Healthy Alternatives to Lawn and Garden Pesticides

Gardening season has arrived!  Before you purchase the usual pesticides for your lawn and garden this year, consider healthy alternatives to protect you and your family from potentially harmful chemicals.  The U.S. National Wildlife Federation, as quoted on earthyeasy.com, notes that the average suburban lawn receives 10 times as much chemical pesticide per acre as farmland, and more than 70 million tons of fertilizers and pesticides are applied to residential lawns and gardens every year.

Eartheasy.com recommends the following steps to reduce dependence on chemical fertilizers:

  • Improve the soil PH.  A reading between 6.5 and 7.0, which is slightly acidic, is what you’re looking for when you test your soil’s PH.  Sprinkle soil that is too acidic with lime, or add sulfur to soil that is not acidic enough.  You can get advice about testing and treatment at your local garden center, or by contacting a professional lawn service.
  • Aerate compacted soil.  If your soil needs to be aerated, rent an aerator or hire a lawn service.
  • Use organic matter.  Compost and grass clippings benefit any type of soil.
  • Plant locally adapted grass.  Choose a grass type that grows well in your climate, so that you won’t have to water excessively or add nutrients.  Your local garden center can make a recommendation.
  • Mow often, but not too short.  It’s tempting to mow your lawn so that the grass is as short as possible.  When you mow too short, however, surface roots can become exposed, and the soil can dry out faster.  One rule of thumb: don’t cut off more than one-third of the grass at any time.  Maintain grass at between 2.5 and 3.5 inches tall.  It is a good idea to cut it to about 2 inches just before winter, however, to avoid mold buildup during the colder months.
  • Water thoroughly, but not too often.  Thorough watering encourages deep root systems and a hardier, more drought-resistant lawn, but don’t water too often.  Most healthy lawns need about an inch of water each week.  Water early in the morning to avoid losing moisture to evaporation.  Ideally, water the first half-inch or so, wait for an hour or two, and then water the second half-inch.
  • Control Thatch Build-Up.  Thatch is the accumulation of above-soil runners that are propagated by the grass.  This layer, kept in balance by natural decomposition, earthworms and microorganisms, should measure about 1/2" on a healthy lawn.  Improving aeration or using a steel rake should control thatch buildup and prevent the need for a dethatcher, which can strip and thin the grass and encourage weeds.

If you are concerned about the use of chemical pesticides, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency has developed an Integrated Pest Management Program to help reduce their use.  The program uses comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction to the environment, in combination with available pest control methods.  The idea is to manage pest damage economically and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.  This approach takes advantage of all appropriate pest management options, however, including, but not limited to, the judicious used of pesticides.  Organic food production, on the other hand, limits the use of pesticides to those that are produced from natural sources.

The EPA offers extensive information on Integrated Pest Management online, including help finding your state’s Cooperative Extension Systems Offices, which can provide you with local information.

If you’re looking for tips on completely organic lawn care, OrganicLawnCare101.com offers a wealth of information, ranging from ideas for lawn rehab to instructions for regular maintenance (mowing, watering, and weeding) and explanations for how to deal with pets, pests, and problems.

Even when you avoid using chemicals at home, you’re likely to come across chemical pesticides and fertilizers at parks, schools, or other houses.  As a result, HealthyChild.org recommends that family members and guests remove shoes before coming inside, to avoid bringing these chemicals indoors.  The problem can’t always be avoided, however, and one good way to rid your home of tracked-in chemicals is to schedule regular carpet cleanings from COIT.