Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Green, Green Grass of Home

My neighborhood is very diverse when it comes to yards.

Directly across the street from me lives the former president of my state's organic farmers society. Because his front yard gets a lot of sun, he has transformed it into a yard/garden, with tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplants, sunflowers and more. He has planted fig trees, locust trees, and blueberry bushes. When I walk my dog past his yard in the mornings, my movements flush out indigo buntings, yellow finches, and cardinals. There are good caterpillars that turn into blue butterflies, and bad caterpillars that eat the tomatoes. There are bees to pollinate the plants, and rabbits that sneak in to nibble the greens. It is a lively place if you look closely.

At the other end of the yard spectrum are the perfectly green, perfectly clipped lawns.  The chemical trucks show up a couple times each month to visit these lawns. The drivers spray the lawns and then stick little warning signs in them noting that children and pets should stay off of them for at least 24 hours. Even though it is dangerous to walk barefoot on them, these lawns look inviting, like outdoor carpets. When I walk my dog past those lawns, I don't startle many birds.

Other lawns are somewhere in the middle. They do not receive regular pesticide applications, but the owners use chemicals periodically to treat acute problems, like fungus, or use fertilizers to boost the blooms of ornamentals.

But by far  the outdoor carpet yards outnumber the others by a significant amount in this neighborhood. 

That's unfortunate for a number of reasons. Our neighborhood is beautifully hilly. When it rains, the runoff from all of our yards drains into storm sewers and creeks. Many of those chemicals that children and pets are warned against walking on eventually end up in the water supply, where they have to be (one hopes) removed. But before they are, those chemicals affect the wildlife that live in or drink from the creeks. When we first moved to this neighborhood years ago, we would see crayfish and minnows in the creeks near our house. I can't remember the last time I have seen any forms of life in them. I try my best not to let my dog drink out of them.

But the problems with the chemicals are not just in our water supply. We can breathe them in when they are sprayed, track them into our homes, and get them on our hands when we pick up baseballs that have been hit into the next yard. Our pets pick them up on their feet, and then they lick them off (did you know up to 50% of dogs develop cancer in their lifetimes? While not all canine cancers can be attributable to lawn chemicals, some probably are. Here is a veterinarian-written article on the risk of various chemicals to our canine friends.) I've come to view these yards as dangerous to my family's health as second hand smoke.

More and more research is showing that those green carpet lawns are wildly dangerous to the environment and to humans - especially children. ADHD, autism, and cancers are just a few of the terrible endpoints that have been linked to lawn chemicals, with headaches, rashes, and asthma, and many other health problems occurring frequently enough to serve as warning signs that something serious is amiss. Recent news noting that environmental factors play a role as large, if not larger, than genetics in autism should have everyone scrambling to remove as many impurities as possible from their personal environments until more is known about this issue.

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Object name is apa0098-0664-f1.jpg Object name is apa0098-0664-f1.jpg
The United States birth defect rate by month of LMP
versus atrazine concentration.
Source: Winchester, et al.
Acta Paediatr. 2009 April; 98(4): 664–669.
There is so much research on this topic! The graph to the right was published in a 2009 study. Even a grade school kid can see that the months that the concentrations of the weed killer atrazine were highest in surface water is associated with birth defects in kids conceived during those months (LMP stands for last menstrual period and is a marker for conception).

This chart is for atrazine only, which, coincidentally, is banned in many European countries and parts of Canada (the US periodically considers banning it, but never does). Chalk up another instance where our European friends have made it a priority to protect the health of their citizens. In the United States, the northeastern states, such as New Hampshire and Connecticut are leading the way in restricting the use of lawn chemicals. For example, in 2005, Connecticut banned lawn pesticides around daycare centers and schools out of recognition that children should not be playing on them. I think that's a great start.

Choosing to go pesticide free does not mean you are signing up for a patchy eyesore of a lawn. There is a lot of knowledge to tap into, and a lot of tips and techniques to create a green lawn that is indistinguishable from one that uses pesticides.  Here's a nice article from Organic Gardening that offers tips on a healthy lawn. Beyond Pesticides supplies information on lawn care, fact sheets, and "Tools for Change" to work with your neighborhood and policy makers to tighten up control measures for unnecessary pesticide application.  Even the Environmental Protection Agency encourages integrated pest management for lawn care, which includes the use of some chemicals for problems, but stresses the use of beneficial insects to counter harmful ones.

What does my lawn look like? Well, it's a mix of sod and other green things, like clover (obviously we're in need of nitrogen). It was originally all sod, but an unfortunate sewer line incident caused part of the sod to be replaced, and the replacement ground cover didn't completely take. This green mix is quite pretty when it's mowed to a uniform height. (We're not fooling ourselves when we think it's pretty - the EPA notes that the average consumer thinks lawns consisting of up to 15% weeds look fine.) We use dirt from our compost bin to fill the beds where our herbs and flowers live. If you dig into those beds, you'll find lots of worms. I'm thinking about getting one of these signs. After all, the birds in my yard need a place to rest, don't you think? 


1 comment:

  1. Our weeds and moss are green. Works for us.