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LAWNS GO NATURAL

Manicured, chemical-laden lawns are out, and woodsy yards with groundcover, hedgerows, and dead wood are in. Today's ecology-minded, health-conscious citizens find the latter far more interesting and beautiful. So do the animals, birds, and fish!

Lawn chemicals poison the Earth and all its creatures. They poison the yard they're applied to and also travel via storm drains, streams, and toxic clouds to poison other areas.

While most of us don't have overt reactions to lawn chemicals, there is little doubt that they are harmful to us.

The Washington Post described how Navy Lt. George Prior was spending his vacation golfing. One evening he developed a headache and a rash, followed by a high fever and vomiting. He entered a hospital, where his skin blistered and peeled away, his organs failed, and he died. The cause of death was toxic epidermal necrolysis, a skin reaction caused, according to a Navy pathologist, by exposure to a fungicide that had been applied to the golf course.(1)

The New York Times described how champion ice skater Christina Locek was sunning herself in her Illinois backyard when a lawn care company began spraying insecticides onto a neighbor's yard. The spray drifted into Ms. Locek's yard, across her and her cat and dog. The cat died within minutes. The dog died within a few hours. Ms. Locek said she collapsed within moments and is now legally blind, permanently disabled, and no longer able to work.(2)

Birds and wild animals suffer even more than humans do. Ward Stone, a New York state wildlife pathologist, says, "You can follow label directions to a T and still kill birds."

Classic signs of pesticide poisoning in birds are shivering, gasping, excessive salivation, grand mal seizures, wild flapping, and sometimes screaming. Birds often have these reactions out in the open, while small mammals may crawl into their dens to suffer and die.

One study showed that Kansas farmers who apply 2, 4-D, a weed-killer in 1,500 over-the-counter products, had up to seven times higher than average risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a rare cancer.(3)

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials caution that their agency's registration of a pesticide does not guarantee that the product does not carry health risks. The EPA also says 33 of the 34 most popular lawn and garden pesticides have not been fully evaluated for their safety.(4)

Many pesticides were introduced decades ago without being studied for environmental or long-term health effects. They remain on the market unless the EPA can demonstrate with data supplied by the manufacturer that they pose a serious threat. "It should be just the opposite," stated Senator Harry Reid, chair of the Senate subcommittee on toxic substances.(5)

Grass: Think Quality

A chemical-free lawn, like a tree, detoxifies the air of pollutants and brings better health to four- and two-legged property occupants. A lot of unseen underground activity by worms and microorganisms makes a lawn healthy. If you allow this biological activity to go on unharmed by pesticides, roots will be stronger and chemical fertilizers unnecessary.

Sow grass in fall, when the weather is cooler and there is little competition from weeds. Keep the seeds moist.

Grow a mixture of grasses that do well in your area, rather than a single variety. Zoysia, a spreading perennial grass, grows in thick, chokes out weeds, and stays green without watering.

Never walk on wet or soft lawns. Where the soil is compacted, use an aerator, available at rental stores, to punch small holes in the ground, or walk over the soil in shoes with cleats. Raking removes thatch and other dead organic material that smothers grass. Using a sharp blade, mow high; a grass height of two inches will shade out crabgrass and many weeds.

Leave grass clippings on the lawn after you mow. This natural, free fertilizer breaks down easily and provides up to one-half the nitrogen and potassium a lawn needs to green up and thrive. Earthworms and natural organisms eat the clippings to provide a natural cycle of fertilizing and aeration.

Even leaves can be left in place if they are ground up with a lawn mower. Leaves also provide winter protection for tree roots. If you water, replace sprinklers, which waste water, with soaker hoses or "impulse" sprayers, which shoot water out in an efficient jet as the head turns. Plant ground cover in difficult areas.

Mulch exposed ground with wood chips, hay, or pine needles to keep moisture around plants.

Increase activity in spent soil areas by top dressing them once in spring and once in fall with organic matter such as compost, leaf mulch, or peat moss. This makes plants healthier and more resistant to insects, drought , fungi, and disease.

Lawns can survive with little or no fertilizer. There are now excellent new organic fertilizers on the market, but beware of harmful petroleum-based products that are represented as "organic" because they contain a little manure.

Remember, in a natural, healthy lawn, the grass will be slower-growing, stronger, and more drought-resistant.

Clover is not a weed and should not be killed. Its root nodules contain bacteria beneficial to the lawn and plants.

Finally, don't worry about dandelions or other weeds. Weeds are judgment calls. Dig them out by hand if you don't like them, and be grateful for the exercise and chance to spend time in your healthy yard.

Landscape: Go Wild

Increasingly today, corporations and apartment complex owners are planting lawns only in the areas around their buildings. They are leaving the outer areas of their property woodsy and natural, with tall grasses, wildflowers, evergreens, hedgerows, and bushes to provide cover and homes to wildlife. Homeowners can follow these examples on a smaller scale within their own yards.

Plant a mix of shrubs, trees, and flowers that will provide nuts, berries, seeds, and nectar to creatures throughout the year, and that will attract birds, nature's best insect controllers. Foster hollies, for instance, provide winter berries, for food, winter foliage for cover, and places to raise young. A butterfly bush (buddleia davidji) is irresistible to butterflies. Your local garden supply company is a good source of information.

Rocks and leaf and brush piles also provide cover and places to raise young.

A pond with shallow ends for birds makes a good water supply. You might want to locate it so you can watch the wildlife activity from a window throughout the year.

A window-box planter containing marigolds, zinnias, or red salvia can attract hummingbirds and butterflies to a sunny window. Hummingbirds are attracted to almost anything red.

Dead Wood for New Life

For birds and small mammals, snags (dead trees) and stumps are ecological gold. More than 150 species of creatures nest in them and feed on their insect tenants. Included are nuthatches, woodpeckers, squirrels, raccoons, bluebirds, owls, chickadees, wood ducks, and wrens.

Saving snags and stumps is crucial to kicking our pesticide habit and solving the dilemma of pesticide resistance.

Top off--don't chop down--snags 12 inches or more in diameter and away from the house. The thicker the better. Remember to check for nests and dens first. Big dead logs and underbrush away from the house are also desirable.

Mosquitoes will disappear from your yard as elegant, snag-nesting swallows, swifts, and purple martins sweep through the air.

Huge great-granddaddy den trees can be homes for peregrine falcons, barn owls, and ivory-billed woodpeckers.

If you have beavers nearby, write for our free Beaver Pack, which contains detailed information about getting along with these gentle animals.

References

  1. "Lethal Grass," The Washington Post, Sept. 16, 1991.
  2. "Senate Panel Says Lawn Chemicals Harm Many," The New York Times, May 10, 1991.
  3. "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," Newsweek, May 16, 1988.
  4. The New York Times, op cit.
  5. The Washington Post, op cit.

Written by: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)


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