Closer, but not there yet: Driving progress in lawn treatment needs momentum

Despite product improvements and a growing environmental awareness, Rhode Island lawns are still awash with fertilizers and chemicals.

How much harm this causes depends on who is asked, but it is generally accepted that there have been quantum improvements since Rachel Carson. silent spring era, where pure carcinogens were carelessly applied by the metric ton.

“We knew it was a problem, so we did something about it,” said Pat Hogan, turf specialist at Sodcoa Slocum, RI, turf farm.

The problem is the water and chemical requirements of treated lawns. Not only does keeping lawns green during the summer require water that can be scarce, but chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides can flow into watersheds. Fertilizers contribute to the proliferation of fish-killing algae (cyanobacteria), and although controversy over the harmfulness of weeds, insects and fungi persists, intuitively, the less environmental synthetic input, the better. is. Sodco recognized all of this and, Hogan said, “rethinked” when the 2008 financial crisis rocked the turf market.

“We grew blue grass” before that, Hogan said. “It has shallow roots and requires a lot of treatment. In 2010 we planted five acres of Black Beauty, bred with Michigan grass to tolerate cold and drought resistant Sahara strains. The roots go down to four feet, so rain is usually sufficient, and some of it is accompanied by micro clover which fixes nitrogen and eliminates fertilizer requirements. I tell people that unfortunately you still have to mow it.

Boosted by two episodes of “This Old House” TV show in Jamestown and Barrington that featured Black Beauty weed, and a Nantucket science teacher who showed students what fertilizer does as runoff, outraged kids and parents, Black Beauty now has a substantial market. Of those first 5 acres, Sodco currently owns 300, with only 70 acres of blue grass. Aquidneck Island’s golf courses have turned into Black Beauty, and Cape Cod, which has serious cyanobacteria problems and parched summers, is a booming clientele.

That’s good news, because lawns are a mixed environmental bag that has gotten better over the decades but could go further. Lawns are not cobblestones. These are not malls or gas stations. Although linked to high human density, the grass and underlying soil continue to filter and breathe, providing ecological services. Regardless of plant size, photosynthesis means oxygen. Roots and stems store carbon.

Additionally, while lawns provide little life for mammals and birds, the grass supports the brown food web or soil. There, the foundations of life – microorganisms – thrive, especially if they are 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 science department. “There are a few for restricted use that the public doesn’t have access to, but not many and they’re not widely used in the North East.”

Faubert and others believe that common lawn treatments such as the weedkiller glyphosate and the neonicotinoid family of insecticides inflict less ecological damage than exists in the public imagination. Neonicotinoids, agricultural insecticides derived from nicotine, are systemic, ie they are absorbed by plants and 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, especially bees. A bill introduced last month in the House of Representatives aims to limit the use of neonicotinoids in Rhode Island.

“I think they also fall into the environmentally benign category,” Faubert said. “Some bees have declined, but probably mainly due to diseases and parasites. There are areas around the world where neonicotinoids have been banned for years with no improvement in bee populations. Glyphosate has been used for decades and the EPA has found no harm to the environment or human health.

While the heavy use of glyphosate still worries cancer researchers, its ability, along with neonicotinoids, to break down after application is considered vastly superior to older chemical classes.

“The new products were designed to wear off faster than those used before 1990,” said Joel Tirrell, chief operating officer at Cranston’s. GreenerEase. “Sunlight, microbial activity, oxygen and time break them down. Neonicotinoids also represent a giant leap forward for plant-based companies. Not only are they highly targeted and effective, but they have improved applicator safety and significantly reduced pesticide use. One pound of neonicotinoid pesticides replaces five pounds of older alternatives.

Tirrell, Faubert and Hogan fear adverse effects if the bill banning neonicotinoids is passed.

“Without neonicotinoids,” Tirrell said, “homeowners will resort to older chemicals that are more toxic to pollinators.”

Perhaps. Ideally, the improvements will continue and see the use of chemicals decrease and cease altogether. No matter how tinkered with the chemicals, they are still poisons and the fertilizers foul Rhode Island’s delicate fresh water supplies. Some pros prove that lawn chemical obsolescence is within earshot.

“We don’t use chemicals,” said Lori Silvia, lush gardens director at St. George’s School in Newport. “There are eco-friendly strategies, like keeping the mowing height to 3 inches for better photosynthesis, which keeps weeds out. Lawns should also be composted annually with a thin layer, then aerated and seeded once in the spring and again in the fall.

Homeowners can therefore save money and time without sacrificing lawn quality, and quality needs to be rethought.

“It would be great if people could appreciate insects better,” said Steve Alm, a URI entomologist. “They are the base of the food web and their decline is alarming. In Rhode Island, we haven’t found several species of bees in years. Several factors go into these declines, but lawns cover a lot of land, and learning to live with dandelions and clovers would really help pollinators.

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