Lawns Can Be Lush Without Chemicals

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BARRINGTON, R.I. — The safe, chemical-free lawn vs. the toxic, synthetic-fertilizer lawn discussion doesn't seem to favor the big fertilizer industry — or human health.

Established grass-treatment corporations such as Scotts and TruGreen are only looking to make big profits from dumping unhealthy, environmentally harmful — albeit fast-acting — chemicals on lawns across America, said one local expert on organic fertilizers at a public talk Wednesday.

Charles "Chip" Osborne Jr., a Marblehead, Mass.-based turf consultant, is a 35-year horticulturist and former devotee of chemical pesticides who eventually realized that the pre-World War II, ecology-based lawn and gardening techniques are ultimately best for the land and human health.

In 2002, Osborne began switching all athletic and municipal fields in Marblehead to an organic, soil-nourishment program. The transition to natural field applicants required a leap of faith from town residents, but the rewards have been stunning. Through slides, he showed numerous lush and virtually weed-free fields and lawns that are entirely safe for human use.

Switching to natural fertilizers typically requires changing application methods from constant chemical applications to aeration, compost additives and seeding. The upfront costs are usually higher than chemical "feeding," but over the long term, naturally grown grass needs less attention and less water. Simply put, the soil is fed — instead of the plant — allowing grass to grow deeper into the soil while becoming heartier and less susceptible to weeds and pests.

By contrast, Osborne said, fields treated with synthetic fertilizers, create shallow, weak grasses that require frequent treating to eliminate weeds and bugs. To make matters worse, some 65 percent of chemical fertilizers are washed away in runoff, whereas natural fertilizers are entirely used by the soil.

Popular synthetic fertilizers, such as those containing urea, are also unhealthy. Urea and other nitrogen-feeding grass chemicals are dangerous to humans up to a week after application, not 48 hours, as the small, square yard signs state, Osborne said. According to independent reports, granular, synthetic nitrogen has been linked to several health problems such as cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and brain and nervous disorders.

The pesticide 2,4-D found in most "weed and feed" lawn products is a poison that lingers in soil and body tissue for years. "2,4-D is half Agent Orange," Osborne said.

Ingesting through air and water can lead to immediate health problems, but repeated low-dose exposure adds to the growing chemical stew in humans that has been linked to ailments such as Parkinson's disease.  

New York, Connecticut and New Hampshire are among several states that have recently banned lawn pesticides on school grounds and playing fields. And many communities are switching to organic turf care from synthetic fertilizers like urea and potash.

In 2008, Rhode Island passed legislation requiring all cities and towns to professionally train town employees who apply pesticides. Parents and school officials must also be notified when school property is treated with pesticides.

A glaring hole in that law allows the application of urea and other common harmful synthetic fertilizers to go on at will, with no warning or formal notification policy.

Labeling on chemical fertilizer bags often state that the pesticides only make up a small portion of a fertilizer. Many of the supposedly inert fillers, however, are shielded from public scrutiny as proprietary products and therefore protected from safety standards, Osborne said. "Many have never been tested for human health impacts," he said.

He offered several options for switching to organic fertilizers, such as a fish-based nitrogen, municipal compost and substituting chemical pesticides with cedar oil.

A "fear of failure," Osborne said, makes many homeowners and communities reluctant to try natural fertilizers. But Osborne said it's quick and easy to go back to chemical fertilizers. Nevertheless, he said, it's just a matter of changing habits to go organic. "It's just a different management strategy that doesn't have human health impacts or harm the environment," he said.

The big lawn-care companies might say they offer natural fertilizers, but they usually come with additional applications of chemicals, Osborne said. In the end, embracing organics is simply bad business for the synthetic companies. "There is no vested interest in any (chemical) fertilizer company from seeing this happen because of the loss of revenue," he said.