Loving Your Biodiverse Lawn

Dandelions and clover are part of a biodiverse lawn.
Dandelions and clover are part of a biodiverse lawn.

Our lawns are contributing to making Long Island’s water supply sick.

One hundred and seventeen pesticide-related chemicals appeared in Long Island’s aquifer during a groundwater study conducted between 1996 and 2010 by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, Suffolk County Water Authority and United States Geological Survey.

The aquifer provides our sole source of fresh water, and those chemicals present the most danger to pets and children, whose nervous and endocrine symptoms are forming or most vulnerable, says Edwina von Gal, founder and president of Perfect Earth Project.

Ms. von Gal’s project, based in East Hampton, is dedicated to helping the public learn how to create toxin-free landscapes.

She was the guest speaker at “Maintain Your Lawn and Landscape Organic/Toxic Free,” an April 8 forum at the Southold Town Recreation Center hosted by The North Fork Environmental Council and the North Fork Audubon Society.

Ms. von Gal founded the Perfect Earth Project in 2013 to provide a cost-free, toxin-free alternative to chemical landscape treatments, after finding that, while many homeowners insist upon growing organic vegetable gardens, they do not demand the same from their lawns.

“They’ll walk across toxic lawns to get to their gardens,” she said.

The Perfect Earth Project promotes healthful lawns and landscapes that are not treated with chemicals to eliminate pests, which often develop immunities to them even as the chemicals kill the pests’ predators.

More than 500 species of insects and pests are resistant to some form of pesticides, said Ms. von Gal.

She outlined a series of steps intended to preserve and promote a natural environment.

1. Testing the soil
2. Watering seldom and deep
3. Mowing high using a sharp blade
4. Nurturing naturally, fertilizing, seeding and aerating soil in the fall
5. Mulching and leaving grass clippings and leaves
6. Embracing plant diversity

Ms. von Gal recommended testing the soil as a prelude to planting on new sites, or before fertilizing or seeding large areas of established lawns.

While home soil-testing kits are less costly than the nominal fee for sending samples to soil-testing laboratories such as the Cornell Cooperative Extension Education Center in Riverhead, she said labs provide the greatest accuracy.

Watering more than twice a week is not recommended, because it promotes weak rooting and fungal problems. Watering for short periods of time also promotes shallow roots, which are not ideal.

Moisture meters, which are expensive, do not require batteries and are valuable moisture indicators, she said.

Ms. vol Gal compared the prototypical suburban lawn to a military haircut. She instead recommends allowing the grass to grow to between three and four inches before mowing.

“If you can see the [lawn’s] scalp, you are promoting weeds,” she said. Ensuring that mower blades are sharp also promotes grass heath.

Fall is the preferred time to feed a lawn, said Ms. von Gal, because grass is a cool-season plant and spring enhancements encourage weed growth. Bare patches indicate a soil deficiency or imbalance that requires remediation.

Taking advantage of the natural mulch provided by grass clippings and fallen leaves is also a preferred form of mulch.

Ms. von Gal encouraged the crowd to promote diversity of plants in their lawns, because insect pests can cause more damage to monoculture species than to mixed plantings.

She stressed that clover is not a weed and is desired in a lawn because it feeds turf grass by fixing the nutrient nitrogen and making it available to other plants in the soil.

“We’re not anti-lawn,” said Ms. von Gal. “That is not practical. Let nature happen and be your partner. It’s the best partner ever. The biggest reason people put chemicals on their lawns is because their neighbors do.”

For more detailed information on all of these and related topics visit www.perfectearthproject.org.

“Support flora and fauna. Perfect is a relative term and we learned today to make sure that we should leave some good places for birds, insects and other species to survive,” added Debbie O’Kane, NFEC programs director and North Fork Audubon Society president.

Attendee Joel Usher, owner of Usher Plant Care in Port Jefferson, is a certified arborist who converted his father’s nearly five-decade-old business to become organically accredited 15 years ago. He was one of several business owners on-hand during the day’s talks.

“We have to heal what we have hurt,” he said.

Glenn Jochum

Glenn Jochum grew up in Huntington, grew up more in Montauk, saw the world with the U.S. Navy and retreated to the last unruined paradise on Long Island, the North Fork. He’s written for the Navy and many Long Island newspapers, and was the managing editor of the Traveler-Watchman. He has written more than 200 songs, six CDs and is one-half of the folk-rock outfit The Earthtones.

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