The Dark Side of Lawns

You can have a thick and healthy sea of green without polluting water, harming wildlife, and endangering the health of your family and pets.

By Beth Huxta


green grass, orgainc lawnAmericans spend so much money and time on their lawns, you'd think we either eat or sell grass. More land in the United States is planted in turf—32 million acres—than in corn. The typical American lawn sucks up 10,000 gallons of supplemental water (non-rainwater) annually.

What's worse, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 80 million U.S. households dump nearly 90 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides on lawns in a year. In fact, lawn care is as much of a danger to our health and the environment as conventional agriculture is.

Does that mean you—and every other organic gardener—must give up having a nice swath of grass where you, the kids, and the dog can frolic carefree? No, not if you follow the 6-step Organic Lawn Plan. You (and your neighbors) will be surprised to see you can have a thick, lush lawn without toxic treatments.

Fools for Fertilizer
The conventional lawn-care industry has sold most homeowners on the need to apply synthetic fertilizer three or four times a season. What's wrong with that?

Nutrient waste. Synthetic fertilizers are chemically processed into concentrated, water-soluble nutrients that are available to plants immediately. But when there is more than the grass can take up, the excess washes out of the grass's root zone and into the watershed. The problem is compounded by the tendency of many homeowners to apply more fertilizer than even the manufacturers recommend.

This nutrient leaching is no small environmental problem. Every summer in the Gulf of Mexico, an area roughly the size of Connecticut is choked with vast algae and phytoplankton blooms, due in part to tons of synthetic nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer runoff from the Mississippi River. As the algae dies and decomposes, it uses up the available oxygen, making the area uninhabitable for sea life. The polluted runoff water that contributes to this "dead zone" comes from each of the 31 states between the Rocky and Appalachian mountain ranges that eventually drain into the gulf. This scenario is so widespread that several states, Canadian provinces, and municipalities have imposed bans on fertilizers containing phosphorus.

Weed and feed. The situation gets worse with the widely popular "weed and feed" products that combine a synthetic lawn fertilizer and herbicide in the same bag. "No lawn is 100 percent weeds, but people are spreading these chemicals over the entire lawn," says Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual and spokesperson for So if your lawn is 2 percent weeds, 98 percent of the herbicide product applied to the lawn serves no purpose, and it may wash into rivers and streams, leach into groundwater, or volatize into the air we breathe. One of the most common herbicides in weed and feed products, a chemical called 2,4-D, has been linked to human health problems, including an increased risk for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Mystery ingredients. The EPA requires fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers to list only "active" ingredients on a product's label. The manufacturers are not legally required to disclose the inert ingredients, which can include harmful quantities of heavy metals. Inert ingredients in a lawn chemical will not kill your weeds, but there is no guarantee that they will be nontoxic to you or your pets.