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the grass isn't always greener

Picture a beautiful Summer day, enjoying the outdoors with your pets. Perhaps you’re kicking back on the porch while Fido takes a nap in a shady bed of grass, or playing fetch in-between walks around the neighborhood. Even better, imagine that shady bed of grass is green and plush, free of prickers, Dandelions, Creeping Charlie and Crab Weeds. Sounds great, right? It’s tempting to do whatever it takes to create that green Utopia we call our yard. The products most often used to achieve such a result are fertilizers, which make the grass thick and green, along with herbicides and pesticides, which are used to control unsightly weeds and bothersome insects. The problem is that most people go to the lawn and garden center and grab the products they think will work the best without considering the health effects they may have on their families and their pets.

Truth is, chemical fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides and pesticides are not only toxic to weeds and insects – but also to people, animals, and the environment. According to the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 13 are probable or possible carcinogens, 14 are linked with birth defects, 18 with reproductive effects, 20 with liver or kidney damage, 18 with neurotoxicity, and 28 are sensitizers and/or irritants. Fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides do undergo federal and state safety testing. And large companies in the lawn-care business like Scotts say that when applied appropriately, EPA-registered pesticides are perfectly safe. But more and more research is suggesting that some commonly used synthetic pesticides may pose health risks, including cancer and kidney or liver damage, particularly to children and pets.

The Environmental Protection Agency website says kids are at greater peril from pesticides because their internal organs and immune systems are still developing. Other studies, including one published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, have suggested that exposing dogs to some herbicide-treated lawns and gardens may increase their chances of developing canine malignant lymphoma or bladder cancer (Wall Street Journal April 2006), as well as other dog health problems.

Environmentalists are also concerned about chemical runoff resulting from pesticide use. After all, what we use in and around our homes ultimately ends up in our streams and rivers. Studies of major rivers and streams have found that 96% of all fish, 100% of all surface water samples, and 33% of major aquifers contain one or more pesticides (

The toxic hazards of chemical lawn care are so serious that in many states it is required to post a flag or a warning sign when lawns have been chemically-treated and many products require that people and pets not enter the area within 24 hours of application. Nearly two dozen states, including New York and Wisconsin, now require public notification when pesticides are being applied by lawn care professionals.

Without such postings, it’s impossible to know if you’re dog is sniffing in a recently-treated yard as you walk through the neighborhood. Suddenly I never want to walk my dog again except back and forth in my own organically treated yard. Yes, that’s right, organic lawn care. It’s out there and you can even find it at mainstream lawn and garden centers. These products are natural and safe for your pets, your family, and the environment. Organic and natural lawn care is part of a ten-step process that you can follow for a healthy, green, and most importantly non-toxic lawn:

1. Mow high. Setting your mower's cutting height to 2.5 or preferably 3 inches will discourage invasion by weeds and insects. This encourages growth of longer, healthier roots that help lock in moisture.

2. Leave grass clippings on the lawn. Doing so ensures that this mulch becomes your lawn's fertilizer, thereby reducing the need to add additional fertilizers by 30%. Compost wet mulch.

3. Water "deeply." Your lawn needs about 1 inch of water, applied once a week. Watering more frequently encourages shallow, weak roots. Water in the morning or evening to avoid evaporation.

4. Use ecological methods of pest control. Spraying a mixture of dish soap and water during warm weather is an effective way to discourage insects from eating your greenery. Eliminate bare spots by avoiding traffic on the affected areas and by over seeding. Remove the odd weed by hand and try to get as much of the root as possible to prevent re-growth.

5. Reduce the area of grass that needs maintenance by planting perennial flower beds, expanding your herb and/or vegetable garden, or naturalizing your lawn with local wildflowers and plants.

6. Raking to gently remove thatch (the layer of dead grass compacted over winter) can increase water absorption. Rake in late Spring or early Summer; any sooner can damage roots.

7. Fertilize twice a year if possible. Although it is not essential, fertilizing in Spring can help maximize your lawn's health and immunity against pests. If fertilizing only once, do it in the Fall. Use 100% organic fertilizer.

8. Aerating your lawn by removing small plugs of earth will decrease soil compaction, increase water retention capacities and improve air circulation to the roots. June or autumn is the best time for aeration.

9. Top-dress with compost. If you don't have your own compost heap, buy composted cow or sheep manure. Spread it around at 100 pounds per 1000 square feet. Apply immediately after aeration, anytime between June and August.

10. When combined with aeration and top-dressing, overseeding will fill in the bare patches that invite weed invasion. First, loosen the soil, spread compost or peat moss, then sprinkle grass with seeds of a hardy species.

Changing the focus from eradication of pests to prevention of pest problems by following the steps above will lead us to accept the sight of occasional weeds and insects as a sign of a normal, non-toxic lawn. Source: Sierra Club

Looking for an organic professional lawn service in your area? Visit If you want to know more about your own state policies regarding posting requirements for pesticides, visit or contact Beyond Pesticides at 202-543-5450. If you notice your dog or cat acting strangely, stumbling, salivating, vomiting, or having seizures (especially if you have recently applied a lawn care product) call your veterinarian or the National Animal Poison Control Center (1-888-4 ANI-HELP) immediately. Don't forget to have the product in hand (or your neighbors product information) so you can tell a veterinarian what chemical your pet may have been exposed to.