An organic approach to adaptive lawn care
When Rye, New Hampshire, resident Ann Parziale first decided to take a chemical-free approach to caring for her lawn, climate change was hardly among the top reasons for doing so.
“We are serious vegetable and flower gardeners, but we had neglected our lawn for many years,” Parziale explains. “It had deteriorated to the point that it was pretty ugly. Also, we had a healthy grub population that turned into Japanese beetles, which proceeded to eat my flowers and some vegetable leaves.”
It was time to call in a professional, but Parziale was loathe to introduce chemicals that would upset the natural ecosystem she and her husband had worked so hard to cultivate in their gardens. “One thing I’ve learned over the years is that nothing exists in isolation,” says Parziale, whose property abuts nearby Berry Brook. “The chemicals don’t stop at the lawn’s edge and say, ‘Hey, we’re not wanted in the vegetable patch.’ What we put on our lawns and gardens affects not just the soil, but all the local inhabitants including the birds that eat the worms, grubs, and insects.”
Echoing Parziale’s sentiments that nothing exists in isolation is Cameron Wake, research professor of climatology at the University of New Hampshire, commonly referred to as the Climate Doctor. “At the heart of the matter is how rising global surface temperatures will result in a greater number of 90-degree days across New England. This in turn will lead to more seasonal drought conditions, especially in summer, and a fundamental change in how homeowners need to care for their lawn,” he says.
Wake is quick to point out that there is still a great deal of uncertainty with how rising temperatures will effect lawn care in the long-term and that people should not assume that higher temperatures will mean less annual precipitation, although the end result may still be the same. “While overall precipitation in the Northeast is expected to go up in the future, a 10 to 15 percent increase in rainfall will not necessarily be enough to counteract a significant increase in evaporation,” Wake says. “Soil moisture is all about precipitation minus evaporation. So what we imagine we’ll see is a phenomenon whereby there will be more seasonal drought even in the face of higher annual precipitation levels.
“We don’t know exactly what the future will be, but we understand the direction, and that it’s really important to develop systems that are able to adapt to the new conditions. Those systems, I would argue, are organic systems that have much more built-in resilience to change. In essence, they’re more able to adapt than manufactured systems.”
Enter Tom Kelly, owner of Lawnmark Plus and the chosen savior for Parziale. With her heart set on taking a natural approach, Ann Parziale turned to the Internet. “I searched online for an environmentally safe lawn care specialist,” she says. “Tom Kelly’s company came up so I contacted him and he agreed to take on the project.”
After years of running a chemical lawn care company called Lawn Dawg, Tom Kelly is not your average eco-warrior. “When I initially began introducing natural elements to my lawn care service, it was primarily motivated by the fact that the price of fertilizer had doubled overnight as a result of high oil prices and we wanted to reduce our costs,” he says. Gradually, however, this led to a change in Kelly’s mindset driven largely by what he called “pollution guilt.” Inspired by this guilt, Kelly founded Lawnmark Plus and a dealer network of organic lawn care applications called BeeSafe Organic Lawn Care, which aims to improve soil biology and eliminate the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers.
“Most chemical lawn care companies fertilize six times a year, essentially causing the grass to become addicted to artificial additives,” Kelly explains. “Cool-season turf like the blue grass, rye grass, and fescues that are prevalent in the Northeast, they don’t want to be fertilized in the summer; they want to be dormant.”
Moreover, chemical lawn care can actually contribute to accelerating climate change. According to the company website for Clean Air Lawn Care Boston, “Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, especially nitrogen-based ones, create major soil deterioration, which inhibits healthy root growth. They also kill off microorganisms the soil needs to stay healthy. Without these microorganisms, plants can’t capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and the depleted soil cannot store the excess carbon; instead it’s put back into the atmosphere and not converted into healthy food for plants.”
Beyond soil erosion and a decrease in carbon capture, the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides can also lead to deteriorated water quality. “Again, everything in our natural world is interconnected,” Wake says, “so any chemicals that are applied to a lawn in one region will eventually find their way into our rivers, lakes, and watersheds.”
So what exactly is the approach that Tom Kelly advises to his clients looking to achieve a healthy lawn that does not come at the expense of our natural environment? “Our approach is to reduce lawn and soil stress in the first place, by introducing microbial and biostimulant products such as kelp, humates, and other plant-growth hormones that feed the soil naturally,” he says. “Conventional practices involve intense chemical fertilization requiring excessive irrigation. We’ve found that irrigation systems in the Northeast typically cause more problems than they resolve, because overwatering leads to disease activities, which introduce fungicides that can kill your lawn.”
As summer fades into autumn, Kelly also suggests that homeowners consider adding a natural fertilizer that will help prepare the lawn for winter. “There are two times a year that cool-season turf grows naturally: late spring and early autumn,” he says. “The fall growth spurt is more about the roots than the shoots, so homeowners should add a natural fertilizer that helps support the root structure heading into the long New England winter.”
For homeowners who fear that an organic approach is synonymous with a higher price tag or inferior quality, it is in fact the opposite that is true due to the need to treat the lawn less frequently and with fewer synthetics. When asked how she feels Lawnmark’s natural approach is working for her lawn, Ann Parziale responds with high praise. “The overall look is splendid and deep green,” she says. “Tom had added a lot of compost to the area as well as an inoculant to capture nitrogen. When the soil is healthy with a lot of organic matter, it retains moisture much better than a lawn that is dependent upon irrigation and chemicals to sustain it.” Parziale adds, “We like a lawn that looks nice and green but is natural and welcoming. We don’t like the artificially green chemical lawns that scream ‘stay off the grass.’”