Leslie May, author of the popular website, Raise a Green Dog, gave us a bit of her time to talk about how to care for your lawn without using dangerous chemicals that could be especially harmful to pets and children.
Why do you think green and safe lawn care is so important?
“I grew up without chemicals and using natural products so I am used to it…Later, when I built my first house, I saw they put sod in the front and grass seed in the back…I saw my neighbors spreading stuff on their lawns and didn’t know what they were doing. I grew up organic and healthy and didn’t grow up using this stuff.
So, I looked up what is in the stuff that most people fertilize their lawn with… When I did my research, I began to understand why it’s bad. Often the lawn truck goes by with a kid and dog lying in the lawn together and it’s such a ploy…But I’ve grown up not believing everything I read. A lot of people have no clue that this chemical lawn care is bad. Insecticides, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are so bad for health and those are the four things that people put on their lawn!”
What were the results of your research?
“I realized that many people don’t realize the dangers of these chemicals they put on their lawn and the effect that they can have on not only on children but also pets. They have had numerous studies on children and recently a few on dogs too.
In 2013, the Science of the Total Environment published a study showing a connection between exposure to herbicide treated lawns and a higher risk of bladder cancer in dogs. Another significant find was in January of 2012, when a study published in Environmental Health showed a link between lawn chemicals and cancer in dogs, specifically malignant lymphoma, a common cancer in all dogs and, especially, in Golden Retrievers. They identified 263 dogs with confirmed lymphoma. 240 of the dogs had benign tumors and 230 underwent surgery. The dogs with malignant lymphoma were 70% more likely to live in a home with lawn treatments and those with more serious lymphoma were 170% more likely.
My lawn needed help desperately, though, and so I started looking up organic lawn care and learned a lot about how to grow a lawn from seed. I wanted to use something I know is safe in place of something that I don’t know.
It takes extra work-you have to pull some weeds occasionally and you have to find the right organic spray that works for your dog. So, I found a fish emulsion spray and it worked great. And I learned how to keep my fence line clear…I use 2 things for this-boiling water or a concentrated vinegar.”
I noticed on your site that you recommend beginning the process in the fall. Why is this? Is it too late if you didn’t do so and now want to do this in the spring?
“I guess, in reality, beginning an organic lawn any time is fabulous and you can start anytime. Fall is just a really good time to get things ready for spring but you can start in the spring. Depending on where you live it could be any time in the year. It’s just that some of the processes that you do in the fall make things explode in the spring.”
What can you do now, though?
“I like to, right after things start to thaw, get out there and pick up that dog poop. That’s probably the first thing I would tell people to do-clean up dog poop, leaves and debris. Mow if it needs it. Then wait for a really good rain, nice, deep down, a few inches of rain. Then go out and pull some weeds because, after a rain, it is so much easier to pull them up. I actually used a couple of tools that make it even easier…A really cool step on weed puller that pulls the weed up and makes it so much easier. It costs about $25 but it saved my back!
After you do those things, in the spring is the only real time that you can put something that is healthy and organic to prevent weeds from growing. The best is a corn gluten product and you need to put it down before the forsythia blooms because when it blooms the temperature is too high for it to prevent weeds. Corn gluten prevents weeds from germinating…It prevents all non-grass weeds from germinating. You can look up when the forsythia blooms in your area and the corn gluten will then help prevent weeds throughout the year. This helps prevent a lot of work later on in the year.
Then, one of the big keys is a nice thick and healthy lawn. This will keep weeds from taking over because they can’t get enough light to germinate if it’s thick and lush. Just seed like crazy and don’t ever think you are putting enough down…Use an uncoated seed because a coated seed is covered with a fertilizer that is an endocrine disruptor.
Just wait about a week and then use a spray fertilizer because it makes your life so much simpler. You can use fish emulsion. It will make your lawn smell like dead fish but only for about an hour. Another is worm poo, which you can actually make on your own. You get a worm poo compost system and you can also put your dog’s doo into it. You get a special worm and the worm’s break down your dog’s poo into compost and then you can use it on your lawn. The smell also goes away once it dries.
There are also organic pellet based systems…Lowes and Home Depot carry organic based fertilizers. The nice thing about organic is you can use it every 6-8 weeks. Even in the dead of summer, it won’t burn, though you don’t want to bring a lawn out of dormancy if you live in certain areas, or you could kill it.
There were even times that I got grubs …I had to figure out what to do about this. So, I found these things called nematodes that are microscopic little worm-like things that attack other bugs under your soil. They also attack flea larvae. They come in little patches and I put them down once a year and they last for years-up to 10 years!
For the above ground bugs, I use an insecticidal soap, which you can buy or make. You can also use an ecofriendly dishwashing soap with water and spray your plants. In addition, there are beneficial insects that you want to let be…like lady bugs kill aphids. Another beneficial one is a praying mantis…”
Are there companies that are getting on board with natural lawn care? You mentioned Lowes and Home Depot having natural fertilizer but are there other options.
“Yes, there are even companies developing four step lawn programs so that if you’re used to the old way, you can just schedule like before but with healthier options now.”
Do you have anything else that we have not covered that you think is important for readers to know?
“The biggest thing I wanted to get across is that so many people are not aware. In the past, people used DDT in flea powder for dogs…Everybody thought it was safe and then they found out it was so bad…
Every day they take things off the markets they previously thought were safe. Also, if you look at the ingredients of a chemical lawn product, it will usually list 50-80% of the product as ‘inert’ and you don’t know what it is…Often it is atrazine but it’s not listed…New research shows that even small amounts of this stuff has bad effects. It’s nasty stuff, but it’s not listed because it’s only required to be listed as ‘inert.’
This is the one thing you could do to really impact the health of your dog, this and food. The lawn is their play place and where they spend their time outdoors, so it’s extremely important.”
Leslie May is the author of Raise a Green Dog blog and website, where she writes about how to raise a dog that leaves less of an “environmental paw print,” as well as how to use fewer unhealthy chemicals in day to day life. She resides in Georgia with her two canine companions, Johann and Gracie.