A BIG Thumbs-Up for SafeLawns.org


It seemed that everywhere I looked there were press releases promoting the kick-off event for anTukey400 organic lawn organization – on the Mall in Washington!  You know, just like the Million Man March and countless other events that made history.  Trouble is, the Mall’s a pretty big place, so as I rode the subway downtown I was wondering if I’d ever find the event.  And sure enough, it took some sleuthing but I finally spied a likely group on the Capitol grounds — note, not the Mall — but by then I was pretty cranky and not at all eager to shill for an organization that looked suspiciously like a book promotion tool for a well known TV personality – the Blond One himself, Paul Tukey.

So you see my frame of mind – annoyance mixed with ’60-style skepticism.  But when faced with SafeLawns.org, the coalition of lefty nonprofits and others whose mission is organic lawn care, how could I NOT fall in line?  Speakers included, in addition to the TV-cute Tukey himself, folks from the Rachel Carson Council, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the National Botanic Gardens – see, all good guys. (Even Newman’s Own Organics is a partner – beyond TV cute to movie star dreamy.)

So here’s what they’re up to:  challenging universities and industries to eliminate the use of chemicals on their lawns, lobbying state legislatures to eliminate pesticides on school grounds, and encouraging realtors to create Safe Lawn certification programs for homes on the market.  That’s just for starters.

  And here’s some scary shit I learned in their handouts:

  • The Journal of Public Health reported that children who live in homes where weed and insect killers are used are 4 to 5 times more likely to develop cancer.  Holy crap!  And parents, you don’t even want to know what the typical playing field could be doing to your kids’ health.  (Think cancer, asthma, and developmental disorders.)  Studies of disease in dogs show similar results.
  • A Defenders of Wildlife study showed that of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 16 are toxic to birds, 24 are toxic to fish, and 11 are deadly to bees.
  • The National Cancer Institute reported that lawn care professionals are 3 to 7 times more likely to develop lymphoma than the national average.

Safelawn2400The list goes miserably on and I’ll stop there because by now you’ve gotten the point.  But how about the extent of the probelm?  More than half of the 104 million households with lawns use insecticides; 40 million use herbicides.  The New York Board of Pesticide Control found that 80% of homeowners don’t even read the Caution labels on pesticide products.  Then there’s a bunch of studies that show the effects of synthetic lawn care products on water, on air, and on soil itself (reducing microbial activity by 75 to 80%).

Had enough?  I think that’s the point.

I did have a nice chat with Safe Lawn’s executive director, Shep Ogden, another Boomer Boy of Gardening.  Actually it wasn’t so much a chat as him expounding passionately about genetically modified plants (against, big-time) and deviant forms of "scientism" while I tried to keep up, scribbling furiously and calling desperately on my meager grasp of botany to just get his point.  And I could try to summarize it for you but I’d rather corral him into making a guest appearance right here to speak for himself.  How about it, Shep? 

[Photos:  Top, the Blond One.  Bottom, the Gang of Good Guys.]


  1. The crazy thing about this chemical assault in favor of lawns is its uselessness! You poison the universe, and what do you have in the end? Nothing but a stupid lawn. It looks a little better than my lawn, admittedly, which is 50 percent clover and 50 percent plantain–but not so much better that it’s worth ruining the health of your children.

  2. I arrived late to this, but found it interesting – though a few of the speakers were a bit ‘dry’ – especially for the bused-in-kids audience they had sitting up front.
    One of the speakers went into great detail on how lawn pesticides effect your pets and that there is nothing on the labels to warn people about them — with the recent pet food scare, I think folk sshould be taking a good look at everything pets are exposed to and would help if we had full disclosure and truth in labeling.

  3. Other than trespassing (no small crime I admit) what would be wrong with me making up some simple signs that say something like “BEWARE: This Lawn was Poisoned Today with Chemicals” and staking them next to the cheerful little warning flags stuck in lawns recently treated with chemicals?

  4. OK. Time for a shameless plug. We’ve got some great online lawn care resources at: http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/lawn

    You’ll find a link there to our publication Lawn Care Without Pesticides, which is unfortunately only available online as a .pdf. (Most of the advice at the website is similar to what you’ll find in that publication.)

    The info is targeted to the Northeast, but is probably applicable to the Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest with some modifications. All gardening is local. Same goes for lawn care.

    In a nutshell, if you want to reduce or eliminate herbicides and pesticides:

    Mow high. Set your push mower at the highest setting so that it cuts the grass ~4 inches tall.

    Mow often. Ideally, follow the one-third rule: Remove a third or less of the grass blade when you mow.

    Leave the clippings to recycle nutrients. No, they don’t cause thatch. If you follow the one-third rule, they won’t smother the grass — especially if you have a mulching mower.

    Keep your mower blade sharp. If you make a clean cut, the grass is less vulnerable to stress and disease.

    Don’t fertilizer in early spring. Sure, it greens things up quickly. Fall fertilization is usually more effective.

    Reseed damaged areas before weeds can get a foothold.

    And don’t try to grow grass where it doesn’t want to grow. Too much traffic? Hardscape. Too much shade? Plant hostas. Bad drainage? Install a rain garden.

    A perfect, weed-free organic lawn is usually going to take a lot of work to get rid of all the weeds. But if you set your sites a little lower, you can have a decent lawn without herbicides.

    Where I personally part company with a strict organic approach to lawn care in my neck of the woods is with fertilizer. A judicious fall application can do wonders to help grass outcompete weeds.

    Sorry for such a long post, but it’s snowing here and there’s not much I can do out in the garden today.

  5. Blah, blah, blah my grass is….

    What color is your lawn?

    Green. Good, then we are done here.

    No it was not something I sprayed that sent your little dog in convulsions to the vet and cost you $600. Talk to your quarterly pesticide service guy who spreads poison granules all over the garden and decks.

    From the lawn care professional who is hopefully not 3 to 7 times more likely to develop lymphoma than the national average.

  6. Whenever I used Scotts or any other commercial fertilizer, I would get poor results. I tried Milorganite about a year ago (Home Deot, Loews). I use what they recommend for 5000 sq.ft. on my about 12,000 sq. ft. of lawn. I do this once a month which takes about ten minutes with a broadcast spreader. It is impossible to burn and has given me the greenest lawn I have ever had.

    Milorganite is basically processed municipal sewerage from the City of Milwaukee (granules). It is sterile, however when it rains it does give off an odor right after spreading. My neighbor’s dog seems to like to roll in it too. They have been selling it for 50 years and study after study (Universities, City of Milwaukee, golf courses and others) has shown zero problems with any pollutants or build-ups of any kind. Commercial fertilizers can build up too much nitrogen over the years. I know nitrogen makes the lawn green; too much makes it brown and dead.

    Other cities have done this as well as a way to get rid of the solid wastes remaining after processing (usually goes to a land fill)

    I find it works better than synthetic fertilizers, is cheaper (~$18/ month) and is fine with the environment. Downside it smells a little (On the plus side the smell is said to keep deer away). I think it really does. It seems to make sense that they would stay away from a “marked” territory. Also, if you have a dog you may find it liking to roll in it and come in the house with a strange but somehow familiar odor.

  7. Sue: Sure. You can use an organic fertilizer. I just think that that’s a big leap for a lot of folks who are ‘intensively managing’ their lawns now. It sounds like Jon has it down, but I’d argue that organics are going to be more expensive (if you’re basing it just on nitrogen) and more difficult to apply. And if you apply enough to get the nitrogen you need, you will likely be overapplying phosphorus and potassium.

    I’d also take a close look at long-term use of sewage sludge. Google: Case for Caution.

    And some folks (or their neighbors) aren’t going to like the smell.

    I feel in a weird position here, because I really am an organic supporter, and have been for decades. I like having clover in my lawn to fix nitrogen and attract bees. Really.

    Maybe it’s best to leave this off with this tidbit: I’ve seen research that shows on well-established, healthy sod, if you leave the clippings you don’t need any fertilizer. (At least here in the Northeast, and your mileage may vary. I don’t think you can do that in the South, but I’ll leave that to someone from there who knows more than I do about it.)

  8. Craig, I was more than a little leery of spreading waste solids on my lawn. The Case for Caution is refering to untreated solid waste. In most processes (after settling out large solids in settling ponds) waste is aerobically digested (air is bubbled though and enzimes are added). After this process of breaking down the waste, polymers (floculants) are added to bind the solids and make filtration (dewatering) by belt filters or centrifuges possible. The solids are then usually just landfilled and the liquid is chlorinated and discharged.

    In making Milorganite the solids are cooked to sterilize them and iron is added and then the dry product is granulated. The finished product is rated as “Exceptional” by the EPA in comparison of amounts of heavy metals to other fertilizers, meaning it has a fraction of that commonly found in commercial fertilizers.

    I think the added iron is why it does such a good job in “greening” the grass (this is their claim). I used to envy one of my neighbor’s lawns which was sprayed several times a year by a lawn company. Now, my grass is greener than his and is getting plusher and plusher as time goes by (I have a way to go). It used to be very sparse and it was a dust bowl when I mowed it in the Summer. It’s getting there.

  9. Have you ever looked at the label on Scott’s “Turfbuilder” to see what’s in it? It’s 40 percent nitrogen. Does that make any sense at all to you, spreading something on your lawn that’s 40 percent nitrogen.

    Did you know that the manufacture of fertilizers uses 2 percent of our national supply of natural gas? Did you know that we are drilling more and more wells every year just to maintain the current level of natural gas supply. Do you really want to be remembered as the generation that used up the planets supply of natural gas to spread on your lawn? Or the generation that left huge dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico just because we could?

    Anyone still using chemical fertilizers should have their head examined.

  10. Ed: You’ve got the moral high ground on me here. My point is that most folks aren’t going to tear out their entire lawn and plant vegetables in the short run. If we can get them to stop over-applying fertilizer that’s a good start. If applying a little bit of nitrogen in the fall will keep them from applying herbicides, these are baby steps in the right direction.

    That 40-percent nitrogen stuff (it’s actually 46 percent) is urea. As nitrogen sources go, it’s not too bad. In fact, it’s one of the most efficient ways of getting nitrogen waste out of mammalian bodies. It’s what I put on the compost pile when I ‘visit Quito’ with the dogs at night.

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