David Casey is a Community Health Team nurse working in the UVM Medical Center’s Community Health Improvement office.

David Casey is a Community Health Team nurse working in the UVM Medical Center’s Community Health Improvement office.

Summer is here, and our yards are full of green! If you are like most yard-owners, you are thinking, ‘Argh, soon enough I’ll need to mow that lawn!’ And if you are like many lawn-owners, you are also thinking, ‘Gotta’ deal with those weeds, too!’

So, on our next free Saturday (we seem to have so little of them these days), we hit the hardware store and pick up some combination lawn fertilizer/weed killer. The bag says it will cover 15,000 square feet and our yard is about 12,000; that should do with a little extra to go around, right? What else are we going to do with a left over cup of fertilizer? Certainly not save it until next year? The weather forecast looks great for the next few days, so by then everything should be all set, right? Well, not really. There are some big problems lurking in that patch of serene green earth you call home.

Too often our plan to deal with our lawns is short-sighted, counter-productive, and, in fact, hazardous to our health! In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences expressed concern about the health effects of pesticides on children urging further risk analysis. The US EPA recognizes the dangers yard chemicals pose to our beloved pets and recommends ways to keep pets safe and away from such hazards. In November of 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned of the acute and chronic implications of pesticides on children. This stuff is definitely not child’s play.

Some of us have children, but many of us don’t, so what’s the big deal? After events like Tropical Storm Irene and other big storms, we now recognize that whatever we put on the ground, sooner or later ends up in Lake Champlain, the lake we admire every day, swim in, and use as our source of drinking water.  The chemicals we use can persist in the environment for a long time, and they don’t stay where we put them. When it comes down to it, we have very little control over what happens to the stuff we put in our yards.

And after spending the better part of our free Saturday working on our lawn, what’s the result? Sadly, this is what we have to show for all of our work:

  1. We spread 15,000 square feet of lawn chemicals in 12,000 square feet of lawn. If we were a commercial grounds keeper or farmer, we could get arrested for polluting like that.
  2. The broad leaf weed killer we applied only works in direct physical contact with plant leaves. The leaves need to be wet in order for the chemical granules to stick to the leaves. With all that great weather, those toxic lawn chemicals won’t even be effective. Next month, we’ll be looking at our lawn and still be thinking, ‘Gotta’ deal with those weeds!’
  3. The fertilizer we applied makes our lawn grow like gangbusters. Great, just what we want, a lawn that demands to be mowed twice as often as usual! We’ll have to cash in our earned vacation time just to keep the lawn looking respectable!
  4. Our lawn grows like crazy, but now requires much more watering. Suddenly, our water bill looks like we have two more teenagers living in the house!

If that bag of lawn chemicals won’t make our lives easier and healthier, what will?  Here are some quick suggestions:

  1. Grow the right type of grass in the right area of your yard. Use shady grasses for shade, sunny grasses for sun, and consider drainage, foot traffic, soil type, etc. Throwing a couple handfuls of the right grass in the right area will go a long way.
  2. Cut your grass to 2 ½” to 3 ½” to promote good root growth, crowd out weeds, and thicken turf.
  3. If you must water, water deeply to promote good root growth. Deep root growth will enable grass plants to reach down to get water when it’s dry, and this also helps to crowd out weeds.
  4. Build good healthy soil with lots of organic matter to hold water, nutrients, air, and microorganisms.  A fine layer of compost thrown on or raked now will pay big dividends in August when everything else is turning brown.
  5. Most lawn grasses like a pH of 6.5 – 7. Dandelions like a pH of 7.5. Do a simple cheap soil test and add some lime to raise the pH or sulfur to lower the pH to make growing conditions good for grass but lousy for weeds.
  6. Have a particularly pesky weed? Drizzle some vinegar on it like it like it was a salad. That tangy acetic acid tastes great to humans, but burns the weeds right up! This same trick works great on the weeds poking up in the sidewalk and patio, and requires no extra trip to the hardware store since what you need is right in your kitchen.
  7. Have some really, really pesky weeds, or spots where grass just won’t grow? Change the rules; forget the lawn! No one says you have to grow grass. Plant a tree, put in a flower bed, install a patio, grow a rock garden! Let your imagination run wild.  Less lawn means less mowing.  And less mowing means more free time on Saturday.

Keeping lawns healthy for kids, pets, and all of us ends up making our lives a lot easier. Neighbors all around us are recognizing that our yards needn’t be a dangerous burden requiring constant care and upkeep. Small, easy changes can make our yards and our lives both healthy and beautiful.

David Casey is a Community Health Team nurse working in the UVM Medical Center’s Community Health Improvement office. 

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