Air Date: Week of June 21, 1996
There is a new concept of the great American Lawn taking root, and it is very natural. Mark Urycki of member station WKSU Kent, Ohio reports on what makes lawns perfect.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Lawn care has come a long way since the days of the push mower and the wooden garden rake. Today, men in protective suits from billion dollar companies use high tech equipment to analyze, prescribe, administer, eradicate, all in the interest of giving you a perfect looking lawn free of weeds and insects. But a growing number of folks are starting to feel that a chemically engineered lawn isn't necessarily a healthy one for plants or animals or for people. As Mark Urycki of member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio, reports, a new approach to the great American lawn is starting to take root: organic lawn care.
URYCKI: In the wealthy colonial-era town of Hudson, Ohio, John Renner paces off a large lot to come up with an estimate for lawn care service. The neglected yard is soggy and not as verdant as the homeowner would like. Mr. Renner is the owner of Earth Source, a company he started 6 years ago that offers exclusively organic lawn care service. He plunges a metal tube into the ground to take a core sample of the soil.
(Core tube being moved amidst soil)
RENNER: We've got a nice deep sample here. Frankly, it's awfully wet right now, so it's hard to tell, but you see that we've got about 3 inches of decent looking topsoil, followed by the clay base underneath. Three inches of topsoil is quite good.
URYCKI: Mr. Renner can't tell what needs to be done until he knows what kind of soil he's dealing with. Organic lawn care companies like to say they treat the soil, not the plants.
RENNER: One of the most important things that we do is take soil samples. We'll have them analyzed by an agricultural extension office, in this case Ohio State University. And they'll come back and tell us what we need to do to the soil to make it perfect for growing grass, as far as pH levels. Nutrient deficiencies, those sorts of issues.
URYCKI: Mr. Renner says creating the best environment for healthy grass will in itself help keep down pests and weeds. Those problems could be treated with synthetic pesticides and herbicides, but he says they haven't been proven safe.
RENNER: My approach is, if they've gone into such detail and research and haven't come up with an answer, why take a chance?
URYCKI: A few miles away in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Louise Luczak and Sandy Bierly pull weeds and rake up around a flowerbed in a small front yard. Ms. Luczak is owner of another small organic lawn care company called Grassroots. She started 8 years ago and has never used chemicals.
LUCZAK: I've learned through both experience and just, you know, education, that you don't need them to have a healthy lawn. You know, most lawns where chemicals are put down are actually probably the most unhealthiest lawns. They may look green, they may look healthy, but the soil's basically dead.
URYCKI: Dead, Ms. Luczak says, because lawn care chemicals will not only kill weeds, they'll kill beneficial microorganisms and earthworms that fertilize and aerate the soil naturally.
LUCZAK: See, the problem with a chemically treated lawn is, like, you know, it's like an addiction. It's like, you know, it's the same thing as, like, doing drugs, kind of. You know, the chemicals are put down, you create thatch, you get bugs and you have to put something on to fix the bugs. So what we're doing is we're basically breaking that cycle of chemical addiction that the plant is going through, and you know, after a period of three years it's back, it's healthy as it should be. Naturally, just like a person.
URYCKI: Ms. Luczak and other organic lawn care providers say natural fertilizer and compost can provide lawns with food without leaching pollutants into the groundwater. But the organic way requires some patience and perhaps a different perspective. I notice in this yard you have some clover there that looks very nice, but for some reason people don't like.
LUCZAK: They've been brainwashed by chemical companies. I mean, when I was a girl, I remember we always had clover in the lawns. Clover stays green, it fixes nitrogen, the bunnies like it. But chemical companies convinced homeowners that clover was bad for the lawn, and, you know, just like they've convinced them that dandelions and any other weed is bad for the lawn. You know, and it's kind of like that whole biodiversity thing, you know, it's like lawns don't have to be all grass.
(A trowel in the dirt)
URYCKI: Homeowner Yael Crawford replants a perennial in this lawn, which is now two thirds flower beds. She decided to go chemical free a few years ago.
CRAWFORD: I really didn't want to do anything that would create dangers to the neighborhood children or, I have dogs that live here. You know, the animals.
CRAWFORD: I was an apartment dweller, and Louise was kind enough to come over and garden with me and get me started, and then I just kind of gradually expanded and decided I wanted less and less lawn.
URYCKI: And the reaction from your neighbors?
CRAWFORD: They've come over and asked a lot of questions. They're very skeptical, some of them, and they're watching to see if this will work. A lot of them like the flowers. There, that should do it. This is going to be black-eyed Susans, which will take over.
URYCKI: More than the neighbors are watching. Twenty minutes south of Yael Crawford's yard is the headquarters of one of the larger lawn care providers in North America, the Davy Tree Company. It saw the possible trend in organic lawn care, and now offers that service. But vice president Roger Funk says so far it makes up only about 2% of their lawn business.
FUNK: We had anticipated that it would be greater than that, and I think the whole industry did. I would think cost is probably one of the major deterrents to people switching to that, and then performance. They're going to expect to see some kind of difference for the money, and if they don't see that then I don't think that they'd be so willing to pay the additional money and not see anything.
URYCKI: Mr. Funk says the higher priced products and more labor-intensive organic service runs 2 to 4 times the cost of their standard lawn service. While the big companies like Davy Tree and True Green Chemlawn provide organic lawn care, they consider it a niche market for now, and don't actively promote it. All-organic companies don't do much promotion, either, but the business seems to be growing. There's no national trade organization for organic lawn care companies. No one knows how many are in business, nor how much money is involved. And unlike organic food, there is no special certification to even define what are organic lawn care products or practices. But in the Cleveland area, company owners like John Renner and Louise Luczak say their businesses are growing. And if their ideas take root, lawns may never be the same.
LUCZAK: We're doing less lawns and we're doing more organic gardening using native plants, native ground covers to eliminate lawns. My goal is to eliminate lawns in America. [Laughs]
URYCKI: For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Urycki in Kent, Ohio.
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