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June 20, 2010 — Today’s Way: I’ve talked about lawns and their maintenance demands before in this blog, and that’s because the American Quest For The Perfect Lawn represents a huge chunk of the pollution pie. Inefficient engines on lawn mowers, leaf blowers and weed whackers, extravagant water usage, heavy chemicals in the form of fertilizer and indiscriminate pesticides are just some of the offenders contributing to greenhouse emissions, air pollution, human health problems from chemical exposure and the killing off of beneficial birds and bugs, not to mention global warming. Aside from not having a lawn at all, there are many clever and more Earth-responsible lawn-care alternatives that are every bit as effective as conventional methods.
One excellent alternative to the use of pesticides is beneficial nematodes. Nematodes are microscopic, parasitic worms which live in almost any kind of soil and climate, and feed on grubs and other larvae that live underground for at least part of the life cycle of common insect pests, such as Japanese beetles, gnats, weevils and fleas, yet are completely harmless to humans, animals and plants. There can be thousands of nematodes of many varieties in just one handful of soil, but you can fortify your yard with specific species of nematodes which are known to effectively control specific species of other insects, as well as some types of fungi.
Beneficial nematodes can be purchased in packets which can be stored in a refrigerator until you’re ready to distribute them. Then, simply moisten the nematodes with water and spread over your lawn (or garden) with a watering can or sprayer. You can purchase beneficial nematodes at your local big box home improvement store, or order them online, such as this site.
June 13, 2009–Today’s Way: As we all know, the concrete jungle creates many problems for our environment, and all those paved parking lots, streets, highways and driveways are some of the star offenders. One major issue with all of that pavement is, when it rains, rain water is diverted into gutters and mixing into sewage systems. When it rains a lot, all of that extra water overwhelms arcane municipal water management systems which then dump raw sewage and rain water into overflows, also known as the nearest lake, river or ocean — totally untreated. Another problem is that these ribbons of black asphalt criss-crossing our great lands tend to absorb energy from the sun during the day, gathering up thermal mass, then slowly releasing the heat when the sun sets and raising environmental temperatures in the form of global warming. Other side effects of our love affair with asphalt is the constant leaching of toxic chemicals into the areas along roadways, including wetlands and vast agricultural landscapes which happen to be located nearby.
Permeable Driveways/Parking Areas are one excellent way to provide clean, beautiful and low maintenance parking and driving surfaces while allowing all of that rain water to naturally trickle down through the ground and back into the water table, where it belongs. Permeable surfaces come in a dizzying array of options, but the most basic are porous paver bricks which fit together with patterned open holes, which are set into and filled in with pea gravel (as in the photo, above right). This attractive solution keeps your car protected from mud and dirt, keeps vegetation at bay and at the same time, because of the many lighter color options, does not have to absorb and release heat energy in the same way as asphalt. Permeable driving surfaces are a beautiful solution for businesses, cities, developers and individuals committed to a greener future.
May 24, 2009 –Today’s Way: Okay, all you lawn people. Listen up. I know you know we’ve all been sold a bill of goods by the grass seed and weed chemical industry, but we’re intelligent individuals with the ability to think critically and independently, right? We know that the commercials for weed & feed products showing perfect, exquisitely trim and seductively luscious green carpets, sprawling before us and lit with a brilliant sunset is an impossible dream. They’re just setting us up for failure, with these unattainable ideas. I mean, those lawns are not real. We know better. And still, there we are, every other day from thaw to frost, going over our lawns with a fine tooth comb, nit-picking and assessing, armed with hazardous chemical spray guns, shooting anything resembling a dandelion and taking names later. We mow it. A lot. We water it. A lot. We fret over it. We fertilize it. We cover it with pesticides and herbicides, we trim it, we edge it and we look at it. But how much time do we actually spend enjoying it? We certainly can’t let the kids play on it, what with all the chemical heat it’s packing. Nevermind that there are no birds or natural wildlife to speak of, because they’re probably dead. But by-gum, there’s a lawn out there, and it’s green. And, um. Straight. And…green?
My question is, why are we Americans striving for a perfect lawn in the first place? Where in nature do we see anything resembling the ideal that we so mindlessly chase? Why, especially, are people who live in the desert, mind you, spending hundreds of dollars and wasting thousands of gallons of fresh drinking water just to have a perfect patch of green surrounding them? It’s silly, when you really sit down and think about it. And it’s also a big environmental problem. The mowers and all their polluting emissions, not to mention the constant noise. The chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides which, yes, kill grubs but they also indiscriminately kill the beneficial butterflies and bees and birds as well. All of those chemicals have to go somewhere, and that’s directly into our ground water, our lakes, streams, rivers and, eventually, into the oceans. And for what? Where in the world did we get this impossible ideal in the first place?
It is believed that short grasses first came to be favored by early settlers due to their ability to see potential enemies from afar. Others believe it was the influence of the great British estates and their manicured lawns and gardens which well-to-do early Americans were attempting to mimic, and then the idea spread to the middle class and the working class and so on…and soon the sprawling green carpet of the estate was shrunk down and applied to every little postage stamp sized patch in the country. For whatever reason, we Americans have embraced the lawn, and all of the laborious maintenance that comes with it.
Well, I’m here to stand up and declare my freedom from the lawn. We’ve begun eliminating our grass, one island of garden at a time. We have the wildflower meadow area (which is just what popped up naturally when we stopped mowing on the Northern side of our property and it’s quite pretty), we have the woodland gardens with delicate native wild geranium, periwinkle and lily of the valley mingling with mushrooms, ferns and wild leeks. We have the shade garden, where columbines and bleeding hearts glow their brillant colors out from under the cool shelter of trees. We have the herb garden. We have the vegetable garden. And soon we’ll have more. Our goal is to eliminate as much lawn from our nearly two acres as possible, so that mowing will be a cinch (instead of a day-long project requiring a lawn tractor and several tall glasses of mint iced tea a couple of times per week). And instead of a lawn—which, let’s face it, is a greedy mistress who just takes and takes—we are surrounding ourselves with beauty and reaping the bounty, in the form of fresh cut flowers, cheerful color, brilliant butterflies, singing birds, leaping bunnies and graceful deer, not to mention fragrant herbs and the juiciest of fresh vegetables. Most importantly, we’ll no longer be slaves to the call of the machines—the buzz and roar of all those lawn mowers and trimmers and blowers that begins at dawn every weekend, and carried out by the weekend warriors. And my yard will be one less polluting patch in a greener (not grassier) world.
Care to come along?
May 18, 2009–Today’s Way: If your water bills just seem to keep rising every year, you may want to evaluate exactly where every drop is being used. One of the biggest water wasters is through sprinkler irrigation systems. Depending on the temperature and humidity on any given day, a lot of the water you intend to be quenching the roots of your lawn or garden is instead being lost to evaporation. If you were to use a drip irrigation system, however, you could be saving up to half of your water while more efficiently delivering the water where it’s needed: in the roots.
Drip irrigation systems can be as simple as using soaker hoses—which are permeable water hoses which slowly seep or “sweat” water out, directly into the ground—or as fancy as an installed underground piped system complete with timers and hygrometers to measure the moisture of the soil. Either way, there’s a solution to fit every budget and one that will save you water as well as money over time.
April 30, 2009–Today’s Way: Along with the return of warm weather here in Michigan came the return of something less welcome: Mosquitoes. We had a lot of much needed snow and rainfall this last year, which is good for our water table, but it also created a lot of vernal ponds from which mosquitoes have already begun to emerge. With a large yard such as ours, it’s impossible to totally eradicate them, and using pesticide chemicals is simply not a solution considering the environmental and health risks. Aside from the typical preventive measures such as eliminating standing water and keeping the grass trimmed, the best ally we have against mosquitoes is our bats. Bats have gotten a bad rap over the years, but the truth is that they rarely come into direct contact with humans (they absolutely are NOT attracted to long hair), and they are amazing little insect eaters. The average bat consumes about 3,000 insects in just one night—typically, the equivalent of their own body weight. These unique flying mammals (by the way, they are not rodents) eat not only mosquitoes, but leaf hoppers, flies, ants and many other nuisance insects. Furthermore, bats are actually quite clean animals, leaving only a small pile of highly valuable natural fertilizer in the form of guano (yes, bat droppings) that will fortify your flowers, shrubs and vegetable gardens. This is why installing a couple or few bat houses in your yard and around your organic garden is such a great idea.
You can purchase bat houses, or you can build your own for free by following instructions found here.
By the way, bats serve a lot of other useful purposes and they are threatened. To learn more, you can begin here.
April 14, 2009–Today’s Way: According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), every weekend about 54-million Americans fire up their lawn equipment to mow their lawns, using 800 million gallons of gas per year and producing tons of air pollutants. Garden equipment engines, which until recently have had unregulated emissions (even today, only in some states), emit high levels of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, and are responsible for producing up to 5% of the nation’s air pollution, and more in high density areas. Astoundingly, just one hour of mowing is the equivalent of driving 350 miles in terms of volatile organic compounds. To put it in perspective, over the life of its use, one single traditional gas powered lawn mower produces as much air pollution as 43 new cars each being driven 12,000 miles. Even more distressing are the incidental impacts that gas mowers have on our environment: Over 17 million gallons of gas are spilled each year by ordinary folks refueling their lawn and garden equipment —more oil than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.
What can we do? Most people would be surprised to learn how technology has improved upon the good old fashioned reel or push mower, with blades that require no sharpening, lighter weight, compact models that are easier than ever to, well, push, with features like mulching or attached bags to catch clippings. If you have a lawn area typical of most neighborhoods or subdivisions, there is truly little need for a gas powered mower, while a human-powered mower takes about the same amount of time and physical effort as a gas-powered push mower to do the job–without having to fuss with shoulder-dislocating pull-starts, confounded spark plugs or expensive fuel refills, not to mention noxious fumes and obnoxious noise.
There’s a wonderfully helpful chart comparing modern push reel mowers available from peoplepoweredmachines.com.