When Gillian and David Crammond moved into a new home on the outskirts of Toronto, they were determined to grow a lawn free of toxic chemicals. “I just knew that spraying a weird chemical whose name I can’t pronounce onto the lawn couldn’t be good,” says Gillian, a manager at Sheridan Nurseries in Mississauga, Ont.
Living without pesticides entailed some compromises. The Crammonds had to forgo grass in shady areas and cultivate low plants instead. They also had to do the hard work of replenishing their soil with mineral-filled compost and reseeding the grass several times. But after a couple of years their grass and plants were strong and hardy enough to sustain themselves with little watering or weedingand absolutely no chemicals. “I sometimes let a few weeds overtake the lawn instead of digging out every single one,” says Gillian, “but a bit of clover or wood anemone in my lawn doesn’t really bother me.”
The Crammonds are part of a growing movement among gardeners to avoid chemical pesticides. Once regarded as the gardener’s best friend, pesticides are being viewed with increasing suspicion. These powerful chemicals leach into our water and wind up in our bodies, with effects that may be worse than we thought.
Numerous studies have implicated high pesticide levels in everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine earlier this year announced findings that suggest a link between increased use of pesticides and higher levels of premature births. “As a neonatologist, I am seeing a growing number of birth defects, and preterm births, and I think we have to face up to the environmental causes,” said Dr. Paul Winchester, professor of clinical pediatrics at Indiana University. In response to such research, more than 65 communities across Canada have restricted the use of chemical pesticides.
So how do you grow a perfect green carpet of grass without chemicals? Rest assured, it is possible. “An organic lawn, properly put in and maintained, can look better than a chemically sprayed one,” says Carole Rubin, a gardening enthusiast in Garden Bay, B.C., and author of How to Get Your Lawn and Garden Off Drugs.
Most of the time and money involved in going green will come in the first couple of years, when you have to do the prep work necessary to create the conditions for a healthy lawn. “If you’re starting from scratch, the first two years of your organic lawn plan maybe more expensive because of the purchase of new soil and new compost,” says Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual. “But over timestarting in year three and fouryou’ll save time and money.”
You can find a treasure trove of information at Safelawns.org, a website packed with tips on pesticide-free gardening. Here you can read about organic lawn care products, which are made from manure, bonemeal, blood meal and alfalfa. Unlike their chemical equivalents, these organic fertilizers don’t kill bugs or plantsinstead, they encourage so-called good bugs. “Worms, bees, butterflies, ladybugs and birds are all good things for your garden and your soil,” says Tukey. “Worms aerate your soil, bees pollinate.”
You must be patient, though. Organic fertilizers require three to four weeks to have an effect, because they have to decompose before they can be used by plants. (In contrast, the nutrients in chemical fertilizers are already in inorganic form and so can immediately be used by the plants.) You also have to prepare your lawn. Here’s how do that.
Juice up your soil. You should celebrate spring by spreading sheep manure or compost on your grass. Then fertilize the soil with a natural fertilizer such as Myke’s Step 1 or Wegener’s Lawn Food.
Resist the temptation to use synthetic fertilizers. They give a one-time boost to your lawn, but do little for the health of the soil underneath. “Using synthetic fertilizers is like taking a vitamin C pill while living on a junk food diet,” says Karen Landman, an associate professor in environmental design and rural development at the University of Guelph.” It’s a quick fix. Whereas using an organic fertilizer is much like getting your vitamin C from an orange.”
Go for variety. Grasses vary in the type of climate they prefer, the amount of water they need, their resistance to pests, their tolerance to shade, and the degree of wear they can withstand. So rather than trying to plant just one type of grass, plant several. “A mix of grass species is good,” says Landman. “Some come up quicker, some slower, some adapt better to either sun or shade while some will tough it out in poor soils better than others. A good mix will guarantee you better results.”
Help your lawn breathe. The soil under your lawn becomes compacted over time. The denser soil makes it harder for grass roots to grow and reduces water absorption. You can fix the problem by renting an aerator from a local garden centre. It will punch holes in your soil to help insects and worms move through the soil. And yes, worms are good. They eat organic matter, such as leaves, and their castings fertilize the soil. If your lawn doesn’t have many worms, buy some at the garden centre and scatter them across your property. “The best thing you can do for your garden is to feed worms with compost,” says Landman. “Worms make for healthy soil and plants.”
Water sparingly. Once your grass or garden is planted, water deeplyabout 45 minutes with the sprinklerbut only every week to 10 days. Do it in the early morning. Water added in the heat of the day will evaporate and watering late at night encourages lawn fungus.
Cut your grass high. Longer grass provides a cooler environment for your lawn, helping it retain water in the soil for a longer period of time. Setting your lawn mower at 7.5 cm (3 inches) and mowing your lawn when it reaches 11cm (4.5 inches) in height will encourage deep roots.
As well, let your grass clippings compost themselves into the turf. They add natural fertilizer to the soil. And don’t worrygrass doesn’t have to be cut every week. Every two to three weeks is better.
Get off grass. The most environmentally safe way to remove weeds is to get down on your knees and pull them out. If that doesn’t appeal, you may want to consider doing away with grass and using low plants such as ground cover instead. “I took out our grass lawn five years ago,” says Lorraine Johnson, a Toronto writer. Her backyard is now a woodland garden studded with 30 native trees. Her front yard is full of native shrubs, including fragrant sumac and high-bush cranberry. “I don’t water at all now that my seedlings are established,” says Johnson. “Both gardens are really low maintenance.”