Is what you put on your lawn your own business? Growing local movements say using pesticides is a choice that affects the whole neighborhood. The battle over how 'green' your grass should be.
By GWENDOLYN BOUNDS
The Wall Street Journal
July 7, 2007; Page P1
Finally the grass is greener on my side of the fence.
I've spent the past year converting my lawn to organic care. After some early setbacks, my lawn looks pretty great, and the only herbicide I've used is an all-natural corn substance that's safe enough for my dog to eat.
The same scene is playing out in yards around the country -- but it's not a peaceful transition. As the organic lawn movement grows, so are tensions in some communities. The latest front is over whether lawn-care methods are the horticultural equivalent of secondhand smoke: a choice that affects the whole community. Neighborhood activists argue that using pesticides on one lawn exposes everyone nearby to the chemicals, including kids and pets.
Enthusiasts are trying to shame their neighbors into joining them with pro-organic lawn signs, prompting some residents to apply their chemicals covertly. Homeowners who want to stick with pesticides say how they groom their lawns is their own business. Even spouses are facing off over which comes first -- eliminating chemicals or creating a dazzling no-fuss lawn. The lawn-care industry, meanwhile, is walking a tightrope, hoping to profit from organics without turning against their traditional products.
In Wisconsin, the village of Whitefish Bay has become a microcosm of the new turf wars. Intent on switching the community over to an organic approach, a citizens' group is hanging tags on residents' doors urging them to lay off pesticides and posting "All Living Creatures Welcome" signs in their own yards.
"It's really dicey, and some people are receptive and some are hostile," says Sandy Hellman, age 37, a member of the Healthy Communities Project. "I look at it as the secondhand-smoke issue. Kids run back and forth between the yards and windows are open all the time."
Organic supporters say data are slowly building to cause concern. Last year, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that individuals reporting exposure to pesticides had a 70% higher incidence of Parkinson's disease than those not reporting exposure. The report notes that among individuals who are not farmers, the significant association is "most likely explained by use of pesticides in home or in gardening."
That study echoes findings of a Parkinson's-pesticide link in men reported last year by the Mayo Clinic. There have been other studies, including one in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, suggesting that exposing dogs to some herbicide-treated lawns and gardens may increase their chances of developing cancers.
The pesticides used in lawn-care products found on shelves nationwide are considered legal by government standards. But broader research on health risks from such chemicals has prompted general warnings. The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates pesticide use, notes on its own Web site that kids are at greater peril from pesticides because their internal organs and immune systems are developing.
In addition to the scientific debate, lawn care is also highlighting questions about personal-property rights. Some critics say the organic push is a nanny-state attempt to tell people what they can do on their own land.
Ms. Hellman's group convinced Whitefish Bay officials to stop spraying pesticides on medians near an elementary school, but didn't initially get funding for the pricier organic weed-control or fertilizer products. When dandelions returned in droves, neighbors balked, fearing the seeds would spread to their properties. Money was later approved to hire an organic lawn-care service, but not soon enough for some residents.
"I don't want those weeds -- that's the bottom line," says Gloria Tylicki, who has written Whitefish Bay town officials complaining about the organic results near her home. She hires a service to spray her lawn with herbicides three times a year, and doesn't like the trend of neighbors telling her what to do on her own property. "Can I not plant a certain flower because someone blocks away doesn't care for that?"
Elsewhere, similar battle lines are being drawn. This spring, 7-foot billboards were erected on the platforms of New York area railroads depicting a young father standing on the lawn of his home, cradling his young daughter. The caption: "I've got one great reason not to use chemicals on my lawn." The ad campaign was part of a larger pesticide reduction program being pushed by the Grassroots Environmental Education organization, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based nonprofit.
Fundamentally, "going organic" simply means getting grass and soil healthy enough to crowd out weeds without pesticides, the umbrella term for chemical substances that destroy unwanted pests or weeds. (A herbicide is a pesticide targeting plants; an insecticide kills insects.) Pesticide opponents say homeowners unwittingly bring the toxics into homes via shoe soles and pet feet, tracking it into carpets where kids play. They also worry about runoff into streams, rivers and groundwater -- and into their own yards.
Organic supporters also advocate using natural fertilizers instead of synthetic ones. Most packaged fertilizers contain three key ingredients -- nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium -- which are listed in a familiar N-P-K ratio. In organic versions, the nutrients come from plant, animal or mineral sources, such as blood meal, seaweed extract, bone meal and sulfate of potash. Because the soil's microorganisms must first digest the organic nutrients to make them useful to the grass, it takes longer to get that dark greening effect many homeowners are accustomed to seeing after they fertilize. A 3,000-square-foot lawn costing $200 to treat traditionally might be double using organic solutions, at least initially.
Currently, nothing on the market annihilates existing weeds as fast as chemical solutions. So while many people like the idea of going organic, they don't so much like living with some weeds while they convert.
[Pesticide free lawn sign]
[Pesticide lawn sign]
Dueling yard signs in the pesticide battle.
"We used to accept a few weeds," says Jay Feldman, director of Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit group that runs the National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns. Now, uniform swaths of green, weedless grass are the standard. The rise of pesticides, says Mr. Feldman, "redefined our aesthetics."
In some cases, families themselves are split about whether to switch. Last year, Mary Beth Nawor of Highland Park, Ill., marched through town in a Fourth of July parade promoting safer pesticide use. "It was all the women taking the info we had and the men brushing us off," she says. But that wasn't the biggest surprise. When Ms. Nawor later recounted to her husband how a friend had marveled at their chemical-free lawn, he sheepishly admitted to putting down an herbicide.
"It's a point of pride for men," says Ms. Nawor, a high-school environmental-science teacher. "They like to be out there showing their grass off."
Andrew Sprung of South Orange, N.J., grew his lawn from seed and uses a four-step annual lawn program that includes pesticides and fertilizers. His wife wants him to stop using chemicals, he says, and he's moderated a bit. Still, he says, "I find it hard to believe that the legal chemicals I drop on my lawn in moderate quantities is harming anything."
Today the organic movement is a bright growth spot in an otherwise lackluster $24 billion U.S. lawn and garden market, growing at double digits over the last five years while overall sales stagnated in 2006, according to Marketresearch.com. This January, Scotts Miracle-Gro launched its first organic lawn fertilizer. It has a natural bio-herbicide in development and aims for half its product line to be naturally derived in coming years. The nation's largest lawn-care company, TruGreen-ChemLawn, this year shortened its name to just TruGreen, in part to deflect criticism about its pesticide use. Home Depot is carrying organic landscape products in every store, and executives insist they are here to stay.
But the split in public sentiment makes it tricky for companies to navigate the divide. Homeowners often tell professionals they want organic products, says TruGreen's chief marketing officer, Vic Yeandel, then complain when it costs more or takes longer. "They say, 'I don't want the weeds to grow -- do you have a weed control that is not a pesticide?' And the answer is, 'No, we don't.' That defines what the issue is.'"
To try to make everyone happy, In Harmony Sustainable Landscapes in Bothell, Wash., offers three tiers of weed programs: "No Weeds," "Minimum Pesticides," and "Completely Organic." When new customers call up, co-owner Mark Gile says he subtly encourages the latter two programs.
Community peer pressure is one thing. It's another to mandate organic care by law. In 2001, Canada's Supreme Court ruled that the nation's communities can restrict cosmetic pesticide use on private as well as public property. To date, more than 129 have done so.
That ruling mobilized the U.S. pro-pesticide movement like never before both on a grassroots and legislative levels, says Allen James, president of the Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, a trade group representing makers and suppliers of pesticides and fertilizers. "Canada was the warning shot for us," he says.
Partly due to RISE's efforts, today all but nine states currently forbid local lawmakers from enacting such residential bans, because it would pre-empt state laws.
As a result, organic activists to date have instead concentrated on getting pesticides banned in public properties where municipalities have control. Just last month, Connecticut extended a ban on lawn pesticides through the eighth grade. Currently at least 20 U.S. towns have pesticide-free parks and several hundred school districts have laws or policies designed to minimize kids' exposure to pesticides.
Such actions unnerve homeowners such as John Schmaltz in Cromwell, Conn., who fears private property could be next. He sees a hypocritical undercurrent to organic lawn enthusiasts' pleas. "People put on deodorant, perfume and cosmetics, and who's to say about those?"
Given homeowners' passions, things can get tense. Philip Dickey runs the Washington Toxics Coalition, a Seattle-based environmental health organization, and estimates his group has distributed nearly 5,000 Pesticide Free Zone signs with ladybugs on them. To get a sign, homeowners must promise to speak with at least three people about organic care. On the coalition's Web site are talking tips, including playing the kid card (they often run barefoot on grass) and avoiding a "holier-than-thou attitude."
Still, not-in-my-backyard brawls do surface, Mr. Dickey says. "I got a photograph back from a guy who put up a pesticide-free sign and his neighbor then put up a sign that said Hazardous Material Storage. There is no dialogue going on there." Nor in Harvard, Ill., where Andrew Cook showed his neighbor a note from his wife's doctor explaining she was highly sensitive to pesticides. No dice, his neighbor refused to change her lawn-care regimen. Mr. Cook then aimed one of the ladybug signs squarely at her house. "You can only lead a horse to water," he says.
To keep peace for now, some homeowners are brokering their own land resolutions. Tihamer Toth-Fejel uses no lawn-care treatments whatsoever on most of his Ann Arbor, Mich., yard, but throws down an herbicidal Weed and Feed product on the portion abutting his neighbor's property so "he won't think I'm trying to infect his perfect lawn." Jim McNicholas of LaGrange, Ill., asked his organic neighbor to tell him when she's going on vacation so he can spread fertilizer without strife. And in Lyndhurst, Ohio, city councilman Joe Gambatese agreed to hire Good Nature Organic Lawn Care to treat his own home turf for a three-year trial after residents there pushed for pesticide reductions. So far, he says, "my yard looks fantastic."
As for my block, a couple of acres separate me from my neighbors so they haven't had to witness my battle with the weed brigades. After a frustrating summer fighting dandelions and plantains, last fall I plowed up the lawn, replanting it with new grass seed and 1,400 pounds of organic compost.
That did the trick. My grass was among the first up in my area this spring, which helped choke back any weeds. I spread corn gluten meal, a natural pre-emergent herbicide, just as the forsythia began blooming and have spent only a few hours total hand-weeding. As for fertilizer, this year I'm trying a worm waste product from a company called Terracycle as well as Scotts' new Organic Choice lawn food. I left a swath of old lawn for comparison and so far the difference is notable. In the meantime, there's not much to do other than mow.
Write to Gwendolyn Bounds at email@example.com