In cased you missed it, last week our very own Carole Brown took the wildlife gardening world by storm with her exposure of the National Wildlife Federation/ScottsMiracle-Gro partnership, which quickly escalated into a widespread social media storm of protest by organic gardeners, farmers and environmental writers. On Sunday, amazingly, the NWF’s reversed their decision to partner with ScottsMiracle-Gro, citing Thursday’s guilty plea by ScottsMiracle-Gro in federal court on charges of knowingly selling birdseed tainted with pesticide toxic to birds and falsifying EPA records. It’s been quite the drama! For the time being anyway, I certainly feel better about the Certified Wildlife Habitat sign we have hanging on our home…
I’m sure that most of our enlightened BWG readers instinctively knew why the NWF partnership with one of the world’s biggest chemical company was just wrong. Nurturing wildlife habitat and using a chemically-based lawncare program are not, and cannot be, mutually compatible. And even if you don’t care about wildlife or the pollution to the ponds, lakes and bays caused by runoff of lawn fertilizers, it’s worth paying attention to the growing number of studies showing alarming links between the use of Monsanto’s weedkiller Roundup and a variety of human health problems – including birth defects, learning disabilities in children, placental cell death, male infertility and a number of cancers.
Roundup (distributed by ScottsMiracle-Gro and developed by Monsanto) is regularly sprayed on roadsides and around buildings to kill dandelions, crabgrass and other weeds. Not uncoincidentally, ScottsMiracle-Gro happens to be developing a genetically-modified grass seed mix for lawns and playgrounds that is resistant to the Roundup weed killer glyphosate. Meaning that eventually landscapers could be spraying this toxic concoction all around us, in parks, schoolyards and anywhere else where weeds dare to sprout. That’s not even counting the accumulating amounts of the Roundup that we ingest from our food – corn, soy and alfalfa (animal feed) are doused with the stuff in the vast croplands across the midwest. Congratulations to the NWF for reversing their decision to partner with this company. It was a marriage that was never meant to be….
But what’s your average busy homeowner to do, when every lawn service company and hardware shop is trying to convince you that if you want a nice lawn, you need the bags of chemicals laced with pesticides? I hear it all the time from my garden coaching clients….’we have kids and pets and won’t use the harmful chemicals, but we don’t want our lawn to be an embarrassment either…’
I’ve written here before about maintaining non-toxic, wildlife-friendly eco-lawns. If you are looking for a lush, green, safe lawn without relying on synthetic chemicals, basically, it comes down to this. Feed the soil, not the grass. Healthy soil is full of biological life (from microscopic bacteria and fungi to larger millipedes and worms), whose collective activities keep grass healthy and vigorous by making nutrients and moisture available to plant roots. Chemical fertilizers feed your grass with quick dosages of the major nutrients that all plants need. But when your grass receives its nutrients directly in chemical form, most of those beneficial, naturally-occurring organisms that live in healthy, living soils simply disappear. If plants don’t need to find their own food using their roots – which tunnel deep into the soil to find nutrients and moisture – roots remain shallow and weak. Weak root systems leave your grass susceptible to drought stress, pest damage and disease, and makes it easy for weeds to take over.
Instead of bagged chemicals produced in a factory somewhere else in the world, feed your soil life using any naturally-derived organic materials you can get your hands on locally. Got farms nearby? Ask them for bagged farm compost and if your lawn is small, rake an inch of compost into your lawn once a year. The compost will introduce earthworms into your soil, plus a vast array of naturally-occurring beneficial soil microbes that will break the materials down into plant food.
Or, use a hose-end sprayer to apply liquid fertilizer derived from good quality compost, sea and fish-based byproducts, humates and other organic materials. In New England, look for products such as Coast of Maine’s liquid organic fertilizers. For quicker results, oxygenate the liquid with a small pump immediately prior to application to stimulate the beneficial microbes in the mixture – this helps speed nutrient uptake by the grass. Lawn care companies can even custom-brew aerated liquid fertilizers based on your soil’s individual needs.
If you mow, use a mulching mower and chop your grass clippings right back into the soil. They’ll quickly decompose and turn into nutritious plant food. Clippings alone can supply more than half the nitrogen needs of your lawn.
Don’t scalp your lawn, it stresses the grass. Mow high, by raising the mower blade to at least 3″ high. Longer grass blades have more surface area for photosynthesis, allowing grass roots to grow deeply into the soil. Taller grass also shades the surrounding soil, slowing moisture loss and discouraging weed seeds from germinating. If you live in an area where winter voles are a problem, during the last mow of the year, lower the blade and cut low, to make your thick lawn less hospitable to voles that eat grass roots under cover of snow….
Healthy grass outcompetes weeds! Once your grass has what it needs for optimal health, you’ll find that the dandelions, crabgrass and other weeds won’t have a chance to get established. In the meantime, if they bother you, hand pull weeds (or hire your nearest kid to get outdoors to pull then for you!). In the bare spots left behind, scrape some compost into the soil and overseed with grass seed. It’s also a good idea to get your soil tested by your local county testing service. Your soil may have deficiencies that can be addressed with a specific soil amendment or organic fertilizer formulation.
Don’t forget the ecological landscaping mantra: ‘Always choose the right plant for the right place’. It applies to lawns as well as gardens – do your research and use appropriate grass plants based on the specific conditions of your soil, property and climate. Especially if you live in an area with little natural rainfall, forget about the Kentucky bluegrass traditionally used in sod lawns. It’s a heavy feeder and water user, and grows so quickly that it needs constant mowing in summer. It also won’t grow well in shade. Choose a mix of slower-growing varieties such as fescue grasses or ryegrass. Fescue grasses, especially, have deep roots that allow them to find moisture deep in the soil, meaning they shouldn’t require watering at all. Red fescues are especially tolerant of shady areas, too. Ask your local nursery for a grass seed mixture appropriate for your individual conditions.
Of course, you can forget about all the above if you don’t care about having a lawn that looks like a golf course. If you’re still reading, here are some MUCH better ideas for you, wildlife, and the planet:
Eliminate some or all of your lawn, and watch to see what native plants might reappear on their own. Learn to embrace the plants that WANT to grow in your yard! The moss growing in that cool, damp, shady area makes a lush green carpet if you remove the grass competing with it. Violets may seed themselves into your lawn – did you know that violets are the sole food plant for our beautiful fritillary butterfly caterpillars? Just make sure you don’t unwittingly introduce invasive, non-native plants that can rapidly disrupt and destabilize the health of the surrounding ecosystem.
Add groupings of native shrubs, trees and low plants to create bird nesting and feeding opportunities. Connect your wilder areas along the edges with your neighbors’ vegetation to enlarge the size and habitat value.
Read Douglas Tallamy’s ideas for encouraging native plants back into your backyard, and why it’s so important that we preserve our remaining native plant biodiversity while we are still able.
Follow Catherine Zimmerman’s work teaching us how to convert lawns to meadows full of life and beauty.
Turn part of your yard into an edible garden and grow your own fresh, pesticide-free food! Freshly-picked vegetables are packed with nutrients and by growing your own, you can reduce your family’s exposure to the pesticides used on many of our food crops.
Wherever you live, take your cue from the native plants that are thriving in your nearby natural areas when deciding what and how to plant in your own yard. Growing regionally-native strains of native plants may help bolster wild plant populations by adding genetic diversity - but be careful when buying plants labelled as “native”. Learn what you can about the importance of genetic origins of the plants you introduce into your habitat. Non-native strains can sometimes be harmful to the very wildlife you are trying to protect.
Overwhelmed? Look no further than your local wildlife sanctuaries and managed native plant botanic gardens for ideas and information about the plants you can reliably grow in your region. Here in New England, we have New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, MA, Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary in Monson, MA, Tower Hill Botanic Garden near Worcester, Berkshire Botanical Garden and Arnold Arboretum in Boston. In CT: Connecticut College Arboretum in New London, Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve in Stamford. In northern New England: UNH Ecological Garden and Coastal Maine Botanic Gardens. Please reply if you know of any more….
And of course…keep following us here at Beautiful Wildlife Garden and Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We do not accept sponsorship and our views are not influenced by any interests other than our own desire to show gardeners how we can help make a difference in the world…
Note: Some of the text and photos in this article are excerpted from my new book for New England gardeners: “The Green Garden” (Bunker Hill, 2011) available at bookstores or at my website @ THBFarm.com
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