Organic lawn care products require patience
by Daniel Simmons
Some people go organic for their health, their pets, their kids, the earth.
Not Max Maxwell. He had a different introduction. “Most of my life I’ve been a conservative Republican and I started dating a liberal Democrat,” he explains with a grin. His girlfriend wanted him to fertilize her lawn and asked that he use an organic fertilizer. Which led to Maxwell, 51, topdressing her Madison, Miss., lawn in April 2004 with store-bought chicken manure pellets. Her dog ran beside the spreader, devouring the tasty treats.
The scene is becoming more common. About 12 million households use all natural or organic methods on their lawns and gardens, according to a 2008 survey by the National Gardening Association. That’s more than double the 5 million who reported the same in 2004. Another 17 million plan to make the switch, and 22 million say they are considering it.
People in the lawn-care industry say the organic devotees tend to be younger homeowners with kids, are more likely to live in the Northeast, Midwest or Western U.S. and are eliminating chemicals primarily because they want to reduce pollution. A smaller “anti-lawn” movement exists, as well, of people forgoing lawns altogether in favor or wildflowers, shrubbery or ornamental grasses, particularly in desert climates where vegetation struggles to survive.
Angie’s List member Brian Gleason of Newton, Mass., says he’s no fan of “chemically nuking” his lawn, but needs a lot more information before he’ll go organic. “I’m dubious of anything marketed as green or organic,” he says. “There’s so much brainwashing going on.”
Maxwell agrees, to a point. “There’s propaganda on both sides of the chemicals issue,” he says. “I was a product of the side that said it was OK.”
Using organic or natural products may carry some risk as well. Some states and municipalities have banned or considered banning fertilizers that contain phosphorous, a naturally occurring element, because of evidence that it can cause toxic algae bloom and kill fish when too much of it flows into freshwater streams, rivers or lakes, says John Stier, professor and chair of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Horticulture. However, the bigger picture should be considered. “Yes, there can be adverse effects,” Stier says. “But organics in general are less likely to have adverse effects than synthetics.”
Many who have transitioned to natural products noted success that surprised them. “Imagine a golf course, then imagine a picture of Ireland,” says Angie’s List member and part-time gardener Lynn Rhenisch, of Brighton, Mass.
She’s describing a neighbor’s expansive yard after the woman switched from a lawn service that uses chemical fertilizer and pesticides to an organic-based one. In Oakland, Calif., Angie’s List member Heidi Stenner switched from synthetic to natural fertilizers about five years ago on her ornamental garden and noticed major changes over time. “It makes the whole plant healthier rather than just forcing a quick bloom,” she says, comparing the two.
As demand has grown for organic lawn care, most major mainstream lawn-care providers have begun offering an organic or natural approach along with their traditional chemical regimens, says Tom Delaney, director of governmental affairs for the Professional Landcare Network, an industry trade group with 4,200 members nationwide.
Synthetic treatments are appealing because they require only a simple spreading in the spring and fall with little maintenance required in between. “People are looking for ease and speed,” Delaney says. “They only want to go over their lawns once to fertilize and kill weeds."
NaturaLawn of America, the country’s largest network of organic-based lawn-care service providers, has experienced growth in sales from $22 million in 2004 to $35 million in 2008 — a nearly 60-percent increase, according to company records. More than half its customers are in the 11-state Northeastern region.
Among the organic converts, Maxwell’s background makes him stand out: former superintendent at Jackson [Miss.] Country Club for 10 years and former president of the Mississippi Turfgrass Association. “I learned to grow grass with chemicals, and I did a really good job of it,” he says.
Initially, he wasn’t impressed with the organic approach. “I was covered in chicken poo dust,” he says. “And the lawn smelled bad for three months.” Over the next year, though, he fell not just for his girlfriend — they’re still a couple — but also for her lawn. “I realized the yard performed like any other yard on chemicals and used a lot less water,” he says.
He soon discovered soy-based organic fertilizers that don’t stink and left his old career behind to start Nature’s Remedy, an organic lawn-care company, in 2007. Business has been sluggish so far, he says, with just 30 clients.
Nationally, only a quarter of lawn-service consumers use an organic or natural lawn service, according to the gardening association survey.
But Maxwell’s convinced the movement will keep growing even in parts of the country, such as Mississippi, where organic lawn care is in its infancy. “It’s really a no-brainer,” he says. “It works, and it’s what’s best for the environment.”
However, cynicism and confusion still abound. In a recent online poll, 73 percent of Angie’s List members say they either weren’t aware organic is an option or choose not to use it. Among the skeptics, 43 percent listed cost as the main reason not to switch, followed by concerns about converting from a known, proven system (19 percent) or the lawn’s appearance (15 percent), increased maintenance required (13 percent) and potential smell (9 percent).
But at what cost? NASA research estimates there are 31.6 million acres of grass in the United States, and people pour about 102 million pounds of pesticides on them a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Personal lawns and gardens, on average, receive a greater saturation of pesticides than farmland, according to a report by Beyond Pesticides, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
Research in the past decade has pointed to a host of health and environmental risks associated with the chemicals commonly used on lawns. Of 30 commonly used chemicals in synthetic lawn treatments, 13 have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, according to Beyond Pesticides.
At highest risk are kids, pregnant women and the elderly. Thirty-five states have laws restricting chemical pesticides on school property, according to the National Pest Management Association.
In addition, the chemicals are believed to be harmful to drinking water and animals, according to Beyond Pesticides. Seventeen of the 30 commonly used fertilizers have been detected in groundwater. Sixteen of them have been linked to the death of birds, while 24 have been linked to the death of fish and aquatic life.
Delaney says all chemical lawn and garden products must be certified safe for use by the EPA and registered with the appropriate state agency. While he acknowledges the potential health and environmental risks, he says they’re proven safe if used properly. “What people tend not to do is read the label [warnings] or dilute it properly,” he says.
But the risks — whether from safe or unsafe use — have created a hunger for an alternative. “There are a lot of people now who just want to get away from all the pesticides and have a safer lawn for their kids and pets,” says Don Harvey, who operates the A-rated Indianapolis NaturaLawn of America franchise. In four years, his customer base has ballooned from 25 to 550, with plans to add another 500. Harvey takes careful notes about the pH level of the soil supporting each lawn, the weed population, the type of grass, turf depth and other factors. “I know the lawns better than I know the people,” he says.
The organic approach relies on feeding the soil — not the grass — by enriching microscopic “dirt bugs” using by-products of living things. Examples include ground-up poultry feathers, alfalfa meal, fishmeal or compost collected from a variety of natural sources. The bugs in turn enrich the soil on which the grass feeds, boosting grass growth above the soil and strengthening the root system below it.
Unlike chemical treatments, the organic approach requires regular maintenance to work.
“The problem is people think they can buy a bag of organic fertilizer, spread it and that’s all they need to do,” Maxwell says. “It’s a yearlong process.”
It generally begins in spring by topdressing the lawn with store-bought organic fertilizer or compost. Some organic fertilizers include corn gluten, which can help protect against weed growth. However, even devotees acknowledge it doesn’t inhibit weeds as well as chemical treatments, especially at first. “It can take a couple years to establish itself,” Harvey says.
The approach also requires a tolerance for higher up-front costs. Harvey’s service costs 10 to 15 percent more than competitors that use mainly chemical lawn treatments, and the costs for a comparable bag of store-bought organic fertilizer can be double a chemical regimen. However, the price evens out over time for two reasons, Maxwell says.
Organic lawns need less water — a third less the first year and a half as much beyond that — because the grass blades have a deeper root structure and more nutrient-rich soil, he says. They also function best at 3 to 4 inches tall and grow more slowly, requiring less mowing. That saves on gas and mower maintenance. Taller grass also impedes growth of dandelions and crabgrass by cutting off sunlight.
According to advocates, the overall benefits make the wait worth it. But people should understand the process before they begin. “Nowadays, everybody wants instant gratification,” Delaney says. “If so, you shouldn’t use organics.”