Bee Considerate This Spring: Forgo Fertilizers and Pesticides and Go Au Naturel On Lawn
March 3, 2023
While this winter in southern New England has mostly felt more like a three-month extension of fall, spring officially arrives in a few weeks and that means the lawn-care industry’s push to douse lawns with chemicals is in full bloom.
Industry professionals and homeowners have been dumping pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers on lawns for generations, all in hopes of creating lush, green carpets of neighborhood envy. This heavy reliance on chemicals has instead turned residential soil into de facto dumping grounds for lawn-care poisons that threaten public health and the environment.
Massachusetts-based horticulturist and author Mark Richardson has called lawns “a pretty disastrous landscape” even without the chemicals applied.
When these monolithic landscapes are then flooded with mass-marketed poisons and nutrients, they become bad for human and pet health, pollute local waters, deter wildlife, and degrade the environment.
Scotts fertilizers — the company that sponsors the Johnson & Wales University athletic fields that rim the edge of Narragansett Bay in Providence — and the concoctions driven around in tank trucks generally contain a lot of nitrogen- and phosphorus-laden chemicals. These granules and sprays are often petroleum-based products. In fact, much of the 90 million pounds or so of fertilizer dumped on lawns annually are fossil-fuel products. Nitrogen fertilizer, for instance, is made primarily from methane.
As stormwater carrying nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer runs off into streams and rivers and eventually into larger waterbodies such as Narragansett Bay, it impacts ecosystems and fuels algal blooms, some toxic, that eventually suck oxygen from water when their dead mass decomposes.
On Aquidneck Island, for example, stormwater runoff carrying these nutrients is stressing coastal waters and contaminating the reservoirs that feed the Newport Water System.
Jed Thorp, state director of Clean Water Action Rhode Island, said the increasing rates of nitrogen and phosphorus being applied to lawns and gardens is a growing concern when it comes to the heath of Narragansett Bay. He said residential fertilizer runoff is a major source of pollution. He noted some 70 Rhode Island waterbodies are impaired by nutrient loading.
“Individual homeowners need to realize their lawn isn’t isolated from nature,” Thorp said. “Their lawns are part of a bigger landscape. What you put on your lawn has a broad impact. We need to recognize the responsibility we have in being stewards of our community’s environment.”
Despite the damage being caused by lawn fertilizers, there very few laws in Rhode Island regulating their use. There are no rules governing fertilizer applicators, as no license is required. There are very few seasonal blackout periods when fertilizers can’t be spread — Thorp noted the ground isn’t going to absorb fertilizer from October to April, allowing it be washed away. There are very few setback provisions around wetlands or waterbodies.
In 2020, the town of Barrington adopted an ordinance that prohibits the application of fertilizers between Nov. 1 and March 31, unless approved in advance by the Town Council; within 24 hours before or during a rain event forecasted by the National Weather Service resulting in more than a half-inch of precipitation in a 24-hour period; and within 100 feet of public waters.
Exempted activities include agriculture and horticulture uses; gardens, including vegetable and flower, trees, shrubs, and indoor applications; in the first growing season; establishment of new vegetation or repairing of turf following substantial damage.
Fertilizer that is applied in Barrington “should be organic, slow-release, water-insoluble” and only applied to turf and other plants at the lowest rate necessary — a single application not to exceed 0.5 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet and an annual aggregate total application not to exceed 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet; phosphorus should not be applied unless soil test identifies a deficiency.
Enforcement, however, is difficult, if not nonexistent.
To deal with the rising amount of nitrogen in Charlestown’s groundwater, the town developed a voluntary recommended landscaper process that asks that no fertilizer be applied in buffer zones of ponds or near roads and driveways so nutrient-rich runoff doesn’t end up salt ponds. It also asks that no fertilizing is done prior to rain or in the rain. It also recommends maintaining a vegetative buffer between lawns and salt ponds and other waterbodies.
“People need to be asking themselves if they really need to be applying fertilizer or applying that much,” Thorp said. “They probably don’t need to be spending money on it.”
The amount of toxic chemicals applied to lawns and public grounds annually to kill pests is staggering. This copious amount of poison, about 80 million pounds annually, is marked by white and yellow flags warning us not to let children or pets onto these unhealthy spaces whose appearance trumps human health and that of the surrounding environment.
These warning flags are planted because of the 40 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 26 are linked with cancer or carcinogenicity, 12 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 32 with liver or kidney damage, 24 with neurotoxicity, and 24 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system, according to Beyond Pesticides.
Of those same 40 lawn pesticides, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit notes 21 are detected in groundwater, 24 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources, 39 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms, 33 are toxic to bees, 18 are toxic to mammals, and 28 are toxic to birds.
“If you stop and think about it for more than five seconds, it’s kind of a crazy notion,” Thorp said of the practice of making lawns poisonous to kids and pets.
Pesticide Free PVD encourages Providence residents, property owners, and businesses to commit to eliminating the use of pesticides and fertilizers and to consider the potential negative health and environmental impacts.
Counting farmers and exterminators, about a billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States to eliminate weeds and insects, according to Beyond Pesticides.
Of course, these poisons don’t just kill or harm their intended targets.
While these fertilizers and poisons hang around “feeding your lawn” or killing life, they are also breaking down and working their way into the environment — then another application is applied, sometimes just a few weeks later, and the cycle repeats.
These chemicals can seep into groundwater — contaminating drinking water supplies — or turn to dust and ride the wind. They cling to people and pets who walk, run, and lie on treated grass. They get kicked up during youth sporting events. They can be inhaled like pollen or fine particulates, causing nausea, coughing, headaches, and shortness of breath.
A yard with a diverse mix of native vegetation, however, doesn’t require pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers and doesn’t need to be mowed. These native plants, trees, and shrubs attract pollinators. They can also provide or be good-tasting food.
A yard with limited or no lawn is easier to take care of, is environmentally beneficial, helps mitigate the climate crisis, is a whole lot more interesting, and is cheaper to maintain — Americans spend some $40 billion annually on the upkeep of their lawns, with much of that money spent on the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, according to Beyond Pesticides.
Besides slashing expenses for lawn care, going native also helps local species take root, as about 22% of New England’s 2,400 native plant species are in danger, according to the Framingham, Mass.-based Native Plant Trust.
Here are a few more tips to care for your lawn without relying on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides:
Clover and dandelions make a lawn stronger and more drought resistant. Dandelions also play a vital role in the health of bees and butterfly larvae in April and May. Clover actually takes nitrogen from the air and puts it into the ground, providing fertilizer to itself and surrounding grasses. (The dandelion plant is a rich source of beta-carotene. It’s also loaded with vitamin C, fiber, potassium, iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus. It has more protein than spinach.)
Keep the grass 3-3.5 inches to strengthen roots and lawn heath.
Leave grass clippings on the lawn. Clippings provide about 50% of the fertilizer soil needs.
Aerate the lawn to allow air, water, and worms to cultivate the soil.
Apply ample seeds frequently with compost.
Be careful of the terms being used to sell fertilizer. For example, “natural” means nothing. Look for organic fertilizers that contain insecticidal soaps, diatomaceous earth, milky spore, nematodes, and corn gluten. Compost in air-tight packaging can’t be alive, even if the label says otherwise. Compost needs oxygen to live, and without it, beneficial microscopic life, such as nematodes, can’t survive.