pesticide reduction program is Aquacide. Itís a truck-mounted device that kills weeds using steam

Over 75 communities in Canada have committed to reducing or banning pesticides on public, and in some case private properties. Places like the City of Waterloo that started its reduction program ten years ago and now sprays less than 1% of its public green space (for poison ivy). In addition to providing a healthier environment for its residents, the City estimates it saves over $700 per acre. Or the City of Toronto which manages one of Canadaís largest urban park inventories. One method it employs in its pesticide reduction program is Aquacide. Itís a truck-mounted device that kills weeds using steam.

South of the border in California, Arcata City Council emphasizes preventative measures and cultural practises. Special tarps are used on the cityís semi-pro baseball field. They cover infield dirt to retard weed growth between games. The city tailors lawn mowing cycles to fight weeds before they get established. A special street sweeper sucks dirt out of pavement cracks to discourage weed growth.

Closer to home Gerry Cole, responsible for Corner Brookís public open spaces, says "What we try to use is proper horticultural practises." As an example Cole says "We overseed, aerate and apply lime on our sportsfields." Cole will be assisting a local environment group to establish a pesticide-free community garden to demonstrate the possibilities to residents.

For those involved in commercial turf maintenance, help is also at hand. Karen Ryan is responsible for pesticide registration with the provincial Department of Environment. Sheís also interested in "promoting the use of non-chemical management techniques." Her department organizes an annual industry conference, a chance to "talk mainly about properly growing turf - so you donít need pesticides," she says. Itís offered to sod producers, golf course operators, municipalities, lawn care companies, and others in the industry.

Nationally, a new trade association has recently formed to offer homeowners an alternative. The Organic Landscape Alliance (OLA) is building a directory of businesses including "100% organic landscapers, and people selling organic [garden] products," says Lori Stahlbrand, a Board Member and World Wildlife Fundís Pesticide Reduction Outreach Co-ordinator. But she cautions homeowners about the term Ďorganicí in lawncare services. "Check that they use techniques like aerating, overseeding, de-thatching, and compost application," she says. If thereís an insect problem, such as white grub, does the company offer biological treatment using nematodes? Ensure that the fertilizers used are naturally, and not chemically, based says Stahlbrand.

At present there is no member of the OLA in Newfoundland. But one company that has traditionally used pesticides in its lawn maintenance is also offering homeowners an alternative. "Starting this year weíre offering an 8-step organic program to our customers," says Nutri-Lawnís St.Johnís franchise owner Howard Wellman. "The Nutri-Lawn franchise knows the trend in the industry. Weíre heading towards zero use of pesticides in our environment."

"Check that [organic landscapers] use techniques like aerating, overseeding, de-thatching, and compost application," she says. If thereís an insect problem, such as white grub, does the company offer biological treatment using nematodes?"
- Lori Stahlbrand, WWF

The message is clear. Getting off the treadmill is possible. For all those gardeners, and would-be gardeners who are ready to throw in the trowel and pitch those pesticides, here are some tips for chemical-free lawn care:

10 Simple Steps to a Healthy Lawn

1. Mow high. In this game of competition (grass vs. weeds and insects), your grass needs to be tall and the turf dense enough to shade out weeds and discourage insect invasion. Set your mowerís cutting height to 3 inches, and keep cutting blades sharp. Donít mow wet grass. Mow in the evening or on cloudy days. Never cut more than one third of the leaf blade at a time.

2. Mulch clippings. Clippings left on the lawn reduces the need for organic fertilizer by 30 percent. Donít mulch previously chemically-treated lawns for a year as thatch may build up.

3. Water deeply. Most lawns need a single heavy watering (about one inch of water - put a can under the sprinkler and time it) once a week. Frequent, light waterings encourages shallow, weak roots.

4. Fertilize in the Fall. Use a slow-release, granular organic fertilizer (e.g. finished compost, well-aged manure, seaweed, bone and blood meal).

5. Alternatives. Consider reducing your lawn area by planting perennial flower beds or an herb garden. Or seed a portion of your lawn with wildflowers and create a small haven for birds and other wildlife. Talk to the people at MUN Botanic Gardens for ideas.

6. Rake. Ideally in late spring or early summer, rake gently to remove thatch (the layer of dead grass compacted over winter), increase air circulation and discourage fungal growth.

7. Aerate. By removing small plugs of earth, aerating decreases soil compaction, increases water retention and improves air circulation to the roots. Best done in June or the fall. Rent an aerator from nursery or hire organic lawn service.

8. Topdress with compost. Sprinkle finished compost over your lawn to nourish it. Compost contributes a wide range of both macro and micro-nutrients, which are slowly released over a long period of time. It also contributes microorganisms which help decompose thatch. Best done with aeration, or between mid-June to end of August.

9. Overseed bare patches that invite weed invasion. Try a mix of ryegrass and Dutch White Clover. Clover removes nitrogen from the air and transfers it to the soil, where itís needed by your grass. And it keeps the lawn looking green even during dry periods.

10. Control weeds and insects ecologically. Dig out plantain and dandelions. You need to remove about five inches of dandelion root to kill the plant. Or stop weeds from sprouting by spreading corn-gluten meal in spring (it will kill new grass seed so use only on established lawn). A mixture of dish soap and water sprayed in warm weather is effective way to discourage most insects. If weeds persist, get soil professionally analyzed to determine whether lime or sulfur should be added.

Information from: Citizens for Alternatives to Pesticides (Quebec); Toronto Environmental Alliance; Real Alternatives to Toxins in the Environment; World Wildlife Fund.

Sidebar: Resources

For tips on talking to your neighbours about pesticides, and how to deal with specific garden insect and weeds, check out:

For more lawn tips, and info on lawn pesticides, check out:
Real Alternatives to Toxins in the Environment, rate@chebucto.ns.ca

Books on pesticide-free gardening;

Down-To-Earth Natural Lawn Care, Dick Raymond, Ben Watson (Ed.) 1993,

Safe & Easy Lawn Care: The Complete Guide to Organic, Low Maintenance Lawns, Frances Tenenbaum (Ed.) 1997,

How to get your lawn and garden off drugs. Friends of the Earth, Carole Rubin 1989.

For local contact: Community Free of Pesticides Committee, Corner Brook, 634-3607.

For residents looking for safe disposal of pesticides, the City of St. Johnís has a Household Hazardous Waste Day on May 13th. Contact 753-0993 for information.

Freelance writer Alison Dyer lives in St. Johnís.

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