Wild Lawns

My walk about the neighborhood with the dog should have been pleasant. Temperature in the 70s, humidity finally gone. Yet the outing was punctuated with the chemical aroma of lawn pesticides not an odor I care to inhale.

I’ve tried to find a walking route through my neighborhood that doesn’t involve passing lawns with little yellow signs announcing that pesticides are in use. Unfortunately, that is not an easy task.

I’ve never truly understood the appeal of monoculture one crop grass only. This summer has provided plenty of rain, so even those grass-only lawns are green. When the weather is drier, however, the whole lawn turns brittle and yellow. Not so in my lawn a mixture of grass and plenty of other hardy plants that can withstand drought conditions.

I made a mental inventory of plants that can be found in the chemical-free lawns while walking the dog. Some of the plants, if left to grow, would actually help the soil and reduce the need for some types of fertilizers.

For example, I saw two types of clover White Clover and Hop Clover. Both are nitrogen fixers taking nitrogen from the air and putting it into the soil. Wood Sorrel has a similar leaf to clover, but a little 5-petalled yellow flower. Speaking of yellow, let’s not forget the poor, maligned dandelion, and a near-look-alike Yellow Hawkweed. There’s an orange variety of hawkweed, too, whose leaves provide green for your lawn and whose flowers you might get to see if the lawn mower at your house isn’t too ambitious.

Heal-All is a lovely little purple flower that stays low to the ground, mixing in well with grasses. It attracts bees which once in your yard might also pollinate your tomatoes or other food plants. Another purple flower is the lovely little violet. It has already bloomed, but its leaves are still visible in my lawn.

Certain butterfly species will seek out those leaves, because their caterpillars only eat violets.

I saw at least two types of plantain a broad-leafed variety and a narrow one. These plants thrive in poor soil and provide green even when the grass dies back. I also saw wild strawberry plants and at least one, maybe two varieties of speedwell.

A lawn untreated with chemicals can be many shades of green and offer many textures under your feet. At various times of the year, if you allow it, the many different plants can provide bits of color, too, and can attract butterflies and various pollinators to your yard.

Why people want to destroy this incredible diversity of plants is a mystery. Why they want to expose themselves and their children and pets to the toxins in lawn pesticides is also a mystery.

According to Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting human health from environmental harms through research, education and the promotion of sound public policy, lawns cover 30 million acres of the U.S. and nearly 80 million pounds of pesticide active ingredients are used on U.S. lawns annually.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that “homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops.”

What I find the scariest is the list of health effects that have been associated with lawn-care pesticides. According to EHHI, some chemicals commonly used on lawns and gardens have been associated with birth defects, mutations, adverse reproductive effects, and cancer in laboratory animals.

They also report increased odds of childhood leukemia, brain cancer and other conditions with children living in households where pesticides are used.

When I was a child, we lived outside. We played on our lawns, ate snacks and picnic lunches there, and even nibbled on the edible plants we found growing there.

Today, I walk warily through my neighborhood, afraid of what walking on the chemically treated grass might do to my dog, and wondering what damage might be caused when I inhale the fumes.

I wish we could all embrace biodiversity, and learn to love lawns full of all manner of plants. I wish I could live in a pesticide-free neighborhood.

Jennifer Schlick is program director at Jamestown Audubon.

The Audubon Center & Sanctuary is located at 1600 Riverside Road in the town of Kiantone, one-quarter mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown, New York and Warren, Pennsylvania. For more information, call 569-2345 or visit jamestownaudubon.org.