Feed Your Lawn with Compost, Not Chemicals

The end result of composting, a nutrient-rich soil amendment, makes for a great lawn and garden fertilizer. (ecoRI News)

The end result of composting, a nutrient-rich soil amendment, makes for a great lawn and garden fertilizer. (ecoRI News)

By ecoRI News staff

Composting is the breaking down of organic materials such as food scrap, leaves and manure by bacteria in the presence of oxygen. Through this process, the material is transformed into what is essentially the organic and high-nutrient portion of topsoil. Composting recycles the nutrients and organic matter in what we have thrown away so that plants can reabsorb the nutrients and use them to grow.

In a forest, the leaves fall to the ground each year, but they never fill the forest because, below the surface of the leaf litter, bacteria are turning the leaves back into soil.

The breakdown of organic matter takes place in several steps over the course of time, each step in the breakdown being done by a different mix of bacteria. The speed at which organic matter breaks down and turns to compost varies according to conditions.

Reducing the size of the organic matter to be composted provides more surface area for the bacteria to work and speeds things up. Other factors effecting the speed of composting include the oxygen flow to the compost pile, which can be controlled by either an aeration system or by turning the pile, moisture and temperature. By regulation, and sound composting practice, commercial compost piles must heat up through bacterial action to more than 160 degrees Fahrenheit for several days or they are not acceptable for agricultural purposes.

Properly managed composting operations can turn food scrap and leaves into finished compost in about eight weeks. The typical backyard system produces a finished product in about a year.

Another approach within the realm of composting is the use worms to process the organic matter. Vermiculture turns food scrap into worm castings that can be directly returned to the soil. While mostly practiced practiced at home, there are also large-scale vermiculture operations selling compost. Worms can compost all vegetable matter, but there are limits to what they can eat, so to fully capture food scrap, vermiculture must be supplemented with another approach.

It should be noted that there are many compostable items, such as expired dairy products and meats, that can be successfully composted, but breaking down these products typically requires a higher temperature than is usually created in a home compost pile.

Here are three quick tips for speeding up home composting:

Freeze it first: Store food scrap in the freezer before adding it to your compost pile. The cold bursts the cell membranes in the food, helping it decompose faster once it hits the compost pile.

Add water: Material in the pile should be as damp as a fully saturated sponge. Pour in water if moisture doesn't drip out with a good squeeze. Diluted leftover coffee is fine to add as well.

Cover it: A sheet of plastic, old window or spare carpeting will trap heat and moisture. Covering keeps nutrients in as well, especially during rainy weather.

Lawn Chemicals Feed Health, Environmental Problems

Be aware of all these flags this spring. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Be aware of all these flags this spring. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

’Tis the season when the smell of synthetic fertilizer fills the air.

The amount of toxic chemicals dumped on lawns and public grounds annually to jolt grass to life and kill pests is staggering. Witness the many yellow and white flags now stuck in residential lawns throughout southern New England.

There’s a good reason these warning flags are planted. Of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides: 17 are probable or possible carcinogens; 11 are linked to birth defects; 19 to reproductive impacts; 24 to liver or kidney damage; 14 possess neurotoxicity; and 18 cause disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Another 16 are toxic to birds; 24 are toxic to aquatic life; and 11 are deadly to bees, according to Beyond Pesticides.

Counting farmers and exterminators, about a billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States to eliminate weeds and insects, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

This heavy reliance on pesticides and fertilizers has turned neighborhood soil into de facto dumping grounds for lawn-care chemicals that threaten public health and the environment.

Scotts fertilizers — the company that sponsors the Johnson & Wales University athletic fields that rim the edge of Narragansett Bay in Providence — and the concoctions driven around in tank trucks generally contain a lot of nitrogen- and phosphorus-laden chemicals. These granules and sprays are often petroleum-based products designed to feed grass until the next application, generally within a few weeks. While these chemicals hang around “feeding your lawn,” they are breaking down and working their way into the environment.

Poisons from these artificial fertilizers can seep into groundwater, or turn to dust and ride the wind. They cling to people and pets who walk, run and lie on treated grass. They get kicked up during youth sporting events.

These chemicals can be inhaled like pollen, causing nausea, coughing, headaches and shortness of breath. For asthmatic kids, they can trigger coughing fits and asthma attacks.

If directly ingested, synthetic chemicals such as ammonium phosphate, potassium chloride and urea can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Studies have shown that these chemicals can linger in body tissue for years.

As stormwater carrying nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer runs off into streams and rivers and eventually into larger waterbodies such as Narragansett Bay, Long Island Sound and Buzzards Bay, they impact ecosystems, contaminate drinking-water supplies and cause algae blooms that suck oxygen from water.

Also in those sacks of Scotts fertilizers and in commercial sprayers are pesticides, herbicides and fungicides designed to kill bugs and weeds. “Weed and feed” products like those with 2,4-D are bad for people and pets. A growing body of scientific evidence continues to confirm the widespread health effects of such products, and 2,4-D, the pesticide in most of these products, is a neurotoxicant that contains half the ingredients in Agent Orange, according to Beyond Pesticides.

In fact, pesticides are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency because most are carcinogens or suspected carcinogens. They are also especially bad for children and pregnant women, according to studies.

In Rhode Island, synthetic lawn chemicals are used routinely by about 40 percent of the state’s school districts, according to a 2008 report. State law requires schools using pesticides to inform officials, teachers and parents when pesticides are applied.

The 16-page report noted that pesticide exposure has been linked to a number of chronic health problems, including cancer, birth defects, endocrine disruption, asthma, neurological disorders and immune system deficiencies.

ecoRI News staff Tim Faulkner contributed to this report.

Want a Healthy Lawn with No Warning Flags? Go Organic

Instead of a yard that is mostly covered in grass, plant a diversity of plants and shrubs, or let an area go wild. (ecoRI News)

Instead of a yard that is mostly covered in grass, plant a diversity of plants and shrubs, or let an area go wild. (ecoRI News)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

For decades, lawn-care professionals and amateur green thumbs have dumped pesticides and fertilizers onto lawns in hopes of creating lush, green carpets.

In fact, Americans spend some $40 billion annually on the upkeep of their lawns, with much of that money spent on the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, according to Beyond Pesticides, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

Herbicides account for the highest usage of pesticides in the home and garden sector, with more than 90 million pounds applied to lawns and gardens annually. Pesticide sales average $9.3 billion a year, as nearly 80 million households in the United States use lawn and garden pesticides, according to Beyond Pesticides.

There are, however, better ways to grow green lawns, according to local environmental advocates. The easiest, safest and cheapest solution is to avoid synthetic chemicals and use alternative lawn-care methods, such as applying organic fertilizers, composting, cutting down on watering — lawns only need an inch of water a week — limiting the amount of impervious surfaces on your property, and installing rain barrels to catch roof runoff, to be used later for watering.

Another way to help cut down on the amount of lawn chemicals is to replace areas of grass with native plants, which have adapted to this climate and are more pest resistant. Adding native plants also attracts beneficial insects, such as dragonflies and ladybugs, that feed on pests.

Here are a few more tips to care for your lawn without relying on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides:

Grow a diversity of grasses and shrubs. Clover and dandelions make a lawn stronger and more drought resistant.

Keep the grass at least 3.5 inches to strengthen roots and shade out weeds.

Leave grass clippings on the lawn. Clippings provide about 50 percent of the fertilizer a soil needs.

Aerate the lawn to allow air, water and worms to cultivate the soil.

Apply ample seeds frequently with compost.

Apply organic fertilizer, especially in the fall.

Be careful of the terms being used to sell fertilizer. For example, “natural” means nothing. Look for organic fertilizers that contain insecticidal soaps, diatomaceous earth, milky spore, nematodes and corn gluten. Compost in air-tight packaging can’t be alive, even if the label says otherwise. Compost needs oxygen to live, and without it, beneficial microscopic life, such as nematodes, can’t survive.

Don’t be initially turned off by the price for organic. It may cost more upfront, but over time will require less application and watering. In general, organic fertilizers improve the soil — instead of feeding the lawn or plant — making grass and landscaping more durable and safer.

In fact, Rhode Island is home to one of most well-known advocates for organic lawn care — Paul Tukey, the Maine native and landscaping professional acclaimed for his conversion to organic lawn products and his book “The Organic Lawn Care Manual.”

In the early 1990s, Tukey built a successful lawn and garden business in Maine as an avowed user of synthetic fertilizers. A medical scare and subsequent doctor’s order, however, convinced him to kick the chemical habit. He has since converted his landscaping business to one that is fully organic, and has launched a new career writing, speaking and promoting organic lawn and garden maintenance.

He says that as soon as chemicals are put down the soil instantly loses its ability to sustain life. He notes that the best materials for lawn and plant care come form natural materials, such as food scrap and yard waste turned into compost.

Charles “Chip” Osborne Jr., a Marblehead, Mass.-based turf consultant, is a longtime horticulturist and another former devotee of chemical pesticides. However, he eventually realized that pre-World War II, ecology-based lawn and gardening techniques are ultimately best for the environment and public health.

In 2002, Osborne began switching athletic and municipal fields in Marblehead to an organic, soil-nourishment program. The transition to natural field applicants required a leap of faith from local residents, but the rewards have been stunning. The town now features numerous lush and virtually weed-free playing fields and lawns. There are no yellow warning signs planted in these areas.

Switching to natural fertilizers typically requires changing application methods from constant chemical applications to aeration, compost additives and seeding. This method feeds the soil, which allows grass to grow deeper, and become heartier and less susceptible to weeds and pests.

By contrast, Osborne says, fields treated with synthetic fertilizers create shallow, weak grasses that require frequent treatments to eliminate weeds and bugs. To make matters worse, some 65 percent of chemical fertilizers are washed away in runoff, according to Osborne.

Fall is the best time to start transitioning your lawn to organic, according to Beyond Pesticides.

ecoRI News staffer Tim Faulkner contributed to this report.

Bee Vigilant in Your Neighborhood This Spring

The ‘Bee Vigilant’ campaign is about increasing awareness about the overuse of lawn chemicals. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

The ‘Bee Vigilant’ campaign is about increasing awareness about the overuse of lawn chemicals. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Editor’s note: ecoRI News and ConvergenceRI have partnered to create a positive consumer awareness campaign to educate the public about alternatives to toxic lawn chemicals and insecticides.


It’s springtime in southern New England. In addition to all those bright colors of daffodils and tulips in bloom and buds on the maple trees emerging in a natural pointillist canvas, there are those annoying harbingers of an increasingly toxic landscape: yellow and white flags sprouting up, warning of toxic chemicals applied to lawns, with their alluring promise of a greener future but the reality of a more silent spring.

The lawn may be “greener” in color, but at what cost to the families, children and pets playing on those lawns? What about the irreparable harm caused in the poisoning of bees and other pollinators and beneficial creatures?

The facts are surprising and chilling, according the national advocacy group Beyond Pesticides:

The National Academy of Sciences estimates 50 percent of lifetime pesticide exposure occurs during the first five years of life.

A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute finds home and garden pesticide use can increase the risk of childhood leukemia by almost seven times.

Studies show low levels of exposure to lawn pesticides are linked to increased rates of miscarriage, and suppression of the nervous, endocrine and immune systems.

Exposure to home and garden pesticides can increase a child’s likelihood of developing asthma.

Studies link pesticides with hyperactivity, developmental delays, behavioral disorders and motor dysfunction.

Children aged 6-11 have higher levels of lawn chemicals in their blood than all other age categories. Studies have found that pesticides pass from mother to child through umbilical cord blood and breast milk.

What is green?
As with the difference between good taste and tasting good, a greener lawn isn’t necessarily a greener lifestyle; rather, it often serves as a sprinkler system for toxic chemicals.

As Pogo once warned us, we have met the enemy and he is us: Our desire for a greener lawn often leads to our own self-dosing with toxins. All change begins on the inside, as Dr. Martin Luther King said. Being greener begins with personal choices in the way we lead our lives, and treat our lawns.

As detailed in the three companion articles, there are many ways to have a healthy, greener lawn without resorting to toxic herbicides, pesticides and lawn treatments.

But, beyond taking that individual step forward, we need a way to celebrate and to share positive choices with friends, family and neighbors, and, in doing so, change the conversation and the practice.

One lawn at a time
Odds are, you or many of your neighbors are going to be susceptible to the lure of advertising, like the one in a recent circular from a popular Rhode Island discount store, which offers a well-known fertilizer product with a manufacturer’s rebate and a store gift card, in the urge to render lawns greener — and unwittingly more toxic.

In an effort to increase consumer awareness about the use of pesticides and lawn fertilizers, ecoRI News and ConvergenceRI, to celebrate Earth Day on April 22, are sponsoring a “Bee Vigilant” campaign. Post these green flags on your lawn, on a tree or in a window, to help bring attention to the continued overuse of lawn poisons.

This campaign doesn’t require legislative action; it doesn’t cost you any money; you don’t have to register online to post a comment; you can be a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, a Moderate or even a Cool Moose.

The origins of the idea go back to July 2015, when Joanna Detz, co-founder of ecoRI News, and I were guests of Ted Nesi on WPRI’s “Executive Suite.” As we walked out of the studio after taping, we discussed ways in which our organizations might collaborate on a project: the idea of addressing pesticides on lawns was first mentioned.

What we hope the Bee Vigilant campaign does is create a new kind of engaged community in today’s very digital world. Neither ConvergenceRI nor ecoRI News can make any promises about what will happen if you plant one of these do-it-yourself flags in your lawn.

Will your lawn be healthier? We expect so. Toxic chemicals and fertilizers often degrade the soil, causing you and your lawn to be more dependent on more and more applications, according to organic lawn-care experts.

Will you enjoy your lawn more? We believe so.

Will you save money? Perhaps. Building your own compost pile is a lot cheaper than buying poison-laden fertilizers and pesticides. But investing in healthier, safer organic products to protect pollinators may cost a bit more upfront.

Will birds, bees, butterflies and beneficial insects thank you? Their renewed presence will speak volumes.

Why Bee Vigilant?
The numbers are scary and surprising. As a recent New York Times article reported, “The birds and the bees need help. Also, the butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles and bats.”

A recent report on the global assessment of the threats to pollinators warned that an increasing number of species are at risk of extinction, including 16 percent of vertebrates such as birds and bats, and at least 9 percent of bees and butterflies.

From a macroeconomic view, the global assessment talked about how pollinators, including some 20,000 species of wild bees, contribute to the growth of fruit, vegetables, nuts and flowering plants. It also noted that plants that depend on pollination make up some 35 percent of the global crop production volume, with a value estimated to be as much as $577 billion a year.

One of the noted bad actors in this drama is a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids, or neonics for short. They are among the most widely used insecticides in the United States and worldwide. They are marketed by European chemical giants Syngenta and Bayer. Neonics are a potent class of systemic pesticides introduced to agriculture in the 1990s. Products that contain this insecticide include Knockout Ready-To-Use Grub Killer, Ortho Bug B Gon and All-In-One Rose & Flower Care, among others, according to Beyond Pesticides.

Neonicotinoids have been linked by some studies to the decline in bees. The Maryland Legislature recently enacted a law, awaiting the signature of the governor, to ban their use beginning in 2018. Maryland would be the first state to enact such a ban.

In Rhode Island, however, there has been pushback about enacting similar legislation. During a March 23 Senate Environment and Agricultural Committee hearing to discuss a bill that would ban or severely restrict the use of some neonicotinoids in Rhode Island, the continued use of the bug killer received endorsements from state officials, local farmers and scientists.

There is also still much that needs to be done, in terms of research and studies, to see, for example, the impact herbicide-resistant GMO crops — soy, cotton, rice, rapeseed (canola oil) and corn that dominate U.S. and global agricultural — are having on the environment.

Milkweed plants, which once thrived in North America, are in a precipitous decline, allegedly as a result of such agricultural practices. In return, the number of monarch butterflies, which lay their eggs on milkweed as they travel from their winter home in Mexico northward, have dwindled, so much so that some scientists are worried they could be extinct in 20 years, according to a recent article in Scientific Reports.

The problem, according to John Pleasants, an ecologist at Iowa State University, is that the United States has lost an estimated 1 billion milkweed plants since the 1990s, in large part because of herbicide spraying on cropland in the Midwest.

Efforts to reform global agricultural practices, independent research and the establish of “butterfly zones” are some long-term solutions worthy of investment.

In the meantime, Bee Vigilant offers a way for consumers to take action at the consumer level. The marketplace sometimes does listen to the voice of consumers; there’s a reason why the market for organic products grew 11 percent last year.

Richard Asinof is the editor and publisher of ConvergenceRI, on online weekly newsletter launched in September 2013.