It’s Nature’s Way

Earth-Friendly Gardening is Gaining Ground
S. Feld/H. Armstrong Roberts

Americans applied nearly 133 million pounds of chemicals—that’s about $2 billion worth of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers—to their home lawns and gardens in 1995, says the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Pesticide Programs. Incredibly, however, that seemingly high number is more than 20 million pounds less than reported for 1979, the year the EPA first began tracking our chemical consumption. But this latest figure is no anomaly. In fact, lawn and garden chemical usage has been dropping steadily for the last two decades. The evidence is clear: While the American appetite for lawn and garden chemicals is still hearty, it’s not what it used to be.

The reason for this change in habit? According to Organic Gardening Editor Nancy Beaubaire, it’s personal. “People are concerned about their health,” says Beaubaire. “They want to be in more control. And if you care about being in control of your environment, where better to start than in your own yard?”

The army of ecologically-sensitive companies that have emerged to meet consumers’ demands for nonchemical lawn and garden products couldn’t agree with Beaubaire more. Eric Vinje, who owns and operates Planet Natural in Bozeman, Montana, says consumers are no longer in the dark when it comes to the harmful environmental and health effects of chemical applications. “You can’t pick up a paper without reading something about pesticides,” says Vinje. “It’s a big concern out there. More and more people are becoming aware of that.”

The booming industry of which Planet Natural is a part currently offers everything from mulching mowers to organic fertilizers and eco-safe bug traps. Corn gluten, a nontoxic byproduct of corn processing, is now sold as a natural herbicide and fertilizer. Independence, Oregon-based Whitney Farms, which has more than 140 different lawn and garden products, sells an all-purpose organic “lawn food” that is a blend of blood meal, feather meal and dried poultry waste, deemed perfect for your spread’s nitrogen needs. Planet Natural’s current bestsellers are beneficial insects: Buy a bag containing thousands of ferociously predaceous Hippodamia convergens (better known as lady beetles), and your garden’s potential population of harmful insects will most certainly be kept at bay. Beginners, who may not have a garden yet or who are in the process of converting from a chemical lawn to a natural one, can choose from a plethora of other products, including organic gardening books and organic seeds.

Although EPA figures show that yard “wastes”—including grass clippings and leaves—make up nearly a fifth (more than 31 million tons) of the landfill-bound garbage generated in the U.S. each year, composting is also on the rise, according to Planet Natural’s Vinje. The catalogs are full of ready-made compost in various forms and all manner of compost bins. “People are getting into it,” says Vinje. “They’re not only concerned about landfill issues, they want to feed their soil if they’ve got a garden.”

Rockford, Michigan-based Enviro-Guard offers a liquid natural organic compost accelerator that, it claims, will turn your raw lawn and garden wastes into finished compost in as little as 18 days.

Another lawn and garden movement gaining popularity is “green landscaping”—using native grasses and plants to promote better compatibility with the local environment. “It’s a more ecologically tied-in way of planting,” explains Laura Evans of the EPA’s Great Lakes office in Chicago. Evans co-directs a program designed to promote the use of natural landscaping by homeowners and corporations. “If you’re growing something that naturally occurs in your region, it’s not going to need help,” she says. “It’s naturally going to do well.” As a result, fertilization is often not necessary; plant roots dig deeper into the soil, thereby inhibiting erosion; and more plants in the yard means less mowing, fewer harmful fossil fuel emissions and cleaner air.

Ultimately, going organic guarantees more than prosperity for natural garden and lawn-care companies. It also lightens the Earth’s load of toxic chemicals, which might otherwise leach into the soil and pollute our groundwater, or hitch rides with surface runoff to nearby streams and lakes. “It makes people feel good about what they’re doing,” says Organic Gardening’s Beaubaire, “as well it should.”