Sustainable Landscaping and Chemical-free Yards: The Earth-Friendly Grass is Always Greener

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Bird houses are decorative and invite natural pest consumers into the yard.
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To help control insects without using chemicals, raise chickens, which also provide fresh eggs.
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Native plant species reseed themselves easily and grow with little or no maintenance.
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Reduce the amount of water your yard uses by planting drought-tolerant native plants, using a soaker hose instead of a sprinkler, or watering deeply but less frequently.
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Rake organic compost into your lawn to help nourish the soil.
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Reduce the amount of water your yard uses by planting drought-tolerant native plants, using a soaker hose instead of a sprinkler, or watering deeply but less frequently.

Americans crave lush landscaping. We want a place for our kids to play, our dogs to run and our neighbors to admire. But at what cost? The typical summer lawn-care routine often depends upon commercial fertilizer (made with fossil fuels), toxic chemical pesticides, water-wasting sprinkler systems and gas-guzzling, air-polluting lawn mowers.

We’ve been brainwashed into believing our yards are deficient if we don’t have a weed-free carpet of lawn, says Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual (Storey Publishing, 2007) and founder of SafeLawns, an organization that promotes natural yard care. Yet most of the synthetic landscape products we use to achieve these “Stepford lawns” are harmful to people, animals and the environment.

The more chemicals we use, the more we need, because we eventually kill the good–beneficial insects, microorganisms and plants–along with the so-called bad, Tukey says.

“It’s self-perpetuating,” he says. “Using chemicals creates the need for more pesticides and herbicides. We call these lawns ‘rugs on drugs.'”

Fortunately, you can end the cycle of landscape chemical dependency.

Safe stimulants for your soil

Start from the ground up–literally. “Healthy soil is a living, breathing organism,” Tukey says.

The first and most important step to creating a sustainable landscape is a soil test. Tukey recommends consulting your local extension office or using simple pH kits from garden centers. Once you’ve determined the soil’s composition, the extension agent can interpret it and suggest the right mineral and compost amendments.

“Healthy soil will grow healthy grass,” Tukey says. “And that grass will defend itself against insects and crowd-out weeds, so you won’t need to spray a bunch of chemicals on it.”

Get off the grass

A smaller patch of grass ultimately reduces time spent mowing–along with the petroleum consumption and harmful emissions that result from using a gas-powered mower.

Many plants are better suited to your home landscape than grass. The best choices are always native species that are well-adapted to the local climate and soil (another reason for a soil test). Most garden centers sell native seeds and plants, specially labeled for easy identification. Otherwise, search for your area native plants online (see “12-Step Program for Getting Your Lawn Off Chemicals,” below.)

If you prefer a traditional lawn, Tukey suggests a turfgrass variety that suits your climate. It will need less water, less mowing and less work.

Practice grows perfect

Organic home landscapes require other eco-minded strategies, including water conservation, natural pest controls and composting. Results don’t happen overnight–a great lawn may take two or three years. However, the payoffs include lower cost, easy maintenance and a safe, sustainable, beautiful yard.

12-Step Program for Getting Your Lawn Off Chemicals

1. Admit that your lawn is dependent, that the mowing and the chemical use have become unmanageable.

2. Be willing to make amends to your soil.

• Test the soil. Ask your county extension office for help. To locate your local office, search on the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service website. Click on “Local Extension Office.”

• Amend it with natural minerals, nutrients and/or compost. Look for those labeled as conforming to standards of the National Organic Program (NOP) or Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). For information on soil testing and nutrient amendments, contact the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

3. Choose plants other than grass.

• Plant native flowers, shrubs and trees. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has a searchable database of native plants by region.

• Choose plant species that attract birds and bees for pollination and insect control.

• Avoid exotic and invasive species, which crowd out native species and wreak havoc on ecosystems. The U.S. Department of Agriculture lists noxious and invasive species by state.

4. Mow less.

• Let your grass grow longer. Ideal length for most grasses is 2.5 to 3.5 inches.

• Keep mower blades sharp; dull mower blades tear  grass blades and cause browning.

• Use a push mower or manual tools instead of gas-powered to reduce emissions. Electric or rechargeable mowers are another option.

5. Make an inventory of natural weed controls.

• Pull weeds by hand.

• Purchase weed suppressants made with corn gluten meal, a natural, effective herbicide.

• Instead of vinyl or plastic landscape “fabric” or weed barriers, look for biodegradable versions made from recycled paper or natural fibers.

6. Be willing to use natural pest controls.

• Raise chickens (if your local code allows) to gobble up bugs.

• Introduce beneficial insects. You can usually purchase ladybugs, praying mantises and other insects through local garden centers.

• Use a soap-and-water spray. A few drops of dish soap, diluted in water and sprayed on plants, will keep mites and small bugs under control.

• For more information on alternative pest control methods, check the Audubon Guide to Home Pesticides website.

7. Invite nature in.

• Install a birdbath or birdhouse. Birds are great pollinators and natural predators of unwanted bugs.

• Build a bat house. They love to eat mosquitoes. (Click here for instructions for a do-it-yourself bat house.)

8. Waste not.

• Leave nature’s fertilizer, cut grass, on the lawn; it does not cause thatch.

• Compost the clippings.

• Capture water in a rain barrel. (See “Raindrops Keep Falling,” March/April 2007.)

9. Come to understand that compost will restore your lawn.

• Build a compost bin. Click here for instructions on how to make your own compost bin.

• Fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings, wood ashes and even shredded paper can become food for the soil. For tips on how to compost, check

• Try vermiculture (that means worms) for even better results. You’ll find how-to suggestions on the website. Click on “Organics & Composting,” then select “Vermiculture Worm Compost.”

10. Water less.

• Mulch! A natural barrier of shredded leaves, straw or bark keeps moisture in.

• Water in the early morning to avoid the rapid evaporation that happens in the heat of the day.

• Water less frequently but deeply. Set a coffee can under the sprinkler; when there’s 1 inch of water in the can, the water has soaked the surrounding soil 6 to 8 inches deep.

• Instead of sprinklers, use a soaker hose that waters plants at the roots to minimize runoff and evaporation.

• Plant a rain garden to capture runoff water.
(See “Singing in the Runoff,” March/April 2007, or visit

• Xeriscape by choosing drought-tolerant plant species.

11. Become entirely ready to increase your tolerance.

• A few weeds and bugs are OK. Think of it as inviting nature to your yard!

• Be patient. Change takes time–but the results will last.

12. Spread the news of your personal awakening to earth-friendly, organic lawn care.

• Let the kids play, the dogs run and the neighbors admire.

The Facts on Yard Waste

• The average American lawn uses about 18 gallons of gasoline per year to power the mower, run the sprinkler system, transport garden products and to clean up in the fall–for a total of 2.2 billion gallons per year nationally, according to

• Landscaping accounts for about half of residential water use.

• Every 40-pound bag of lawn fertilizer contains the fossil-fuel equivalent of 2.5 gallons of gasoline, according

• Sixty-five percent of the fertilizer put on each yard will end up in runoff.

• Homeowners use 20 times more pesticides per acre than farmers (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).

• Yard waste comprises 20 percent of landfill waste, on average, but can be as high as 50 percent in peak months (U.S. EPA).

• In one hour, a running lawn mower emits as much air pollution as a car does when driven 20 miles (U.S. EPA).

Safe Landscaping Timbers

If you’re looking to frame it all up, be certain your landscape timbers haven’t been treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA, a pesticide) or creosote (a preservative). Both are known health hazards. An EPA ban mandates that no manufacturer may treat wood for residential uses with CCA, but it is still found on all types of pressure-treated lumber; creosote is mostly found on railroad ties and utility poles. Look for landscaping timbers that are untreated or are treated with only borate. Or opt for composite lumber made from wood and/or recycled plastic.

For more information:

Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) Consumer Safety Information Sheet
Preliminary Risk Assessment For Creosote

Need Professional Help?

To date, no organic-only lawn care service is available nationwide, but NaturaLawn of America is working on it, and local organic services are cropping up like weeds. Several franchises offer mostly organic along with conventional chemical treatments.

If you need a lawn-care service, ask for all organic; if the company can’t provide it, perhaps there’s an individual or small company that will do the work if you provide the products.

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