By Mara Certic
The East End can evoke images of stately homes with rolling lawns, immaculately trimmed and perpetually green. Environmentalists, however, have linked the pesticides and fertilizers used to achieve lawn perfection to polluted ground- and surface-water, and are now looking for ways to reverse the damage.
The Perfect Earth Project, based in East Hampton, is attempting to tackle the problem by educating the community about how to maintain a beautiful, green and completely toxin-free lawn.
“People are beginning to realize the dangers associated with pesticides: these are toxic chemicals, they do kill things,” said Sean O’Neill, director of education and outreach for the nonprofit.
Not only can pesticides harm unintended animals, and people, but can run off from lawns and enter ponds, streams and bays. Fertilizers are not necessarily toxic, but can alter the nutrient system of the water by adding nitrogen to it. This can, in turn, starve the water of oxygen and make it more acidic. This can cause harmful algal blooms and can be detrimental to fish and shellfish.
According to Dan Gulizio, executive director of the Peconic Baykeeper, harmful algal blooms were undetected in local bays prior to 1984. Mr. Gulizio said it is generally accepted that the blooms are a human phenomenon, directly related to improper practices and a lack of regulatory control.
Pesticides and other chemicals have also found their way into Suffolk County drinking water, he added.
“According to county data, there are 117 pesticide-related compounds in our drinking water,” Mr. Gulizio said. The link between ground and surface waters on the East End, he explained, means that drinking water contamination is a real risk.
Local landscape designer Edwina von Gal founded the Perfect Earth Project in 2013, to educate the community about how to grow lawns without using chemicals. The idea stemmed from a project she began in Panama, the Azuero Earth Project, which promotes biodiversity and sustainable actions and does a lot of work with reforestation and small-scale organic farming.
“Her friends on Long Island said ‘You should probably be doing that here,’” explained Mr. O’Neill.
Nourishing lawns with pesticides and fertilizers, Mr. O’Neill said, is “constantly treating for diseases; it’s like giving antibiotics to constantly fight off whatever pests might be attacking.”
“Toxin-free is feeding the soil; it’s like healthy eating,” he explained.
One of the easiest ways for people to begin to move away from using chemicals on their lawns is to change the way they water them.
“Most people overwater their lawns tremendously; proper watering will solve half of the problems,” he said.
“You don’t want to water your lawn until it needs it. If you’re constantly flooding your lawn, you’re opening up fungus issues and helping mosquitoes breed,” he explained. “When it does need it, you want to water infrequently but deeply.”
Mr. O’Neill recommends watering only once or twice a week—but soaking the ground so that the top six inches of soil are saturated, which promotes root growth.
“It usually takes several hours, but it depends on where you are,” Mr. O’Neill explained.
For a fee of $5, homeowners can have soil samples tested by the Cornell Cooperative Extension, in order to determine the composition and get an idea of how long it would take to saturate the top six inches.
Another way to grow stronger, longer roots is to “mow your lawn a little higher than you might be used to,” Mr. O’Neill said.
“When you have longer leaves of grass, that’s your solar panel. When you have more of it, the grass is inherently healthier and it helps the plant defend itself,” he said, adding that they usually recommend keeping lawns at 3.5 to 4 inches.
“If you can stand it, leaving your grass clippings on your lawn is one of the best things you can do for it,” Mr. O’Neill said. “There’s nitrogen in the clippings themselves. If you leave them, the clippings will go away in a day or two and you will have recycled your lawn’s nutrients,” he said.
The Perfect Earth Project is also currently working on a project with Cornell and the Peconic Land Trust at Bridge Gardens, where they’re performing “turf trials” in order to eventually create a manual on how to choose the best lawn type based on the soil, sunlight and water available, and how to maintain it.
Starting this spring, they will also hold “ask the lawn expert” afternoons at Bridge Gardens, where people can come in with individual queries.
For more information about how to care for toxin-free lawn, or to find out which landscapers employ chemical-free practices, visit perfectearthproject.org or call (631) 907-9040.