Americans have a lawn addiction.
Drive through a typical U.S. suburb, and you’ll see dozens of lush, manicured, weed-less yards, watered by clicking sprinklers. The fixation has spread across the nation — estimates suggest that between 30 and 40 million acres of U.S. land are devoted to turfgrass, and we spend roughly $40 billion annually on seed, sod and the chemicals we need to care for them.
Whether you already have a perfect yard or you’re trying to get one, you’ll probably have to invest in lawn products. Vibrant green grass doesn’t weed itself, so we douse it with herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.
In fact, we apply 90 million pounds of fertilizer and around 80 million pounds of pesticides on our lawns every year, which is about ten times the amount spread over farmland. Because we use so much of them, conventional pesticides and fertilizers impact more than our yards — they affect both our health and our ecosystem.
We’ve gathered the details on how — and why — you should care about the type of lawn products you apply to your lawn, along with some tips on how to make the switch from conventional to organic supplies.
What’s in a Name?
Before we dive into the benefits of organic products, we need to define our terms.
Conventional pesticides, or products made from synthetic chemicals or agrochemicals, are designed to directly and quickly kill pests. Typically, they’re highly toxic, even in small dosages.
Organic pesticides, or biopesticides, refer to products derived from natural sources that are meant to control pathogens, pests and weeds. Just because a company labels a product “organic” doesn’t mean it can’t contain harmful ingredients — there are plenty of toxic, naturally occurring compounds in the environment.
Biopesticides come in two forms: microbial and biochemical. Microbial products use living organisms (like bacteria, fungi and viruses) to attack specific pests. Biochemical pesticides are made from naturally occurring chemical compounds (like plant extracts, pheromones and organic acids), and they manage pests in non-toxic ways.
Both types of biopesticides either directly kill pests or attack them indirectly by messing with their reproduction cycles or simply repelling them. While they don’t provide the quick fix of some conventional treatments, biopesticides work to suppress pests so that you can effectively manage them in the long run.
The ingredients of conventional fertilizers vary between products, and while some may be derived from natural sources, they’re highly processed to provide a consistent ratio of chemicals.
While less exact than conventional products, organic fertilizers are made from minimally processed, natural ingredients, such as minerals and plant and animal waste.
What Are the Benefits of Going Organic?
Organic lawn products have many benefits for your lawn far beyond “trendiness.” Conventional yard treatments can degrade soil, pollute water and the broader environment and pose serious health threats to humans and animals.
Going organic doesn’t mean sacrificing your lawn or committing endless hours to maintenance. Instead, organic products offer three significant benefits over conventional treatments.
1. Protect Your Family
Conventional pesticides are designed to kill. By nature, they’re highly toxic — they’re meant to target specific pests and eradicate them.
If you pick up a bottle of herbicide or pesticide, you’ll find paragraphs of disclaimers and warnings, all urging you to keep it out of reach of pets and children. Despite the warnings, accidental exposure still happens. Storage leaks, spills and equipment malfunction can all lead to unintentional poisoning.
If you apply your products yourself, you can be doubly exposed — liquid substances have a tendency to spill or splash, and solids generate toxic dust while being used. Harmful amounts of chemicals remain even after application. The medical journal “Frontiers in Public Health” published a study in 2016 that listed documented side effects of pesticides, and it included cardiovascular disease, dementia, nervous and endocrine system failure and reproductive disorders.
Alternatively, organic pesticides target pests without threatening other organisms. For example, Milky Spore is a microbial biopesticide used against Japanese beetle grubs. Milky Spore is the name of a bacteria, and while it attacks the beetle grubs, it’s harmless to all other organisms.
You want family, friends and pets to freely enjoy your yard and garden. By using conventional pesticides, you put those you love most at risk. Because they don’t rely on harsh chemicals, biopesticides eliminate the exposure threat of traditional products, ensuring your lawn is safe for both your pets and touch football games.
2. Increase the Health of Your Lawn
Conventional products provide a quick fix for weeds and pests. However, they come with a host of damaging side effects for your lawn.
Healthy soil has active populations of earthworms, fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms. They aerate the soil, reduce soil-borne pathogens and harmful bacteria and provide a host of micronutrients essential for a flourishing yard. But synthetic products don’t discriminate — they kill more than weeds. Conventional lawn treatments create a toxic environment for microorganisms by changing the soil pH balances and causing a build-up of toxic salts and other compounds, like heavy metals.
Organic pesticides are targeted for specific pests and don’t harm other microorganisms or plants in the soil. Organic fertilizers actually boost populations of beneficial microorganisms by giving them digestible nutrients, not synthetic chemicals. Unlike synthetic products, organic fertilizers release nutrients slowly, at a pace that’s easily digestible by both plants and microorganisms. This slow-release makes it almost impossible to over-fertilize.
Organic products lead to lawns that can almost take care of themselves and eventually may not need any treatments at all. Because they’re not as fast-acting as synthetic products, organic treatments might take a couple of years to reach full effectiveness. But the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term inconvenience of pulling a few weeds — organic products lead to a healthy, self-sustaining lawn.
3. Reduce Pollution
The switch to organic products saves more than your soil — it saves ecosystems.
Synthetic chemicals have devastating environmental impacts. Annually, between 60 and 70 million birds die from pesticide poisoning in the U.S. Most pesticides are toxic to earthworms, which are essential for an aerated soil structure and nutrient balance. Because they’re heavily processed, synthetic products also contribute to larger global issues like water use and chemical pollution.
Runoff poses a serious problem. Many synthetic fertilizers are high in nitrogen, which is fine in small dosages. But the amount we apply is often too much for the soil to absorb — 40 to 60 percent of nitrogen from fertilizer runs off or leaches away, ending up in waterways or groundwater. The spike in nitrogen causes massive algae blooms that deplete oxygen and create enormous “dead zones,” where normal aquatic life can’t survive.
In contrast, organic products stimulate microorganism and microbial activity, which increases soil’s capacity to hold onto nutrients like nitrogen. Organic pesticides and fertilizers decompose quickly and leave fewer residues on food and in the environment. They promote natural biodiversity on your property, which leads to a self-sustaining, healthy yard and environment.
How Do Organic Products Compare to Non-organic Products?
The larger benefits of switching to organic products are compelling, but we’ve narrowed down specific pros and cons of conventional and organic products. Here’s what it all boils down to.
1. Conventional Pesticides and Fertilizers
Here are some of the most important benefits and drawbacks of conventional pesticides:
- Pros: Many homeowners turn to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to give their lawns a boost. Synthetic products have several advantages: They’re readily available, specifically formulated, fast-acting and inexpensive. You can easily apply them yourself through a variety of equipment like sprayers, and synthetic products come in multiple forms: liquid, granules, tablets and pellets, to name a few.
- Cons: Conventional treatments have a dark side. Pesticides leach toxins into the soil and groundwater and can affect non-target organisms like pets and beneficial insects. Synthetic fertilizers are useful only in the short-term — they have a brief lifespan and don’t enhance soil fertility. With synthetic fertilizers, it’s easy to over-fertilize, which leads to more maintenance and stresses root systems. Because they’re made from highly processed chemicals, synthetic fertilizers often lack micronutrients that are essential for a balanced, healthy lawn.
2. Organic Pesticides and Fertilizers
Benefits of choosing organic lawn supplies abound, but there are a few cons that some people may want to consider as well:
- Pros: Organic products are an appealing alternative. Good for your soil, they provide essential organic matter for microorganisms as well as grass. They also have a slow nutrient release, which allows them to be better used and absorbed by plants. They’re beneficial to the larger environment and strengthen plants against disease and insects. With long-lasting effects, organic products give real results with fewer applications — the primary goal of organic treatments is a self-sustaining lawn as opposed to one dependent on constant maintenance.
- Cons: Despite their attractive benefits, organic products have some drawbacks. Organic fertilizers are slow-release and slow-acting — it might take a couple of years to see significant results. They also tend to be more expensive and have limited availabilities. In addition, they often have less convenient application methods. Pets may be attracted to some products, especially organic fertilizer. If not stored properly, they can also attract bugs.
Choosing the Best Organic Lawn Supplies for Your Yard
Once you’re ready to make the switch to organic, selecting the right product can be overwhelming. But figuring out the proper treatment for your lawn doesn’t have to be filled with guesswork. Follow these steps, and you’ll find the best organic lawn supplies (and see results!) in no time.
1. Test Your Soil
Don’t spend a dime on lawn products before you test your soil. A simple soil-testing kit will tell you which nutrients your lawn has and which ones it doesn’t. Besides your soil’s pH balance, a good test will show you the levels of elements like nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and lime.
Many nurseries and universities offer soil tests, and you can even find DIY kits online. When you’re getting samples of soil from your yard, take dirt from different areas around your lawn to make sure your results are balanced and accurate.
Sample your soil roughly every other year so that you know what nutrients your lawn needs to flourish. Conducting soil tests takes the guesswork out of lawn care and is an essential first step before purchasing any products.
2. Check Your Weeds
In addition to a soil test, take note of what weeds are popping up in your lawn. They’re indicators of deeper problems — problems that won’t change even if you pull out every dandelion. Unless you address the underlying issues, unwanted plants will always grow back.
Too much plantain indicates heavily compacted clay soil. Dandelions hint at an excess of magnesium — try adding calcium-rich products. Violets and creeping charlie point to poorly drained soil that holds onto moisture, and Queen Anne’s lace thrives in alkaline environments.
Your weeds can reveal valuable information about the state of your yard and help you decide what to look for in a product.
3. Do Your Research
Before you purchase an organic product, check to make sure it is USDA-certified — some companies will brand products as “organic,” when in reality, they only contain a few organic ingredients.
When selecting organic fertilizer or compost, look for information on its maturity. Mature compost has killed most pathogens and weed seeds and supplies readily available nutrients to grass. On the other hand, immature compost has a too-high nitrogen content and can kill vulnerable seedlings. You can easily tell mature compost from immature just by smelling it — mature compost has a rich, earthy scent, while immature compost has strong smells of sulfur and ammonia.
Avoid any fertilizing product that contains “biosolids” — they may include human waste and synthetic chemicals. When selecting organic herbicides, look for products that contain natural plant oils like citrus oil or neem oil. Powerful natural pesticides include pyrethrin (which comes from chrysanthemums) and azadirachtin.
4. Prepare Your Lawn
Herbicides and pesticides require little preparation — follow the instructions on the product and apply where needed, when needed. Fertilizer requires a bit more effort to be effective.
Before spreading your new organic fertilizer, mow back your grass to about two inches. Pull up weeds, and remove any thatch, which is dead grass and roots. Also, consider aerating your soil if it’s low in microorganisms — aerated soil will better absorb fertilizer and nutrients.
When adding fertilizer or compost, start by spreading a half-inch deep layer across your yard. This amount is enough to supplement your grass without blocking light.
Maryland’s Premier Garden Center
More and more people are switching to organic — for both their own health and the health of the environment. It’s easier than ever before to make informed decisions about lawn care, and at Patuxent Nursery, we’re dedicated to helping you grow the healthiest lawn and garden you can. We’ll work with you to come up with the right answers and organic products for your unique lawn or garden.
Listed as one of the Top 100 Garden Centers in the United States, we offer an extensive selection of high-quality plants and gardening supplies as well as expert consultation.
Contact us if you have questions about our nursery, or stop by in person to speak with an expert in person, discuss your needs with a team of professionals and navigate our wide range of available organic products. We look forward to seeing you!