How Lawn Chemicals Affect the Oceans – and How You Can Help

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Published on March 23rd, 2010  |  Discuss This Article  

After several years of living out of my suitcase, sleeping on couches, and hotel living — I settled down, got married and had a baby. I moved into a quiet subdivision in central Florida that seemed like a great place to raise a family.

Little did I know what lurked behind the fragrant hibiscus bushes and towering live oak trees…pesticide-happy neighbors and a home owners’ association that is not receptive to environmentally friendly approaches to lawn care and gardening.

More than once an anonymous letter has been dropped in my box noting that we are responsible for maintaining our yard in a certain condition in terms of pest control, weeding, etc. Once I had a neighbor call on me and note that my yard was what he called “Florida native” — with a smirk of disapproval.  I took it as a compliment.

As we stealthily continued to manage our yard in a manner consistent with our environmental and aesthetic values, I looked around for resources to support what we are doing, should we ever find ourselves in front of the Home Owners Review Board to defend our choices.

As it turns out, my town was used as an example in a recent documentary called Gimme Green that is focused on the obsession of a lush green lawn.

The presence of lawn care trucks on my street and little signs posted in my neighbor’s yard announcing “pesticide application” send chills up my spine as I think about how we sit on a sand spit just on top of our aquifer…with those pesticides going straight into our water supply. Eventually the pesticides and fertilizers applied to my neighbor’s lawn make it to sensitive waterways, estuaries and coastal communities.

But gardening chemicals impact more than just water supply. The effects of so much home pesticide and fertilizer use, combined with what is now called “conventional agriculture practices,”also create some real problems with nutrient imbalances and toxic substances in both our water supply and our oceans.

These imbalances can cause all sorts of issues:

  • Toxic algal blooms (sometimes called red tides);
  • Overgrowth of seaweed in coral reefs communities; and
  • Human exposure to toxic substances through consumption of contaminated seafood.

The Gimme Green documentary points out that, of the 30 common pesticides used on lawns, 26 are linked to serious human illness including cancer and major organ disease. 24 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms.

As a marine scientist, I’ll be blunt: What you do to your lawn makes a difference to the oceans.

I’ve seen first-hand what happens to reefs when they get overgrown by seaweed. The undesirable seaweed literally crowds out the corals, ultimately changing or removing important habitat for countless marine organisms.

There are now many parts of reefs throughout the world that have shifted from coral reef to algal reef.  Contributing to this phenomenon is overfishing and the lack of herbivorous fish to remove undesirable seaweeds, but I’ll save that for another day.

So, what can you do?

There are plenty of things you can do to reduce your pesticide and fertilizer use while still maintaining a beautiful yard.

  • Go native! Native plants require much less water and fertilizer than non-native plants do.
  • Make your own compost! Composting kitchen scraps is a great way to create (free!) all-natural fertilizer.
  • Set your mower to a cutting height of 2”-3” — which will eliminate undesirable weedy plants.
  • Don’t rake your clippings; leave them behind as fertilizer.
  • Try square-foot gardening. This method uses 90% less water and 95% fewer seeds than a traditional backyard garden and requires no chemicals!

For me, it is biodiversity at work and in my yard — we maintain a nice lawn, now the envy of our neighbors, by having a diversity of grass and grass-like species in our yard, so we never get taken out by a pest or drought.

I like to think of it as building resilience into my yard.

(Image credit: net_efekt/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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32 Responses to “How Lawn Chemicals Affect the Oceans – and How You Can Help”

  1. Ann W says:

    Good thoughts on what to look for (and be aware of) as we move into a new neighborhood. Thanks for helping us be aware.

  2. Beverly S. says:

    I hope that when my mother reads this, she will realize that using herbicides kills more than the
    innoculous little weeds in her garden!

  3. Libra B says:

    I live in a gated comunity in Southern CA with weekend or retired people from a concrete huge ciy. There is little sense of conserving the environment. How can I get to them with the facts?

  4. Libra, I’d start by printing out or sending them to this blog post. It takes time to change people’s minds — but if they begin to understand that their practices might affect their delicious fish dinner (or their grandchildren’s dinners 20 years from now), they might begin to act more sustainably.

  5. Kelley Coyner says:

    thanks for making this post. I hope you will follow up with specific information on the various ways you mention that I can take make my garden greener.

    Is there a herbicide that is not detrimental to the ocean? Or another weed control approach– I know I can pull weeds.

    What is square yard gardening? How is it done.

    May be you could do a posting on Health Yards even make it a multi-part blog.

    TNC has already gotten my attention on why I should act– Need help with what to do. Thanks!

  6. Beth Devito says:

    Washing a car also can put chemicals into our water system.
    Please use a waterless car wash. A waterless car wash will wash and wax a car without any water. No chemicals or pollunts will inter our water ways. Also will save thousands of gallon of waters. Water should be saved for drinking and watering our crops.

    Beth Devito
    green0123@aol.com

  7. Sarah Cole says:

    Kelly, I just had a discussion with my neighbour on the allotment. I use weed control fabric, Like garden fleece, but black, he said digging the only answer (yes, he did help last year!) Some of it is so bad the thought of pouring on weedkiller crossed my mind briefly, today, so this was very timely reminder (on Facebook). We are a couple of hundred feet from a river, which flows into the Thames and then out to sea………
    You can use bark, compost or whatever suits to smother weeds, especially annual ones, but the deep rooted perennial weeds are a problem.

  8. Gnomepete says:

    “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew

    Or, if you want the more detailed source ideas for square-foot gardening, try “How to Grow More Vegetables…” by John Jeavons

  9. Gnomepete says:

    Weed control? There are organic herbicides. They are generally salts of fatty acids. They pull moisture from any leaves they touch and are not systemic. They will not kill major perennial weeds with one application, but they break down in hours and don’t hurt other things.

    Most of today’s herbicides are endocrine disruptors – chemically similar to estrogen. Have you noticed that the age of puberty has gone down for girls, but up for boys? Coincidence? I’m not sure, but it scares me.

  10. I applaud you for your commitment to protecting Mother Earth and standing up to your HOA. I live in an area of Phoenix AZ that has no HOA, but am oftern asked by my gardening clinets who do what they can do.

    I say – get out in your yard and do it the old fashioned way, pull or use a hula hoe to cut then down at the soil level and throw them away! Great exercise and lots of freshh air while doing it.

    When you have a yard, who needs a gym!

    Another thing to consider is natural alterniatives like vinegar and water in a spray bottle. Add a few DROPS of dish detergent so the vinegard sticks to the weed. They will be dead in 24 hors, then you can rake them up!

  11. sudhir kaul says:

    What you do to your lawn makes a difference to the oceans.

    Very good Thought , but where are the lawns in this concrete jungle.

  12. Sofiya Bakalova says:

    I’ve stopped fertilizing my lawns for years for the same reasons. My yard is still green, when you mow it regularly you can’t tell what grass species you have –it’s just green.
    Funny but that the grass which is used for lawns in Florida, is considered like a weed in Europe – it just shows that we are obeying some community rules.

  13. Maggie Thornton says:

    I work for a landscape services company which uses our own natural/organic fertilizer & soil enhancement mixes. Our lawns look better than most, and they’re much healthier. Our approach is to reestablish nutrients in the soil and the natural balance of organisms, not just fertilize. Urban & suburban landscapes are not natural environments; nutrients which would normally be provided by leaves and plant debris breaking down simply don’t exist in a cul-de-sac. My point is that there are a few responsible, organic and nature-based companies out there–good luck!

  14. Sharon Anne says:

    Thank you for this posting. Libra, I have a similar situation to you! I will be printing out this posting to share with some folks in my community. If any of you have a project you’d like to share on my monthly radio program, The Voice of Change…Healing Our Planet,please write me. Happy 40th Anniversary for Earth Day to all! Sharon neways@pon.net

  15. [...] this blog this morning from marine biologist Stephanie Wear on behalf of the Nature Conservancy: http://blog.nature.org/2010/03/how-lawn-chemicals-affect-the-oceans-how-you-can-help/. For anyone who thinks what they do in their own back yards doesn’t matter to the planet, [...]

  16. Marsha Smith says:

    We had the same situation ion our coastal town of Camden, Maine. A small group of us got together and started beating drums!! We now have a no pesticide policy on town owned properties. The bed & breakfasts, day care centers, nursing homes and schools do not use pesticides any longer after we gave presentations-talks etc. You have to start somewhere. It does seem like Florida is notorious for lawn chemical use as we have alot of people who spend their winters in Florida and come up here for the summer who are some of our “worst” sprayers!! Start preaching!!!

  17. PHyllis Straus says:

    It took awhile, but finally convinced ChemLawn that I truly did not want anything on my lawn that wasn’t organic. My yard isn’t as fluffed as it used to be, but I have lots more birds and bees. The best part is my grandchildren can play anywhere in the yard now, safely.

  18. Olowo Ojo Ajiboye says:

    it will be great if we can eradicate the risks lawn chemicals pose to the environment but we should also start thinking and busying ourselves with the risks of putting thousands out of jobs since this campaign is gradually gathering momentum.safe environment also includes good jobs for those hitherto involved in the bad business of nature-unfriendly chemical manufacturing.

  19. [...] Hear from Conservancy marine scientist Stephanie Wear about the impact of fertilizers and pesticides have on our oceans and about steps you can take to reduce the chemicals in your garden. [...]

  20. [...] it into small squares about one foot in size and plant one crop in each square. According to the Nature Conservancy, this technique uses 90 percent less water and 95 percent fewer seeds. It’s easier to weed a [...]

  21. Matthew Reid says:

    In my opinion its the house with a crisp green lawn, small exotic trees, and over flowing flowers that’s an eyesore. I hate the way humans manipulate nature in such a way to try and create their idea of a perfect landscape. Let’s let the earth bloom and flourish the way it was intended. It is not for us to decide which plants are weeds and which are beautiful. The people of the older generations I feel consistently fall into this pattern of cursing anything earth-friendly or sustainable as something made-up or for hippies. I’m so frustrated in trying to change minds of people who hear the facts, understand its implications, but because they are already on their way or out or because they are so set in their ways, refuse to change their actions.

  22. Tony says:

    Here is a similar article that has suggestions on reducing lawn size and grass lawn alternatives. Enjoy:

    http://www.findyourcloud.com/2010/06/15/mowing-mania-the-weird-american-obsession/

  23. Anonymous says:

    Great article – sounds like my kind of living.

  24. omars says:

    Yeah, it always astounds me that my neighbors with the kids are the ones who most frequently get chemical treatments. Yeah, you want your little ones to play in the yard so let’s make sure they get their allowance of endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins, and bioaccumulative carcinogens!

    They grab their kids when a car goes down the cul-de-sac (because of course the kid is going to go running towards the slow moving car), but don’t care about their kids rolling around in the carcinogens their parents just applied.
    How can you afford to live in a upscale subdivision and have zero clue?

    I can see people being too selfish to care about enlightened-self-interest or too uneducated or small-minded to translate their actions to a larger scale, but even direct self-interest seems to be missing…

  25. Karen says:

    You can still have a pretty yard and not use chemicals.I also see people who don’t take care of their weeds and use being environmentally concious as an excuse and then their weeds reseed to mine.I pull all my weeds by hand.Ground cover crowds them out in flower beds.Mowing with the bag off helps to fill in bare spots.I found that most plants will become pest resistant after several seasons.

  26. Cutting Edge says:

    Great advice and tips for commercial and residential consumers.

  27. Stacie Shepp says:

    This is a great piece for so many reasons! It would be great if you could share it with our members. Please get in touch if we can help you spread the good word of TNC.

    Thank you.

  28. I have been reading out some of your stories and i must say pretty good stuff. I will definitely bookmark your site.

  29. Angelina22 says:

    awww that’s nice…you had a baby? what kind?

  30. mariage says:

    I actually have book marked your posting, “How Lawn Chemicals Affect the Oceans – and How You Can Help | Cool Green Science: The Conservation Blog of The Nature Conservancy” ! Regards.

  31. Eileen D. says:

    Hello.

    This is a wonderful and timely post, as I seem to be alone in a current battle with the vicious HOA in my Florida neighborhood. My natural lawn looks great, green and lush, but the HOA has threatened to “bring in a contractor” if I don’t eliminate “turf weeds.” In 7 days, mind you! They don’t define turf weeds, which I believe to be native grasses and ground cover, and which the HOA fails to realize or acknowledge also are growing in the neighborhood common areas and on the lot of the model home!

    What can I do to fight them successfully and keep them off my property? They seem to do whatever they want!

    Thank you,
    Eileen

  32. Matthew says:

    I wish more people, subdivisions, etc. would embrace this way of thinking. I have a lawn planted with emerald zoysia and never water, fertilize 2-3 times during the growing season with 100% organic fertilizer and have a lusher and healthier lawn than anyone in my subdivision. I also mow about 1 for every 3-4 times my neighbors do b/c zoysia grass grows much slower. I also have over 100 native plants growing in various ecosystems throughout my property. I’m fortunate to own about 1/5 acre of mixed hardwood forest.

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