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.
- Consider creating a “Healthy Yard” as outlined by the Audubon Society.
- 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.)