Whose Grass is Greenest? Building a Pretty Lawn Without Toxic Chemicals

The Great American Lawn, a coast-to-coast carpet of green, inspires $6 billion in annual spending. Lawn care companies do $1.5 billion of business a year in the U.S., applying up to 50 million pounds of toxic chemicals in the process.

The American lawn is a relatively modern phenomenon. Few homeowners could contemplate installing one until the first lawnmowers were invented in the 1860s. But the importance of a smooth, green carpet as a necessary adjunct to the perfect home grew quickly. By the 1950s, magazine articles were boasting that pesticides would give suburbanites obsessed with engineering the weed-free lawn “a weapon with which to outwit their old enemy, Mother Nature.” In a 1958 ad, a little girl is seen asking her father, “What makes the grass grow green?” His reply: “Plantrons Plant Food, honey.”

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Do you really want your children playing in a yard flying “pesticide application” flags? Luckily, there are alternatives for healthy lawns, and you can celebrate your choice with “pesticide-free” lawn signs.
Kate Teipel

Is it at all surprising, then, that suburban homeowners now spend more on pesticides and herbicides per acre than do farmers?

“Green” lawn care doesn’t necessarily mean turning your yard into a meadow or dispensing with all chemical applications. But some easy and common sense tips will greatly improve your lawn’s environmental profile.

Don’t Bag It. Regardless of what you may have heard, leaving grass clippings on freshly mowed lawns does not lead to thatch buildup; in fact, the clippings are an excellent natural fertilizer. Townwide “Don’t Bag It” programs save money and space in local landfills. Montgomery County, Ohio, saved nearly $1 million in 1990 by keeping 25,000 tons of clippings on homeowners’ lawns.

Tough it Out. Some 95 percent of lawn care in the U.S. is mowing, and poor mowing techniques can ruin a lawn. All early mowing was human-powered, and push mowers are now making a comeback as an alternative to polluting, two-stroke gasoline models. But if you insist on a powered mower, set its blades to the highest setting, cutting only an inch at a time, since taller grass will send down longer, drought- and heat-resistant roots. Blade sharpening is important, too, because dull edges will rip the grass open and leave vascular tissue vulnerable to disease. And a tuned mower engine will use less fuel, pollute less and chop grass into finer particles that will break down quickly into the soil.

Grow it Short. Dr. Paul Peterson, a research scientist and grass specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., points out that golf courses save money and energy by planting low-tuft grasses like agrostis, which reaches full height at three inches and thrives in the Northeastern climate. In the South, slow-growing centipede grass (also known as “lazy man’s grass”) has become very popular. A drawback, Peterson adds, is that some specialized grasses require intensive herbicide and pesticide use to look their best.

The Natural Pest. You don’t have to infest the neighborhood or pollute the local stream with pesticides to deal with unwanted critters. In a classic case of overkill, some pesticides will destroy not only the target bug, but also all the bug’s natural predators. There are less dramatic solutions. White grubs, for instance, which can create dead, brown spots on grass, can actually be controlled by repeatedly walking over infested areas with spiked shoes. Other approaches to bad bugs include beneficial nematodes (near-microscopic worms that release killing bacteria), milky spore disease (effective for Japanese beetle larvae) and grass seed enhanced with endophytes (which secrete a bitter-tasting toxin). Birds on your lawn are probably doing more to help than hurt, but if you’re convinced they’re a pest, then diluted Grape Kool-Aid spray makes an effective repellent. Honest.

Watch Out for Weeds. According to Barbara Pleasant’s The Gardener’s Weed Book, soil that is well-covered with healthy plant life acts as a natural deterrent to unwanted growth. Organic mulches, including chopped leaves and grass clippings, are also effective (but watch for slugs). There’s really no substitute for getting down and dirty with hoes and bare hands. Dandelions will die if you dig up at least five inches of the taproot. If crabgrass and dandelions are a problem, try a herbicidal soap. Chickweed, a winter annual, can simply be turned under, where it will go to work as compost. As for clover, why not leave this attractive plant and good luck charm alone? It makes a beautiful ground cover on its own, and patches can add texture to a well-tended lawn.
A healthy lawn is a joy to behold, but there’s more than one way to achieve it. Do you really want your children—or pets—playing on a perfect green carpet dotted with fluttering “Pesticide Application” flags?