Grass Is Always Greener on the Other Side, but How Safe Is It?
I live north of Los Angeles in Santa Clarita Valley. This area still requires homeowners to have 20 feet of greenery from the curb to your house. So in keeping up with city codes, I try to keep a lush, thick lawn, which is also an ideal natural playground for my dog, Sadie, and my two boys. Growing the “perfect” lawn is something of a suburban quest—a neighborly challenge for some. For the rest of us, it’s an obligation to maintain a somewhat of green lawn all while respecting our water drought. Either way, it’s all too easy to reach for lawn care chemicals, weed killer and bug sprays, which are quite effective at killing weeds and helping establish a beautiful law.
Pesticides used to control weeds and insects can be toxic. Most of these chemicals are broad-spectrum biocides. This means they are poisonous to a wide variety of living organisms, including garden plants, wildlife, pets, your family and you. Inert ingredients, which may comprise 50 to 99 percent of a pesticide formula, may actually be more toxic than the active ingredients. Using weed killer seems inevitable, especially when good intentions alone or organic options fail to get rid of weeds. The common recourse is to grab a bottle of commercial weed spray or a bag of Weed and Feed when you notice it on display at the home improvement store. That may work, to a certain extent. But things can go wrong, especially for those who don’t read the label!
Pesticides have not only been proven to have negative impacts on health, but also on our environment. The insecticide malathion and herbicides such as 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (commonly called "2,4-D") and glyphosate (Roundup), are widely used by homeowners and insistently claimed to be safe by the pesticide industry. Many people use these chemicals on their lawns and around the house where children and pets play, and some municipalities blanket-spray malathion from airplanes to control pests such as gypsy moths or mosquitoes. But are the pesticides we are buying from the store truly safe?
There are 23 pesticides that are known or possible carcinogens or hormone disruptors out on the market right now. Some people will likely choose to continue using pesticide products around the home but, please consider some of the following non-toxic pesticide alternatives:
- Pull up a few weeds by hand. It’s great exercise!
- Plant marigolds near the garden to dissuade pests.
- Boiling water will instantly kill any plant it comes in contact with by literally cooking the plant in the ground. But be careful, boiling water will kill all plants, not just the weeds.
- Try vinegar as a weed killer and a repellent for certain types of bugs. All you need to do is spray the vinegar on the plants that you wish to kill or in an area that you would like to repel bugs. For some tougher weeds, you may need to reapply the vinegar several times before the plant completely dies. Although it is not harmful to pets, if you have a pet that lives or hangs outside a lot, this might not be a good option as animals are repulsed by the smell of vinegar.
- If you have an area in which you do not wish to have plants growing at all, salt works well as pet-safe weed control. Putting salt in an area will make the soil unsuitable for plants and weeds to grow in.
- Sugar puts soil organisms into overdrive and the soil becomes temporarily unsuitable for plants. It is great for killing weed trees, bushes or vines that are hard to pull out. Simply pour some sugar at the base of the plant you wish to kill. If you are concerned about it becoming an attraction to pests, simply mix the sugar with equal parts chili pepper to deter those possible pests.
- Cornmeal has a chemical in it that acts as a pre-emergent on plant seeds. That means that it will prevent the seed from germinating. Sprinkling cornmeal in an area that you want to keep weeds out of will not harm the already established plants but will keep weeds from growing.
There are two types of fertilizers: chemical and organic. The packages for chemical fertilizers tell you what the active ingredients are, such as nitrogen and phosphates. The packages often don't tell you what the inert ingredients are, which can contain potentially poisonous substances such as arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium and other metals. If kids spend a lot of time rolling around on the lawn, obviously they're going to be exposed to these chemicals. Most commercial fertilizers contain synthetic urea, a compound similar to the natural urea found in urine. It is high in nitrogen, which makes it a good fertilizer. Unfortunately, high nitrogen fertilizers can be toxic. This is why lawn care companies and fertilizer manufacturers use signs and labels to warn people to stay off the grass after fertilization. Urea fertilizers are highly water-soluble, so the lawn will be safer for play after a heavy rain washes the excess nitrogen off the grass. To determine whether your fertilizer contains urea, look at the three digit nutrient analysis: 14-2-2, for example. The first number indicates the amount of nitrogen in the fertilizer. Any number over 13 is most likely derived from urea, even in products labeled "organic." A safe fertilizer is one that contributes nutrients in a form not harmful to soil organisms. Compost, green manures and others must be used to maintain a level of organic matter in the soil around five percent.
To be absolutely sure that the lawn is devoid of remaining fertilizer residue, you can wait until 48 hours after the fertilizer application to let pets and children walk on the lawn. In my opinion, safely using any product is the key. You must apply the fertilizer as the manufacturer instructs, or the grass may hold the residue for an extended amount of time. Another way to stay safe if you are unsure of the application amount is consulting a professional landscaper for custom fertilizing instructions. Also, watch out for your pets. My dog Sadie is a Labradoodle with big furry paws, and could pick up residue on her fur and paws and quickly ingest it. If you feel reluctant or fearful of using lawn chemicals, I suggest using organic products. To me, it's better to remove all doubt, than to forever question whether a lawn chemical may have harmed a loved one.
While lawns and gardens are great places for children to play and learn, it’s important to remember they can also have hazards such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Remember your lawn is an extension of your home, especially for your family and pets. You want this beautiful grassy space to provide a safe place for your dogs and cats with room to run and a comfortable place to play with your kids.