by Nicole Rivard
Aesthetically pleasing and no longer cost prohibitive, organic lawn care goes mainstream as evidence of the health risks of pesticides—to human and non-human animals—piles up.
The town of Marblehead, Mass., has become a model for pesticide-free turf grass management. Ironically, the man that led the charge to go organic, Charles "Chip" Osborne, Jr., was once a self-described “big pesticide user until the mid-1990s.”
The defining moment that made him switch to organic was the death of his beloved English Springer Spaniel Jessie.
Every day, Jessie accompanied Osborne to the commercial garden center he bought with his dad back in 1974. As a commercial greenhouse grower, Osborne held a pesticide applicator’s license for almost 25 years.
“What we were taught in the greenhouse business was that you sprayed a cocktail mix of materials every seven to 10 days eradicating anything that could cause economic or aesthetic injury to our horticultural crops,” said Osborne, who now helms Osborne Organics, LLC.
When Jessie developed cancer in her mammary glands and in her stomach and died at the young age of 9½, it was a wake-up call.
“When she died I knew it was at my hand because she used to sleep under the greenhouse benches, in the cool soil down there, during the warmer months of the year,” Osborne said. “But it was the same soil where all the pesticides I was using dripped through my plants and through the bench and onto the floor. Her daughter Sadie died under the age of 10, too. They were show dogs with no predisposition to cancers, so it was clear to me what had happened.”
So Osborne decided to learn organic alternatives to pesticides, eventually having his greenhouse certified organic as a vegetable starter and herb production house. He also switched his horticultural specialty to include turf grass management.
Then he teamed up with a local woman and formed the Marblehead Pesticide Awareness Committee. They gave workshops for homeowners to show them that they could do the same thing Osborne did at this business and still maintain the aesthetics they wanted.
“We also began a dialogue with our Board of Health, and in 1999, it declared pesticides as a public health issue with a position paper and a flyer to homes,” Osborne said. “In 2001, the town passed the Organic Pest Management Policy.”
Osborne explained that the policy states that all town-owned land needs to be maintained with materials approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute.
“There was a point back in the 90s when we were on the fringe. We are no longer on the fringe. Organic lawn care is definitely mainstream,” Osborne said, adding that he travels all over the country as a consultant for organic turf and lawn care management now.
“What a lot of people have heard about organic lawn care is it is prohibitively expensive and it doesn’t work. Neither of those things is true anymore. Organic lawn care is not just done on a whim. It’s truly science based -- and as a result, it’s affordable and doable. Organic does not mean weeds and insects all the time.”
Considering the reasonable cost of organic lawn care, compounded by research piling up about the health risks of pesticides, it’s no wonder a pesticide-free movement is underway.
POISON FOR OUR PETS
One of the more recent studies, published in the journal Environmental Research in January of 2012, reveals that the use of professionally applied pesticides was associated with a significant 70 percent higher risk of canine malignant lymphoma. Risk was also higher in those reporting use of self-applied insect growth regulators.
Another study by the Purdue Comparative Oncology Program, which appeared in Science of the Total Environment in July of 2013, was done as a follow-up to an earlier study that showed a significant association between lawn chemical exposure and increased bladder cancer risk in dogs with a strong genetic risk for the cancer. Three different herbicides, 2,4-D, MCPP and dithiopyr, were measured in the urine of dogs and on the surface of grass in 25 households that had planned to apply lawn chemicals and in eight households that were not going to apply lawn chemicals.
At least one of the three chemicals was present in the urine of dogs in the majority of the 25 households after lawn chemicals were applied. “Untreated” grass also contained lawn chemicals, presumably from drift from nearby treated areas. Half of the dogs living on untreated grass had chemicals in their urine. The bottom line, the study says, is that dogs can internalize lawn chemicals from exposure to their treated lawn, exposure to their untreated but contaminated lawn and from other treated areas such as parks.
LEAD THE MOVEMENT IN YOUR COMMUNITY
Whether you want to switch to organic in your own backyard or rally your entire community, Osborne suggests visiting the website of Beyond Pesticides, www.beyondpesticides.org, a national advocacy group for the elimination of pesticides of which he is a board member.
The group provides information on everything from colony collapse disorder in the pollinator community to research on pesticides such as Round Up (active ingredient glyphosate) and 2,4-D.
“Beyond Pesticides works closely with local activists in communities who in turn work with local officials to enact organic lawn care policies that reduce or eliminate the use of hazardous pesticides,” said Drew Toher, public education associate at Beyond Pesticides.
“The most salient ordinance in my mind is the recent law enacted by the City of Takoma Park, Md., that restricts the use of cosmetic lawn care pesticides on public and private property. Unlike 43 other states across the country, Maryland state pesticide law does not ‘preempt’ individual localities from enacting pesticide laws stricter than the state's.”
INSPIRE, ONE LAWN AT A TIME
As Micaela Porta and Heather Lauver walked through their New Canaan, Conn., neighborhood on the way to pick their children up at school back in 2011, they were struck by the number of yellow pesticide application flags that they saw. The flags depict a parent, child and dog with a black line through them indicating, “Keep off the grass.”
“I had this ‘a-ha’ moment. I really looked at the flag and it depicted 99 percent of everybody who was within a three-mile radius of where we were standing, and I was like, ‘What are we all doing?’ ”Porta said.
So the moms founded Pesticide-Free New Canaan as a non-profit initiative supported by a local nature center. They make public presentations about the health risks of pesticides and the need to switch to organic lawn care.
“We started researching these chemicals and then we couldn’t not do something,” Porta said. “A lot of these chemicals were created as biological agents meant to kill living things.”
One of the really popular ingredients, 2,4-D, found in more than a thousand products sold in the United States, is actually derived from Agent Orange, Lauver said, adding that the Environmental Protection Agency has no testing program for human health effects of pesticides.
“Is it really worth increasing the rates of leukemia and lymphoma?” Porta said. “We are talking about allergies and asthma and depression and fertility issues. Is it worth it for crab grass?
“I am really proud of our approach—one lawn at a time. If we were sitting around hoping that 100 people would switch in a month or in a year we would probably be very discouraged,” Porta added. “But every time we speak in public we do get a fair amount of people, in some cases half the people, who switch.”
In nearby Rowayton, Conn., the women’s presentation inspired the Rowayton Gardeners, with the help of Friends of Animals, to reach out to their elected officials about making the switch from using a chemical called quinclorac to a pesticide-free program at a popular community park that sits alongside a river.
The park’s transition started with a simple soil test, a crucial first step in any organic lawn care program, to see if the soil was acidic.
“The main concept of organic lawn care is to optimize the conditions for the grass by building up the soil so that it can outcompete the pests and weeds,” said Paul Saltanis, owner of Country Green in Monroe, Conn., who was hired by the town to make the transition. “Grass plants like a neutral pH to grow.
“You want living soil, microbes in there to offset the bad guys, so you can grow grass without the need for chemicals. And if the soil is too acidic you don’t have any microbes. You can correct the acidity with lime. The second thing is to put out some food for the microbes, organic fertilizers to encourage them. A step further is to add some organic material, compost, which stimulates and gives a good base for the seed.”
Saltanis is encouraged by the numbers of people joining the pesticide-free movement. “We are not necessarily changing the minds of people set in their ways, we are replacing them with the young, environmentally minded,” Saltanis said.
“I think pet owners are great because I think they understand their pets are walking in these chemicals and licking their paws. I found that one of the main reasons that people decide to give organic a try is they got a new puppy… they feel that they really have to protect the new puppy from harmful chemicals.”