Since When Did Dandelions Become Un-American?

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BRISTOL, R.I. — Rhode Island has one of the most well-known advocates for organic lawn care living in its backyard.

Paul Tukey, the Maine native and landscaping pro acclaimed for his conversion to organic lawn products and his book "The Organic Lawn Care Manual," recently moved to North Kingstown.  

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, quickly convinced him to kick the chemical habit. He has since converted his landscaping business to fully organic, and launched a new career writing, speaking and promoting organic lawn and garden maintenance.

Given the entrenched popularity of corporate chemical giants such as Scotts and TruGreen, Tukey recognized that millions of Americans await conversion to natural landscaping methods.

"As soon as we put chemicals down, the soil instantly loses its ability to grow life," he said at a May 24 talk at the Audobon Society of Rhode Island. 

Tukey delivered plenty of zingers about the ills of America's love affair with lawn chemicals. Everyday sprays and synthetic granules not only destroy the life-giving soil but also threaten people and pets, the air we breathe and the water we drink. "It's no different than secondhand smoke," he said. "It's secondhand pesticides."

Since the Masters golf tournament first broadcast in color in 1966, Tukey said, mass-marketing has held the golf course fairway as the ideal lawn for a home. "We're somehow un-American if we let a dandelion grow on our lawn," he said.

There's no shortage of research, however, to back up the risks associated with artificial lawn care. Two of the most common pesticides, glyphosate used in Roundup and 2,4-D in Weed B Gon Max, have been linked to a slew of health issues such as autism, ALS, developmental disorders and cancer.

Bans on one or both of these products for lawn care have been instituted in Quebec, Ontario, and in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Partial bans have been enacted in New Jersey, Connecticut and New York.

Tukey presented natural alternatives to lawn chemicals, which he has learned as a landscaper and as a child visiting his grandparents' dairy farm. His grandmother's time-tested "poop-loop" theory explained that the best materials for lawn and plant care come form natural materials, most found at home, such as food scraps, compost tea and even newspapers and cardboard. 

"You get 50 percent of your nutrients back if you just leave your grass (clippings) there. It's fertilizer for your lawn," he said.

The cost to convert to a naturally grown lawn is typically more expensive at first, Tukey said, but after two or three years, maintenance is half the costs of synthetic care. And natural lawn care is not only cheaper but also easier and safer. 

His latest book reminds people that lawns are for having fun, too. "Tag, Toss and Run" offers ideas for traditional games such as badminton and wheelbarrow races that are ideal for healthy lawns and families.

"Let's grow lawns not just to look at, but to play on," he said.

Tukey said apathy is to blame for the delayed implementation of chemical bans in the United States and the slow return to traditional natural lawn and garden care care methods. The May 24 audience of some 20 people was the smallest he had spoken to during a recent speaking tour and perhaps indicated why there is little public outcry for legislation against synthetic lawn care in Rhode Island. "People don't want to change," he said.

Promoting a ban on pesticides and chemical treatments in any community, he said, requires time, patience and persistence. A good first step is teaming up with other natural turf advocates and healthy-living advocates to work with like-minded local officials and representative to start crafting legislation.

A return to the pre-chemical days of lawn care, he said, is also impeded by "economic greed and ignorance." But natural methods succeeded for hundreds of years. "If people tell you it doesn't work then they don't know how to do it.," he said.