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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Lawns lawns everywhere, & nary a drop

OK, so you've spent the last 2 weekends tuning, sharpening and generally getting your lawn tools ready for an all out, Easter weekend assault on your suburban turfdom.

Bags of fertilizer, weed 'n feed, cow manure and fresh Kentucky Blue Grass seed at the ready, hoses, sprinklers grass catchers and rakes at hand, you are prepared to make this year's lawn the best that nature, you and the big-box home store can devise.

Four out of five US households have private lawns, according to a 1998 academic study. They are typically about a third of an acre, and in 2003, Americans spent $38.4 billion tending those yards and gardens, about $457 per household, says the National Gardening Association.

There are 58-million home lawns, 16,000 golf courses and 700,000 athletic fields in the United States; stitched together with commercial site lawns and trimmed grass in municipal parks they would cover the state of Florida - trouble is, Florida doesn't have enough water to manage even 1% of that. In fact, in Florida, they are actively promoting xeriscaping; the use of drought tolerant native plants which thrive in natural settings without fertilizers, pest control and, for the most part, with minimal or no maintenance.

The picture above shows a xeriscaped lawn, which borders a natural inlet off the Gulf of Mexico. The owners rely on naturally salt tolerant clovers, fescue, daisy and chick weed to keep the lawn green, lush and healthy for both the land dwelling creatures, themselves and their pets, and aquatic denizens, the fish and sea birds living in and around the inlet.

Environmentalists say that the $40-billion lawn care industry has "greened" its way to the bank by overselling the idea that a perfect lawn is weed free and unnaturally carpet perfect. Before WWII clover was a mainstay of American lawns, comprising 15-25 percent of the mix. Clover is a useful plant, which fixes nitrogen from the air and deposits it in the soil where other plants, like fescue, can use it. Grass clippings also enrich the soil and provide natural mulch, holding in moisture and building a rich layer of composted loam.

"Until recently the American lawn industry routinely recommended nonnative species such as so-called Kentucky Blue Grass, that are difficult to nurture in much of the United States." says historian Ted Steinberg in his new book American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, (despite its name, Kentucky Blue Grass is native to the colder climes of Europe.). Steinberg is a professor of history at Case Western Reserve University cites a flood of graphic statistics to draw his conclusion that lawn mania has become a national preoccupation, one that threatens to play havoc with the environment.

About 75,000 Americas are injured each year while cutting grass making it the second most hazardous job behind shipbuilding.

Americans spill enough oil and gasoline just filling the tanks of their lawn mowers and other power lawn equipment each year to equal the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989.

Running a gasoline-powered lawn mower for one hour creates the same hydrocarbon pollution as driving a car 93 miles.

Estuaries polluted by excessive fertilization and lawn runoff, pesticide buildup in soil and plant materials and the slow but certain elimination of native plant and animal species over a broad range of environmental biospheres have all been the direct result of our escalated quest for a perfect lawn.

However, the news is not all bad. Canada now has adopted limits on the use of some chemicals for lawn care and in the United States, some towns and villages are considering similar restrictions. While it is doubtful that retailers and manufacturers will voluntarily edit their advertising to place less emphasis on the use of chemicals, homeowners can choose natural remedies like cow manure and lime to feed their lawns. These naturally occurring substances are more compatible with the environment and, used sparingly, have little or no toxic effect.

For more detailed information on natural lawn care, contact your local extension service or you can visit The Audubon Society for a closer look at "what is a healthy yard."

by Harlan Weikle
Greener Magazine

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