Use light touch with lawn chemistry

Common Grackle

The Common Grackle will patrol your lawn for grubs and any other tasty critter infestations without chemicals or cost. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published June 21, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Use a light touch with lawn chemistry.”

2014 Update: Sustainable and organic solutions to lawn problems are more available than ever. Contact your local university extension horticultural agent for advice. In our region, check out the “Habitat Hero” program, http://habhero.org/.

By Barb Gorges

A pair of mallards shows up every spring in the ditch that runs below our neighborhood.

I don’t know if they try to nest because I never want to be intrusive enough to find out.

On a recent early morning walk, the puppy and I spotted the ducks swimming while above them a black cat, a tabby cat and a red fox crouched along the grassy edge.

But what may be even more hazardous to duck survival is the water in the ditch.

Because it is meant to collect storm-water runoff for a neighborhood of several hundred houses, the ditch also collects any excess pesticides and fertilizers applied to those hundreds of lawns.

Nationwide, homeowners overapply lawn pesticides to the tune of 78 million pounds annually, up 50 percent over the last 20 years. If the neighbors apply them to the same degree, then pesticides in the ditch water are a given, whether the intended pests were animal, plant or fungus.

So Sally, a water-loving pup, is not allowed to jump in the ditch.

Sally is also fond of rolling on any weed-free, deep green lawns. I drag her off as quickly as I can, remembering what Catherine Wissner said the other day.

Catherine is the horticulturist for the Laramie County Cooperative Extension Service. She explained that lawn pesticides contain neurotoxins which kill pest insects, grubs and other small animals by harming their nervous systems.

She said most people don’t find this news alarming until she mentions that the toxins put children and pets at risk. They are susceptible because of their small body size and tendency to play on the ground and put things in their mouths.

In a study of 110 pre-school children in a Seattle neighborhood, traces of garden chemicals were found in 99 percent of them. I found this statistic online at the National Audubon Society’s Audubon At Home page.

A link there said an estimated seven million wild birds are killed “due to the aesthetic use of pesticides by homeowners,” meaning the use of pesticides to make our yards look nice.

The Audubon At Home program, in cooperation with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, is promoting the Healthy Yards initiative. This program promotes the idea that our yards can provide wildlife habitat and can make a difference in the health of wildlife, especially since 2.1 million acres are converted to yards every year.

In an Audubon At Home pamphlet on lawn pesticides, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is quoted saying, “Pesticides pose health risks, even when used and applied in full compliance with manufacturers’ recommendations and legal requirements.”

The footnotes and references on this subject are extensive, so let’s skip to answering the obvious question: What can a wildlife-loving homeowner do instead of using “weed and feed” and other chemically-based products?

First, remember some of the critters that live in your lawn are beneficial, meaning they eat the destructive ones or help to convert organic matter into food for your grass. So it is important to figure out whether you even have a pest problem.

Even if you do have pests, how many are there? Can the birds keep their numbers in check? I enjoy watching flickers and grackles aerating my lawn while searching for grubs.

Can you manually control the pest? My husband Mark patrols our lawn for dandelions, though if we let them go to seed we might attract more goldfinches.

If we had real pests, we’d confer with Catherine. There are many non-toxic controls available.

Another option is to reduce turf and replace it with native plants. They require less water, less care and attract more wildlife. Ask at Wyoming Game and Fish Department offices for a free copy of “Wyoming Wildscape, How to Design, Plant, and Maintain Landscaping to Benefit People and Wildlife.” [Check their website, http://wgfd.wyo.gov]

Audubon At Home, http://athome.audubon.org/, lists local resources, including our own Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Visit them in person or online at www.botanic.org.

Mark and I have been lucky not to have any serious lawn pest problems. Or maybe it’s not luck but years of using healthy alternatives.

Mark uses a national brand of organic fertilizer he buys at a local garden supply store. He cuts the grass at the highest setting on the lawnmower to shade the roots and we use the clippings for garden mulch. We water moderately but deeply on the city’s summer watering schedule.

While our lawn is not artificial –turf green–except where Sally adds her own fertilizer, it is green enough that she enjoys rolling everywhere. And we don’t worry about poisons.

Pesticides shouldn’t be used like vitamin tonics. If there aren’t any pests, they are a waste of money, a source of water pollution and a threat to everyone’s health.

As Sally and I walk the neighborhood and observe the little warning signs planted in our neighbors’ yards after visits from their chemically-based lawn care companies, I’m hoping someone with entrepreneurial spirit will fill the niche for alternative lawn care.

It could be, should be, the next big thing.

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