organic-lawns-00.jpgLast week I wrote about how the Chicago nonprofit Safer Pest Control Project has been working to protect people from the harmful effects of toxic pesticides. In talking with the organization’s Executive Director, Rachel Rosenberg, I learned about how common it is for people to be exposed to chemical pesticides in public places without being aware, and how dangerous this can be for children.

But even more insidious than the harm posed by toxins used to rid our homes and workplaces of unwanted critters is the problem of chemical pesticides used to control outdoor pests. In fact, the use of chemicals to kill animals and plants in our yards is a lot more widespread than you may have guessed. Consider these statistics cited by the Safer Pest Control Project:

  • 78 million households in the U.S. use home and garden pesticides.
  • $700 million are spent annually on pesticides for U.S. lawns.
  • 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides are used on U.S. lawns each year.
  • Three times as much pesticide is used on lawn per acre than on agricultural crops.

The Costs Run Even Deeper

These numbers would be arresting enough without the knowledge that spreading these toxins does a tremendous amount of ecological damage. Our lawn and garden pesticides inevitably make their way into the water table and cause harm to many, many more species than the ones we intend to kill. Some of the unintended consequences include these frightening little tidbits:

  • 100 percent of fish in urban areas contain one or more pesticide.
  • Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 16 are toxic to birds, 24 are toxic to fish and aquatic organisms, and 11 are deadly to bees.
  • Approximately 7 million birds a year die from exposure lawn care pesticides.

Lawns and Chemical Dependency

It wasn’t always this way. Sixty years ago, before the introduction of herbicides to the American homeowner, lawns were a purposeful mix of grasses, clover and, yes, dandelions. Most lawns today, currently covering 36,000 square miles of U.S. land, enough to blanket the state of Kentucky, are an unnatural monoculture of a single non-native plant species–turfgrass. And keeping all that turfgrass up to lush golf-course standards typically requires a chemical stew that many homeowners believe they need, to keep that suburban-dream lawn intact. The typical outcome, however, is actually a less healthy lawn more susceptible to disease, drought and insects.

“Most people look at a lawn and just see grass. But the most important thing about a lawn is the health of the soil underneath,” says Safer Pest Control Project’s Rachel Rosenberg. She explains that the common applications of “greening” treatments by lawncare companies often make grass look healthy in the short term, but that it actually weakens the lawn because the natural biology of the soil is thrown out of balance. The plants begin to depend on these chemicals, necessitating more and more treatments to maintain the same surface look.

“Americans have been sold a bill of goods,” says Rosenberg. “We want people to get their lawns off drugs.”

The Natural Way to a Green Lawn

Rosenberg insists that anyone can have a beautiful green lawn without the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are pushed by many lawncare companies. Some of the more common principles of organic lawncare include:

  • Using natural compost as a nutrient-rich top dressing
  • Refraining from watering and mowing too often
  • Planting a diverse mix of native plants to go with your grass
  • Weeding by hand (an activity that many of the youngest gardeners in the family actually find fun)

In order to expand the commercial use of these and other organic lawncare practices, Safer Pest Control Project recently held a seminar for professional turf managers and landscapers (PDF). The first of its kind in Illinois, this two-day event last month attracted more than 100 lawncare professionals who came to learn how to implement organic practices into their operations and hear about the best nontoxic natural lawncare products on the market.

Interestingly, Rosenberg reports that over half the workshop participants were municipal employees from Chicago and surrounding communities looking to incorporate natural techniques into the maintenance of city parks and public spaces.

“We were really excited about this chance to expand the knowledge base in the industry,” says Rosenberg. “We’re hoping to create a market demand in which consumers will start saying to the lawncare industry, ‘I want an organic lawn.'” Rosenberg says that the goal is to help homeowners, landscapers, and distributors of lawncare products become educated enough to begin transitioning larger and larger portions of the industry spending to natural lawncare.

The thinking is, if consumer demand can help create the market for organic food, the same thing can happen with organic lawns. It takes a little more understanding and more patience to create an organic lawn, but the result can be a lawn that is much more robust and easier to maintain in the long run. And of course, we all benefit from the removal of chemicals from the outdoor spaces we enjoy.

At the same time, the landscaping industry needs to be able to meet the demand for organic lawncare as it grows. Thanks to Safer Pest Control Project’s work in the Midwest, the transformation is happening across the industry at an even faster pace.

More Food for Thought

Not yet convinced that caring for our lawns in a more responsible way is all that important? Let me leave you with a few more statistics about the tremendous environmental impact that the maintenance of turfgrass has in this country:


  • 100% of all surface water and 33% to 50% of aquifers are contaminated with one or more pesticides.

Water Use

  • 30% to 60% of urban water is used for watering lawns.
  • 10,000 gallons of water are used per summer on the average 1,000 square foot lawn.

Fuel Use and Pollution

  • Over 58 million of gallons of gasoline are used for lawnmowers each year.
  • A single lawnmower pollutes as much in one hour as a car driven for 20 miles.
  • Leaf blowers spew out about 26 times the amount of carbon monoxide as a new light-duty vehicle and 49 times more particulate matter.

Climate Change

  • A lawn can act as a carbon sink (take carbon out of the atmosphere) if it is left relatively undisturbed, and watered properly and fertilized minimally. An organic lawn is a much more effective carbon sink than a chemically treated one.

Related Reading

Natural Pest Control – Chicago Wilderness

The Green, Green Grass of Home – Conscious Choice

Organic Gardening with Children – Green Options

Low Impact Lawn Care – Green Options User Journal

Murder Your Lawn – Green Options User Journal

Alternatives for Safer Lawn Care – Beyond Pesticides

Photo credit: This Old House