Closer, But Not There Yet: Encouraging Lawn Treatment Advances Need Momentum
May 9, 2022
Despite improving products and a growing ecological consciousness, Rhode Island lawns are still awash in fertilizer and chemicals.
What harm this causes depends on who is asked, but it’s generally agreed that there’s been quantum improvements since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring era, when straight carcinogens were sloppily applied by the metric ton.
“We knew it was a problem, so we’ve done something about it,” said Pat Hogan, a turf specialist at Sodco, a Slocum, R.I., turf farm.
The problem is the water and chemical needs of treated lawns. Not only does keeping lawns green through summer require water that can be scarce, but chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides can run into watersheds. Fertilizers contribute to fish-killing algae blooms (cyanobacteria), and while controversy over how harmful weed, bug, and fungus killers are persists, intuitively the less environmental synthetic input the better. Sodco recognized all this and, Hogan said, had a “rethink” when the 2008 financial crisis jiggered the turf market.
“We grew blue grass” before that, Hogan said. “It has shallow roots and needs a lot of treatment. In 2010 we planted five acres of Black Beauty, bred with grass from Michigan to tolerate cold, and drought-resistant Sahara strains. The roots go down to four feet, so rain is usually enough, and some of it comes with micro-clover which fixes nitrogen and eliminates fertilizer needs. I tell people you unfortunately still have to mow it.”
Boosted by two episodes of the TV show “This Old House” in Jamestown and Barrington that featured Black Beauty grass, and a Nantucket science teacher who showed students what fertilizer does as runoff, outraging kids and parents alike, Black Beauty now has a substantial market. From those first 5 acres, Sodco currently has 300, with just 70 acres of blue grass. Aquidneck Island’s golf courses have converted to Black Beauty, and Cape Cod, which has severe cyanobacteria issues and parched summers, is a burgeoning customer base.
This is good news, as lawns are a mixed environmental bag that have improved over the decades but could go further. Lawns are not pavement. They are not malls or gas stations. While they are linked to high human density, grass and the soil beneath it still filtrate and respire, providing ecological services. No matter how small the plants, photosynthesis means oxygen. Roots and stems store carbon.
Additionally, if lawns offer little to mammal and bird life, the grass supports the brown food web, or soil. Down there life’s foundation — microorganisms — thrive, particularly if not poisoned. While a native forest would be ideal, lawns are infinitely better than a parking lot, especially in temperate New England where grass grows naturally.
“I think pesticides today are much more benign,” said Heather Faubert, a research associate in the University of Rhode Island’s Plant Sciences Department. “There are a few restricted-use ones that the public can’t access, but not many and they aren’t employed much in the Northeast.”
Faubert and others believe common lawn treatments such as the weed-killer glyphosate and the neonicotinoid insecticide family inflict less ecological harm than exists in the public imagination. Neonicotinoids, agricultural insecticides derived from nicotine, are systemic, which means they are absorbed by plants and are present in nectar and pollen. Commonly used by large commercial growers, “neonics,” as they are often called, have been shown to be toxic to pollinators, particularly bees. A bill introduced last month in the House of Representatives seeks to limit the use of neonicotinoids in Rhode Island.
“I think they fall into the environmentally benign category too,” Faubert said. “Certain bees have declined, but probably primarily due to diseases and parasites. There are areas in the world where neonicotinoids have been banned for years without improvements to bee populations. Glyphosate has been used for decades and the EPA hasn’t found environmental or human health hazards.”
While heavy glyphosate use still worries carcinogenic researchers, its ability, along with neonicotinoids, to break down after application is seen as vastly superior to older chemical classes.
“Newer products were designed to dissipate quicker than those used prior to 1990,” said Joel Tirrell, director of operations at Cranston’s GreenerEase. “Sunlight, microbial activity, oxygen, and time break them down. Neonicotinoids also represent a giant leap forward for plant-based businesses. Not only are they highly targetable and effective, but they’ve improved applicator safety and have greatly reduced pesticide use. One pound of neonicotinoid pesticides replaces five pounds of older alternatives.”
Tirrell, Faubert, and Hogan fear undesired effects if the bill banning neonicotinoids passes.
“Without neonicotinoids,” Tirrell said, “homeowners will resort to older chemicals that are more toxic to pollinators.”
Maybe. Ideally, improvements will continue that will see chemical use decline and cease altogether. No matter how tinkered with, chemicals are still poisons, and fertilizers foul delicate freshwater supplies across Rhode Island. Some professionals are proving that lawn chemical obsolescence is within earshot.
“We don’t use chemicals,” said Lori Silvia, manager of Newport’s St. George’s School’s lush grounds. “There are ecological strategies, like keep mowing height at 3 inches for better photosynthesis, which prevents weeds. Lawns should be composted annually with a thin layer, too, then aerated, and overseeded once in spring and again in fall.”
Homeowners, then, can save money and time without sacrificing lawn quality, and what quality is should have its own rethink.
“It would be great if people could appreciate insects more,” said Steve Alm, a URI entomologist. “They’re the base of the food web, and their decline is alarming. In Rhode Island we haven’t found several bee species in years. Several factors go into such declines, but lawns cover lots of acreage, and learning to live with dandelions and clovers would really help pollinators.”
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