Wildlife & Nature

Closer, But Not There Yet: Encouraging Lawn Treatment Advances Need Momentum

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Lawn treatments are a mixed environmental bag that have improved over the decades but could go further. (ecoRI News)

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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  1. Some readers might be critical of ecoRI News for printing this article because of the many outrageous claims it makes. On the other hand, I like to see articles that succinctly provide the information needed for people to understand how they are being duped in regards to how government is addressing the dual crises of climate change and loss of biodiversity. Let’s look at a few of these claims.

    From the start, there is a general trend throughout the article to give turfgrass production more credit than it deserves for addressing these two crises, to the point of portraying turfgrass as at least, better than a parking lot. Barely. Yes, grass sequesters carbon. But the carbon sequestered by grass hardly makes up for the amount of carbon put into the atmosphere by the machinery used by the turf growers, and the power equipment used by landscapers and homeowners for the upkeep of industrial lawns, AND to produce the chemicals to maintain those lawns. I will submit that there is more widespread use of chemicals by the homeowner today than ever. Although there were many bad chemicals in the 20th Century that have been banned, the average homeowner at the time did not have easy access to these chemicals. Today, there is a new generation of chemicals that are widely accessible to anyone at Home Depot, Walmart, etc. No one needs a license. (If you’re lazy, there’s always Chem-lawn).

    Chemicals are more accessible because the new formulations are considered “safe to wildlife”. But the definition of “wildlife” doesn’t include insects, and in fact many of the new pesticides do indeed kill ALL insects. Read the labels that promise to do so. Products such as Spectracide are cheap, a half-gallon can be had for less than ten bucks. And, for about 100 dollars, you can buy a propane fogger to spread the chemical throughout your yard, and the neighbors. With a few of these scattered about a neighborhood, entire subdivisions can be de-bugged, which results in a cascading affect on “wildlife”.

    The real reason birds are declining is because we are killing the food adult birds need to raise their young. Most of this food is in the form of caterpillars (moths and butterflies), a group that is particularly susceptible to today’s pesticides. Hence, the problem for birds is not the loss of nesting habitat, it’s finding enough food to feed the nestlings. It’s not the adult birds dying from pesticide poisoning, it’s the young dying from starvation.

    With that understanding, some observations from the article:

    “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.” This depends on your definition of “benign”.

    “I think they (neonicotinoids) 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.”

    The EPA doesn’t “find” anything. They rely on the research of hundreds of scientists, many who receive EPA funding, for the data to prove a chemical is harmful. Much of this research is conducted by the same companies that produce the chemicals! Anyone who has been paying attention ‘for decades’ understands how politics has turned this process into a joke. It should be enough to say that much of the data needed to ban glyphosate has already been published.

    Also, there are more than 250 species of bees known from Rhode Island. The decline of bees, as it is recognized by government, involves the honeybee (an introduced species), and the bumble bees, a group of less than 20 species in Rhode Island. Nobody knows anything about the vast majority of RI’s native bees, or what is affecting their populations, but there is plenty of data to suggest that neonics are negatively impacting many pollinators.

    “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.”

    Sorry, Mr. Tirrell. Homeowners have already found something better.

    The article could be improved with a mention of another reason to be concerned about the rise of the turfgrass industry. There are roughly 5000 acres of Rhode Island’s best agricultural soil devoted to the growing of a monoculture. Many will remember when the same land was farmed for another monoculture, potatoes. Potatoes are food, but it is far more lucrative to grow a non-food. According to DEM, turfgrass is by far the state’s most lucrative agricultural crop. Those of you who thought agriculture meant food should find this disconcerting.

    Today’s ecoRI News included a note from Frank Carini about his upcoming series on environmental justice, so while I have the floor let me propose an example of an environmental injustice. Turfgrass is consumed by those who can afford it. To carpet the bare earth surrounding new mc-mansions, high-end subdivisions, corporate parks, and golf courses. Obviously, there are many more people in RI without the means, ability, or desire, to buy turfgrass; they would undoubtedly think it better to grow food on those 5000 acres.
    Despite calls for growing more of the food consumed by Rhode Islanders in the state, the state’s University persists in supporting agricultural practices that are the most economically valuable, and giving far less attention and support to practices that would provide more social and environmental values. How else should we interpret the intentional downplay of the environmental and human health impacts of pesticides proven to be harmful for the selfish pleasures of the few?

  2. One of the problems is the OVERUSE of fertilizers on lawns. We apply fertilizer, don’t get the expected result, and then apply more. One important factor affecting fertilizers is the pH of the soil. If the pH is not correct, you can pile any amount of fertilizer on your lawn to no effect. I apply lime every year, in the fall, and usually have a beautiful lawn that needs minimal fertilizer and water. I do not ever water the lawn. It is cheap insurance to get a soil test done and follow the recommendations.

  3. Thanks Rick Enser, I had the same reaction!
    I wonder if URI’s Plant Sciences Dept has or had any relationship with industry giants, like Monsanto/Bayer?
    I also wonder how RI laws got changed to allow people without training to apply chemicals. I also wonder why the little lawn signs do not carry the names of the chemicals on them, as the are applied where unsuspecting members of the public travel. In the past, two lawn signs were required after lawn chemicals were applied, one at either end-now it’s only one, making it likely that people will travel through these areas without being warned.
    Doesn’t the public have a right to know since these are applied to public property?
    Not mentioned is the recent intense marketing of mosquito spraying. As Rick says, baby birds can only digest soft food like insects. Seed is useless to them as they cannot digest it-
    Thanks Rick Enser for your voice of reason and balance!

  4. My neighbor has a regular lawn service and pesticide company attend his property. His property is about 75’ from Wickford harbor. Run off from his lawn flows into a catch basin connected to an underground pipe that drains into the harbor. We have sea lettuce blooms every summer now that I’m sure effect the crabs, fish and clams. Is there a way to put a filter in the catch basin to capture the nitrate run off?

  5. This is unbalanced, outrageous apologism for the turf grass and pesticide industries. For shame.

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