Keep “ON” the Grass

A perfectly manicured green lawn is a status symbol of sorts, but a green lawn that comes by way of chemicals found in fertilizers and pesticides is anything but glamorous and can be down right toxic to people, pets and the environment at large.

That’s why the River Forest Parks Foundation has launched Heathy Lawn, Healthy Family, a village-wide campaign to educate community members about some of the hazards of chemically-laden fertilizers and pesticides many use in an effort to create that “perfect” lawn or landscape. The campaign offers alternatives any homeowner can implement to improve both lawn and human health.

“We know better than to compare ourselves with photoshopped models in advertising, but images of lawns are just as powerful, artificial and skew our expectations,” said Katarina Berin, a local environmental advocate and board member on the River Forest Parks Foundation. “Our own lawns will always fail when compared to images of lawns which are perfectly uniform in texture, color and shape, photographed in beautiful light and touched up to look extra appealing. In addition, when the lawn is the first thing we see when coming home then even minor flaws become major irritants. So we reach for pesticides for a quick fix or call our lawn care provider to complain and they feel the pressure to respond with pesticide applications.”

bee public domainOf course the reach or call for such contaminants is exactly what Berin and many other environmentalists, organic farmers, and scientists are cautioning against.

Most already know bees and monarch butterflies — bellwether species of the insect world — are free monarch clipartexperiencing population crashes associated with widespread chemical applications in the landscape, but growing evidence is also correlating these chemicals to a host of other diseases and illness in humans too.

According to the Midwest Pesticide Action Center some herbicides or pesticides may affect the central nervous system, others may harm the eyes or skin, some may be cancer-causing carcinogens, and still others may wreck havoc on the body’s endocrine system, seriously affecting reproductive health among other issues.

By law, no pesticide is allowed to be called safe and no one should be fooled into thinking otherwise, Berin explained.

“Pesticides are designed to kill living organisms,” she warns, a point which is perhaps so obvious its consequence goes right over our heads and should wake us up to the fact that any and all living things may feel the brunt of its mission sooner or later. “With modern marketing, new products can be used in vast quantities before inadvertent effects are noted.”

And as is often the case for many health concerns, children — who are also the ones to happily turn cartwheels on the lawn, among assorted other day-long play activities — are more vulnerable.

“Children are especially sensitive to pesticide exposure as they take in more pesticides relative to their body weight than adults and have developing organ systems that are more vulnerable and less able to detoxify harmful chemicals,” according to the Washington-based Beyond Pesticides.

But as previously noted, humans are not the only ones at risk. Pets and water systems are also facing known and even unknown concerns.

“River Forest is disconnecting sewer and storm water pipes in order to address flooding issues in the village,” Berin explained. “It is a positive step and will prevent sewage from polluting our waterways after ‘century’ storms. By disconnecting the systems, rainwater will run into the Des Plaines River, but it will wash fertilizers and pesticides off our lawns in the process.”

Berin explained fertilizer runoff in water encourages algae blooms and other small plant growth which uses the limited oxygen in water, choking out other life.

Further, a study from 1992-2001 on pesticides in the nation’s streams and ground water found pesticides in 96 percent of all fish, 100 percent of all surface water and 33 percent of major aquifers in the major water systems studied, according to a US Geological Survey report.

IMG_3867Four-legged friends, many which will gladly roll in a carpet of grass or will stick their curious noses in it, are also at risk.

Exposure to lawn pesticides raised the risk of canine malignant lymphoma – a progressive, fatal disease — by as much as 70 percent, according to a recently published study conducted over a six year period by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Another study, published in Science of the Total Environment, indicates that exposure to herbicide-treated lawns has been associated with significantly higher bladder cancer risk in dogs.

To do your part, the Healthy Lawn, Healthy Family program encourages the following “best practices” for lawn and landscape health:

  • Water rarely and deeply – 1″ water per week is recommended. Water in the very early morning. Watering too often rewards shallow root systems which are not resilient in times of drought and which can’t make full use of the soil.

  • Mow high – Set the blades to 3″ high and leave the lawn cuttings on the lawn. Again, a higher lawn means deeper, resilient roots, as well as helping to retain moisture in the soil.

  • Avoid chemical pesticides and fertilizers – Talk to your lawn care provider and ask to see all products applied. If organics are not being used ask them to supply them. If you service your own yard you can find organic fertilizer locally at Good Earth Greenhouse and Green Home Experts.

  • Use native plants – A native plant will have co-evolved with native bugs and are both resistant and useful to native lifeforms. You may be rewarded with a garden that has butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and more.

But will an organic lawn or one not treated with the chemical cocktails really look as good?

“Your lawn will be healthier and more resilient without compromising the health of people and the environment but it takes time and practice,” Berin said. “Best practices start with the soil, ensuring that the soil is healthy and able to sustain the lawn you want long-term.”

A soil test will determine if there is the right mix of nutrients for your grass, she explained.

For those with neighbors who hire companies to pull up with big tanks to spray chemicals for a green lawn, Berin pointed out it is reasonable to talk with neighbors about it and that by law the company must give a day’s notice if requested so you have the forewarning to close windows and make alternate plans for kids’ play, cookouts or other summer activities.

Around town and on resident lawns, some may notice a new symbol promoting the Healthy Lawn, Healthy Family program.

IMG_3851Instead of the somewhat hostile message of “Keep Off Grass,” there is a welcoming message on some residents’  lawns that reads, “Keep ON the Grass.” This sign is earned by residents who are able and willing to commit to reaching the best practices of the program by avoiding pesticides, mowing high, watering less and diversifying plant material.

The River Forest Parks Foundation urges anyone organizing a neighborhood block party to choose a “green” block party option.  This option offers the opportunity for a presentation on natural lawn care by local Sustainable Garden Coach Laura Haussmann along with a chance to win natural plants to kick-start your garden.

To learn more about the Healthy Lawn, Healthy Families campaign, visit:

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