The green, green grass of home... without chemicals?

Is there really a way to maintain a lush, healthy, pest-free lawn without using risky pesticides? More and more natural gardening advocates are saying yes, it IS possible. If you have ever felt uneasy about using chemical pesticides, today's column is a must-read!
Pesticides are, quite obviously, poisons intended to kill insects. However, most pesticides affect vital biological processes that are not unique to the target pests, according to an organization called the Safer Pest Control Project (SPCP), based in Chicago, Illinois. Pesticides can also be harmful to beneficial insects such as ladybugs and praying mantises that are part of a lawn's natural defenses. Also affected are microorganisms, the little guys that break down organic matter that nourishes your soil.
Additionally, pets and children running barefoot on the lawn can track pesticides into the house where they adhere to carpets and furniture.
Pesticides are regulated by the EPA and are subject to rigorous testing. However, many concerned individuals and groups such as the SPCP advocate alternative ways to achieve healthy, pest-free lawns and soil.
You can download dozens of useful fact sheets about non-toxic care of lawns and gardens at http://www.spcpweb.org/yards/ and you can click on a direct link when you find this column under the Plant Man heading at my Web site www.landsteward.org along with many other resources you might find helpful.
So what can you do if you are leery of chemical pesticides? Among the SPCP's suggestions:
Water weekly Don't water your lawn daily. A deep, weekly watering encourages deep root growth for stronger grass that has less room for weeds.
Water early Watering your lawn early in the morning allows the grass to dry before nightfall, lessening the likelihood of fungus that thrives in damp grass.
Mow correctly Be sure you have sharp blades because dull blades rip the grass, weakening its defenses. Set the blades at a height of 3 inches as this will increase root strength and shade out many weeds.
Use organic fertilizers Many commercial fertilizers can get washed away before the lawn can use the nitrogen, potentially polluting bodies of water.
Add clover I can hear a lot of eyebrows snapping up. "Add clover? I'm trying to get rid of it!" The folks at SPCP recommend adding clover to your lawn. Reason? It's drought-tolerant, immune to many diseases and "greens up" all summer. Additionally, it just might distract bunnies from nibbling on your perennials.
Natural fertilizers Seek out natural fertilizers, such as corn gluten that can be an effective pre-emergent weed control. Here's the part you didn't want to hear: Get a sturdy weeding tool and go after the weeds, but do it for short periods on a regular basis, instead of trying to do it all at once. I would suggest that you make this an early-morning activity, before the sun starts baking your back.
Finally, says the SPCP, try not to focus so much on a totally green lawn; instead make it your goal to have a healthy lawn that will naturally resist drought and disease.
My personal opinion is that a naturally healthy soil is the best foundation for lawns and virtually all other plants. I like to use organically-based products such as Turf Tea Magic. You can probably find it online by searching via Google, or drop me a line at snipped-for-privacy@landsteward.org and I'll forward you some information.
Correction: In a recent column titled "Vanishing bees: a problem for gardeners and farmers" there was a typographic error in the Web address for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The correct address is http://www.nrdc.org/OnEarth and it's a great resource if you need to know more about bees and the dangers of diminishing bee population. My apologies for the error!
The Plant Man is here to help. Send questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to snipped-for-privacy@landsteward.org. For resources and additional information, or to subscribe to Steve's free weekly e-mailed newsletter, go to www.landsteward.org
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Since the only way to test for safety is to dose humans with the stuff, these chemicals CANNOT be "rigorously tested". Nobody you know will volunteer for such a thing, as they might for a test of a new medicine.
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