DROPPING THE BOMB
This spring, learn how to avoid using synthetic chemicals in your yard (and community), and why it’s important.
WRITTEN BY NATASHA BOURLIN
ILLUSTRATION BY LILY THERENS
Particularly in the spring, a plethora of chemicals is used daily by everyone from landscape and construction company workers to individuals tending to their home gardens, all seeking to avert situations considered pesky. Lawn too brown? Fertilize it. Pests living up to their name? Get rid of them. Weeds popping up? Eliminate every one.
However, whether caring for flowers, fruits, vegetables, or lush lawns, the adverse effects of these horticultural quick fixes aren’t always considered. In the search for botanical perfection, is going organic (or natural) worth the time and extra expense over using chemicals?
Creation of synthetic agricultural products boomed after World War II, when the need to produce nitrogen for explosives was replaced by the need to replenish U.S. food supplies. Some of the ingredients previously used to create the explosives were found to benefit agriculture.
According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, by the mid- to late ’40s, “about 2 million tons of chemical fertilizers were used per year. By 1960, over 7 million tons were used each year and by 2014 over 20 million tons were used.”
Imagine the biosphere that is soil. Much like the human body, maintaining optimal internal and external health and balance naturally is ideal. What we put into our bodies affects our overall health. Think kale versus Twinkies.
It’s the same with our yards. As the experts we spoke with all shared, plants have a symbiotic relationship with the soil, with receptors predisposed to receive natural cures. Synthetic fixes such as chemical-heavy fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides shock the soil and bring the ecosystem to ground zero, wiping out both good and bad elements within. An addiction-like cycle is created as the soil becomes reliant on synthetic additives. In the long run, this also negates any cost efficiency in using chemicals over slightly pricier organic products; results from a one-time organic fix usually are achieved only after several chemical treatments.
Our bodies are similar. When we take antibiotics to remedy illness, germs are destroyed, but so are the good bacteria, which is why supplemental probiotics sometimes are recommended to restore healthy internal balance.
After synthetic use, potentially harmful chemicals also can leech into the soil and water table and remain for years, or catch a breeze and drift toward items used daily, such as patio furniture or dog bowls.
Don’t governmental organizations oversee the use of toxins and protect us? They try. Farmers and ranchers work hard to keep up with demand for produce, grains, and other food grown for humans or livestock, and they often desire quick fixes. Those chemical solutions are developed in laboratories and subjected to years of toxicity testing.
On its website, the Environmental Protection Agency says, “When assessing possible cancer risk posed by a pesticide, EPA considers how strongly carcinogenic the chemical is (its potency) and the potential for human exposure. The pesticides are evaluated not only to determine if they cause cancer in laboratory animals, but also as to their potential to cause human cancer.”
Products are tested for acute and chronic toxicity. Which warning label each requires — danger, warning, or caution — is based on what dose proves fatal to a baseline 150-pound person, according to PennState Extension at The Pennsylvania State University.
Even global studies indicating some pesticides and fertilizers can potentially cause everything from birth defects to cancer don’t mean the products won’t make it to market.
Keeping up with the Joneses
Meeting high expectations while keeping costs low can be a struggle for those in charge of grounds maintenance in larger residential communities, campuses, and complexes, where not just keeping up with the Joneses, but outshining them, can be a priority. Pesticide- and chemical-rich products often are their preferred, quick, and affordable landscaping solutions.
“Organic products are much more expensive than traditional ones,” says Carrie Owen, sales and service manager and landscape designer at Reno Green Landscaping. “It is cost prohibitive unless you have a client willing to pay the difference.”
Communities such as Somersett in West Reno are meeting residents’ demand for positive change. Representatives from the Somersett Owners Association share that they’ve begun integrating organic products into their seasonal landscape maintenance and always are on the lookout for cost-efficient, chemical-free alternatives for use in their community.
Marty Sillito, assistant director of grounds services at the University of Nevada, Reno, has seen positive results after going organic and working with local company Full Circle Compost, based in Gardnerville. Full Circle tests UNR’s yard waste and soil annually to determine nutrient deficiencies, then creates a custom blend to feed the soil and keep microbial activity alive.
“You see immediate results in lawns greening up,” Sillito says.
Health of some campus trees also has improved greatly, and maintenance such as lawn mowing is reduced when chemicals aren’t over-encouraging growth.
“If a plant’s health is struggling, it sends out a distress signal, then attracts nature’s garbage disposals such as aphids and fungus. It’s a form of species protection,” says Sandy Rowley, organic horticulturalist and founder of bee advocacy group Bee Habitat in Reno. “When an insect pops up in your yard, it’s a symptom of a problem in the soil. It’s nature’s alarm system.”
Concerned experts strongly believe there always is a better, less toxic method for addressing landscaping problems, including simply pulling weeds by hand or creating your own compost.
“Organic landscaping just takes a whole lot more discipline,” says Rick Clark, president of the Nevada Landscape Association, owner of Clark Pest Control in Sparks, and certified pest control specialist.
He suggests simply eliminating a sick plant rather than treating a grouping with chemicals, as well as creating natural pesticides at home out of geranium, eucalyptus, citrus, and rosemary essential oils; organic dish soap; and mineral oil, then spraying each insect individually when found.
“When we see a bug, we tend to want to kill it,” Clark says. “But about 98 percent of insects are beneficial.”
Education is key
Wendy Hanson Mazet, the University of Nevada, Reno Cooperative Extension horticulture program coordinator, believes it’s not a black-and-white scenario.
“Organic is a legally defined term,” Hanson Mazet says. “I grow naturally and follow the philosophies of centuries of gardeners, like my ancestors did long before organic was even a term. Just because something is organic doesn’t mean it won’t kill something beneficial.”
She suggests that if consumers learned to be more tolerant of imperfection — such as with their produce shopping or lawn care — chemical usage would be lessened. People also chemically combat problems that could be resolved by simply removing the issue. For example, the dense branches of juniper bushes attract spiders. Instead of spraying the bush with insecticide, move the juniper farther from the home or plant something not so inviting to arachnids.
She also prefers “tested and labeled” solutions to homemade, warning that accidents happen; some combinations of seemingly harmless kitchen ingredients can prove hazardous to family members should they get into eyes, for instance.
Owner of Verdant Connections and landscape architect Jana Vanderhaar knows that if there’s bare or disturbed soil in a yard, opportunistic weeds will show up.
“I’m a big proponent for mulching,” Vanderhaar says. “My favorite is wood.”
Mulches are among the best barriers to weeds when soil is topped with at least a three-inch layer; they’re nutritious for the soil when they naturally decompose, plus they keep the soil cooler during hot weather and prevent evaporation. Leaving the natural tree and plant droppings on your soil will create a weed-resistant ground cover with a more natural look.
Feeding the soil is important in a location such as Reno-Tahoe, which doesn’t get the nutrients from rain that other areas do.
Look for the USDA Certified Organic label on all products, and ask experts at your local nursery to show you organic solutions for your gardening woes. Beyond the nursery, high school horticulture students at the Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology sell organically grown seedlings to the public each spring. In addition, Loping Coyote Farms’ eighth-annual plant sale is April 28 outside Too Soul Tea in Reno (see related story) and the Great Basin Community Co-op in Reno also offers a spring seedling sale.
Purchase native plants, which thrive in the high desert and can be the best defense against invasive pests and species while creating healthy vegetation communities. Use blood meal, a natural source of nitrogen, to fertilize lawns instead of synthetics.
To educate yourself before shopping for solutions, find details on probable carcinogens in pesticides at Epa.gov, and about pests themselves at Npic.orst.edu.
Many options exist to help shift the landscaping industry’s chemical dependency, but the best way to start is by voting with your wallet. Each small step taken helps create a safer, healthier environment for us all.
Natasha Bourlin is a Reno-based freelance writer who loves to grow her own produce each year.