Truly green grass

As environmental advocates try to mow down those chemicals, some lawn lovers are edging toward the organic.

Posted: September 14, 2007

At least four times a year, September and October being the very best time of all, Mike Patterson puts a popular chemical fertilizer on his front lawn in North Wales.

But the backyard is strictlyau naturel - "I have a dog," he explains - and his flowers get organic compost and mulch.

What gives?

"I'll be honest with you," says Patterson, principal of Queen of Peace school in Ardsley, who describes himself as "obsessive" about his lawn. "I've read all about organic stuff, but I don't know . . . I'm not sure it works as good as the chemicals."

Straddling the synthetic-chemical and organic worlds puts Patterson among the 35 percent of homeowners dubbed "hybrids" by the National Gardening Association.

It also puts him directly in the sights of Paul Tukey, a fellow obsessive who has embarked on a national crusade to change American lawn habits. So far, Tukey has taken his "all organic" lawn message to 32 of 50 states, including an appearance at the Philadelphia Flower Show this year.

"You just don't need the chemicals and risks associated with them," says Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual.

Tukey has loved lawns, and mowing, since he was a kid. He even owned a successful lawn-care company in his home state of Maine, a venture that veered dramatically from conventional (chemical) to organic after he was diagnosed with acute pesticide poisoning in 1993.

Last year, Tukey cofounded the nonprofit and reinvented himself as the Al Gore of lawn care - not such a purist he can't appreciate an expanse of thick green grass, but determined to maintain it in a more environmentally thoughtful way.

Determined, too, to reach traditional lawn guys like Patterson - yes, lawns are still a guy thing - who believe an organic lawn might take more money and work and still end up full of weeds.

Organic advocates insist those things are not true. But some explanation - and attitude adjustment - definitely is in order.

Nancy Bosold, turf-grass educator with the Penn State Cooperative Extension, agrees that if you're converting your entire lawn to organic all at once, it might be more expensive and more work at first because there's so much to do.

But once you're over the initial hump, she says, the expenses go down and the workload lightens. You'll still need to add compost every spring and fall and adopt new habits: Mow high, leave clippings behind, and water judiciously.

You'll see results immediately - "lusher, thicker, greener," Bosold says - if you plant a lawn from scratch this way; in two years, if you're converting an established lawn.

Tukey knows that to guys used to fast-greening, chemically treated lawns, two years sounds like an age.

"If our fast food isn't ready in a minute and a half, we get cranky," he says, "so you have to make a mental transition."

First step involves altering expectations, which have been shaped by the British lawn tradition, the growing popularity of golf and suburbia, and 60 years of skillful marketing by turf companies like Scotts.

"If your goal is 100 percent weed-free, if you have zero weed tolerance and are adamant that you need to have a perfect lawn," Tukey says, "organic may not be for you."

Then his inner Gore kicks in. He asks: Is that a reasonable expectation?

Reasonable or not, it's the norm, says Bob Williamson, general manager of home services for Moyer & Son Inc. in Souderton, which offers lawn care.

"The biggest reason people call us and most lawn-care companies is to control weeds and have a greener lawn. And you cannot control weeds organically," Williamson says.

Some customers tolerate a few weeds, and, times being what they are, "everyone wants to use the safest product with the least pesticides possible," he says. "But a lawn is a suburban emotional thing. You're always comparing your lawn to everyone else's."

There's another aspect to the mental transition from chemical to organic. Goes like this: "I'm not feeding grass plants anymore. I'm feeding the soil."

"You have to create life in the soil to have a healthy lawn," Tukey says. "Life" means bacteria, earthworms, fungi, nematodes, and other organisms that convert an organic food source like compost into carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and other elements essential to lawns.

The more alive your soil becomes, Tukey says, the better it can grow grass, hold water and keep weeds, insects and disease in check. And an all-organic lawn is safer for humans, pets and the environment.

The movement is gaining ground, Tukey says, with special thanks to "soccer moms" and young people. Two years ago, at students' request, Rose Tree Media School District in Delaware County switched from all-chemical to half-organic treatment of athletic fields. This hybrid approach consists of compost and organic fertilizer in fall, and chemical weed-killer in summer.

Starting Monday, with the National Park Service's blessing, Tukey's crew will start to rip up, replant, and organically maintain one-third of the lawns at the National Mall in Washington. It's a two-year experiment.

"We're very confident it'll go well," Tukey says.

Organic-lawn advocates still have their work cut out for them. Although the National Gardening Association, which did a survey in 2004, expects the numbers to double in the next five years, only 5 percent of yard-tending Americans now are 100 percent organic.

The battle likely will be won or lost on turf tended by guys like Jon Gelhaus, an entomologist from Voorhees. Like Patterson, he uses compost on his flowers and chemical fertilizer on his lawn.

Sounding just like his fellow "hybrid," Gelhaus says, "I guess I'd be interested in going the organic route for the lawn if I thought it made a difference. I'm just not sure it does."

Going Organic

For information on organic lawn care, visit or consult the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service at 800-346-9140 or

Local county offices of the cooperative extension services at Pennsylvania State University (www. and Rutgers University ( also are good resources.

Among the many companies that offer organic lawn products, check out Espoma (1-800-634-0603 or; Gardener's Supply Co. (1-888-833-1412 or; or SoilSoup Co. (1-877-711-7687 or

Find gardening blogs, tips, a calendar of events, readers' photos, and more at


Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or

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