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...The New Great American Lawn
Once upon a time, long long ago, far far away, in an America that was much simpler than today, there lived lawn - lawn of every size and description. These lawns were spread out over the suburban landscape like a diverse living carpet and were tended for their utility and beauty, much like today, but with one big difference. One thing all of these lawns had in common, no matter where they occurred: they were composed of all sorts of plants, not just grass. Today, many of these plants are called “weeds”. Why did all those lawns contain so many weeds, you ask? Well, back then, before World War II, there were no such thing as “weed killers”. A lawn was simply made up of any plant that survived under the mower blade. Bright green, dark green, broadleaf, narrowleaf – all sorts of different plants made up the “lawn”. Strange thing about this symbiotic hodge-podge of plants -they didn’t require any special care. They were just mowed whenever it was convenient and sometimes raked in the Fall and they were green and resilient.
After World War II broke out scientists were developing new technologies with synthetic chemistry that could help fight the war. Some of the battles were being fought in jungles with vegetation so thick the enemy could not be seen, hence the birth of the first synthetic chemical defoliants, later to be called “herbicides” (herb = plant, cide = to kill). As fate would have it, the war ended before these new synthetic chemical concoctions could be thoroughly utilized.
The inventors of these chemicals thought and thought. What could be done with all this new technology, now that it was peacetime? Finally, someone thought of all those “weeds” out there in everybody’s lawn. One particular type of herbicide was developed to have the ability to kill broadleaf plants but not grass plants. With these new chemicals it was now possible to kill the “weeds” but leave the grass. And that’s how the first “selective weed control” was born.
The next problem to solve was how to get people to use the stuff. People were content with their lawns and had no reason to dislike their “weeds”. Their lawns looked great and functioned just fine the way they were. Why “fix” it? So, the inventors went to work making bad guys of the weeds. Those nasty dandelions, which have been used medicinally for centuries, are now our new sworn enemies. Never mind that good farmers know them as “biodynamic accumulators”, because their long taproots could dredge up minerals and nutrients and deposit these riches within reach of the shallow root systems of crops. And so it went with the chickweed, the purslane, and plantain – all of them nutritious or medicinal – now all of them “bad”. Incidentally, television was coming into its own about this time, with its visual impact and powerful ability to “sell” anything, even bad ideas. And that’s how the first ”Great American Lawn” television commercial was born.
Ahhh, the Great American Lawn: perfectly green and uniform in texture and not a weed to be found, a true status symbol, the epitome of “better living through chemicals”, to echo the popular mantra of the time. “Lawn” was now defined as a monoculture, pure stands of one plant – grass - the same as miles and miles of corn in Iowa or wheat in Saskatchewan. People all over clamored to follow suit, lest they be looked upon as non-American. Powerful thing, that television.
What the marketing didn’t tell us is that Nature abhors a vacuum and will always tend toward diversity; that a monoculture like the Great American Lawn is a grossly unnatural environment, and because it is such, will be a pain in the derriere to maintain. If that weren’t enough, consider all of the sound science pointing to the health risks and environmental degradation from these lawn “care” chemicals. I haven’t even mentioned the other classes of synthetic pesticides: insecticides, fungicides, and the like, or the just-as-harmful synthetic fertilizers that are so widely abused today.
Harkening back to the mindset of that simpler time, it is plain to see the truth: a “lawn” is really what you think it is, not what somebody else tells you it is. If you look around and see how Nature does things it will be obvious that a diversity of compatible plant species growing together is more like Nature intended. Where there is diversity, there is resilience. In a natural lawn, if one plant gets sick, there are other plants to take its place, making a natural lawn much easier to maintain. In a grass monoculture, if the grass gets sick the whole lawn can die, unless it is spoiled rotten with a continuous stream of synthetic chemicals to keep its artificial environment alive. Because a natural lawn does not require any synthetic chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, it will have a positive impact on the environment and eliminate the health risks associated with these materials. This is especially relevant for anyone that has children or pets, uses well water or lives within the watershed of a drinking water supply.
Finally, there is good news! Recognizing the need for an alternative choice to conventional land care, the CT and MA chapters of the Northeast Organic Farming Assn. (NOFA) formed the Organic Land Care Committee in 1999 - a dedicated group of experienced professional landscapers, scientists, educators and concerned citizens - to extend the virtues of organic agriculture to land care. The Committee created and published the “Standards for Organic Land Care, Practices for Design and Maintenance of Ecological Landscapes”, the only comprehensive standards of its kind in the country. These Standards not only introduce a true organic methodology to landscaping, it finally provides a definition for the term “organic land care”. Many property owners are unaware that some so-called “organic” land care companies use synthetic chemical pesticides in their “organic” land care programs. NOFA feels you should know the truth so you can make an informed choice to use or not to use synthetic chemicals to maintain your property. To further this goal, “A Citizen’s Guide to Organic Land Care” was also published to explain, in layman’s terms, what true organic land care is.
What good is all this knowledge if no one knows how to do it, you ask? In order to provide genuine practitioners the Committee has developed a five-day “Course in Organic Land Care” for professionals, which has been offered over the last three years. It is taught by scientists, professors and educators from The Yale School of Forestry, The Ct Agricultural Experiment Station, U-CONN, Co-operative Extension, and experienced organic land care professionals. Those participants who have taken and passed a written exam and have pledged to provide organic land care according to the Standards become Accredited Organic Land Care Professionals. They are required to obtain six continuing education credits per year and apply for yearly re-accreditation.
So now you know there is an organization working hard to provide a real alternative to conventional land care that is based on environmental stewardship, sound science and hands-on experience; providing the truth to make a choice. The time has come to adopt a more natural aesthetic and embrace The New American Lawn. Today’s organic land care professional can provide the beauty, harmony and peace of mind we all seek in our landscapes.
All publications and informative brochures are available for a nominal charge (some free), the names of Accredited Organic Land Care Professionals, as well as much more information, via the NOFA Organic Land Care website: www.organiclandcare.net
From Weston Magazine. Michael E. Nadeau is a founding member of the Organic Land Care Committee, an instructor of the Organic Land Care Course, and co-owner of Plantscapes, Inc., an ecological design/build/organic maintenance company based in Fairfield, CT, serving all of CT and Westchester County, NY. Mike can be reached at 203-374-9380 or Plantscapes@snet.net.