Enjoying a Pesticide-Free Lawn

What you will find on this page

Why this matters

It is simple. We should do all we can so our families and neighbors can enjoy beautiful, healthy, and safe lawns. Sadly, you will see signs for treated lawns to make us aware of harmful pesticide applications, and none like this one by the Tufts Pollinator Initiative celebrating a pesticide-free lawn.

Some clarifications

Pesticides are substances used to kill or control unwanted insects, plants or other organisms.  There are several types of pesticides based on their purpose. Herbicides are used to kill or control weeds in lawns.

  • Insecticides > insects
  • Herbicides > plants (or “weeds”)
  • Rodenticides > rodents (rats and mice)
  • Bactercides > bacteria
  • Fungicides > fungi
  • Larvicides > larvae

One other point of clarification.

Because of the risks of pesticide exposure, many governments, school districts and other organizations have adopted what is referred to as an Integrated Pest Management approach. It emphasizes pest prevention and the use of approved pesticides only when necessary or as a last resort.

Here is the formal definition from the IPM Institute of North America:

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a sustainable, science-based, decision-making process that combines biological, cultural, physical and chemical tools to identify, manage and reduce risk from pests and pest management tools and strategies in a way that minimizes overall economic, health and environmental risks.

In the Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools’ Parent Handbook for Elementary Students, pesticides are a final resort based on the North Carolina School Children’s Health Act. It requires all North Carolina public schools to notify parents, guardians, and staff annually about the schedule of non-exempt pesticide applications. It also requires notification 72 hours in advance of any nonscheduled and non-exempt pesticide applications on school property.

The American lawn

Here is some quick, important context about lawns in America because conversations about this topic can become emotional.

America’s manicured front lawns represent the pride of home-ownership, and the cultivation of community. But the ways we maintain them risk hurting the environment and contributing to climate change. So why do we even have lawns in the first place? We traced their history, starting with early European colonists.

The Great American Lawn: How the Dream Was Manufactured, The New York Times, 8/9/19

The article also mentions Virginia Scott Jenkins’ “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession” which begins all the way back in colonial times,” and Ted Steinberg’s “American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn” which includes a chapter on golf’s role in the history of lawns.

Or, try “The American Obsession with Lawns” from the Scientific American Blog Network on May 3 of 2017. In it, Krystal D’Costa points out that lawns are the most grown crop in the U.S. — but not a crop that anyone can eat.

You might also be interested in “Turf War“, a deep dive into the history of lawns in our country from The New Yorker in 2008. Did you know that among the dozen or so main grasses that make up the American lawn, almost none are native to America?

It is understandable why and how seeding or reseeding a pesticide-free lawn can become a hot topic.

Harmful effects of pesticides

Among the harmful effects of pesticides, those affecting kids are especially troubling. If you are interested in the details, the organization Beyond Pesticides did a great job documenting what is known in this factsheet.

For instance, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that household and garden pesticide use can increase the risk of childhood leukemia as much as seven-fold.

And, four peer-reviewed studies demonstrated the ability of glyphosate-containing herbicides causing genetic damage to DNA (mutagenicity), even at very low concentration levels.

This is why we have those “last resort” rules we mentioned earlier.

And, keep in mind, humans are not the only living organism in our spaces. Insects are hugely important to our environment, impact our food chain, and get disproportionately affected by pesticides.

The positive impact of a pesticide-free lawn reaches far and wide.

What you can do

Weeds are plants that are undesired in a particular location. (We have heard them referred to as plants “without a press agent”.)

How can you get rid of them without herbicides?

Organic herbicides may be an option, yes. However, your best bet is to grow grass that is native to the area. Because it is more resistant to weeds and pests, requiring less weed control, native grass is the best foundation of a pesticide-free lawn.

Whether explore all this yourself or with a landscape service provider, the approach is the same. This organic lawn care paper from NC State Extension and this gardener’s handbook might come in handy along the way.

Doing it yourself

1. Determine possible grass types

Lake Hogan Farms is in the Piedmont area of North Carolina. NC State Extension has created a detailed review of grasses to consider for where we live. Among them are cool season grasses that include tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and fine fescue as well as several warm-season grasses. One of these native grasses will be the best foundation for a pesticide-free lawn.

2. Test soil conditions

Here is what you will need to do with the soil on your property.

3. Identify the right “nutrition”

Based on the soil sample results, you will probably need lime because soils in our area typically are acidic.  Lime is organic and not a pesticide.  Additionally, you will need a form of fertility (fertilizer).  Otherwise, your grass will fail to thrive and die and you will be left with weeds.  Here’s a starting point for researching organic fertilizer options. Or visit Southern States, Tractor Supply Company, Lowe’s or Home Depot in our area. The soil report will dictate the amount of specific nutrients you need. You can decide on the source: organic or conventional.

4. Prepare the soil

Aerate your lawn, ideally in the fall. This is especially important in Lake Hogan Farms because we have a lot of compacted clay.

After aerating, top-dress the site with compost. This step adds important organic matter and microbial activity to the soil.

5. Seed the grass

For this step, make sure you are paying attention to what is best for the type of grass you are seeding. NC State Extension has specific recommendations for seeding based on grass type. Also check NC State Extension’s recommendations for watering.

Want to make it a project for an expert?

Several companies in our area provide environmentally-friendly, organic lawn and landscaping care.  Beware, however, some who claim to be “green” are a lot less green than others.  And the word “green” in a company’s name is not a guarantee that their approach or practices for seeding and maintaining a pesticide-free lawn are safe for humans, pets or the environment.

Other ideas

Reduce turf grass area

Another way to get closer to having a pesticide-free lawn (or yard) is to have less lawn. This would diminish the impact of pesticides while also reducing the overall resource demand for maintaining a lawn. You can see from the following resources that shifting the focus from lawns to beautiful gardens and landscapes offers a lot of possibilities and can be very exciting.

Switch to low maintenance groundcover

Groundcovers are another really easy way to reduce the impact of pesticides and minimize having to deal with weeds and pests. NC State’s Extension school is again a great resource for ideas plus there are many native options groundcovers.

Avoid pesticides in the home

During our research, we ran across other helpful perspectives about reducing the exposure to pesticides in our homes. We thought you would appreciate these, too.

From eartheasy.com:

  • Buy organic and locally grown fruit and vegetables.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables before eating.
  • Know which fruits and vegetables have higher levels of pesticide residue.
  • Grow your own produce.
  • Use non-toxic methods for controlling insects in the home and garden.
  • Have a ‘no shoes’ policy in your home.

From building biologist Tatiana Strelnik

  • Filter your drinking water. 
  • Check for local notifications about pesticide applications.
  • Avoid lice shampoos that contain lindane or permethrin.
  • Avoid insect repellents; cover up instead.
  • Dust often — most pesticides will be found in dust around your house.
  • Instead of Round Up or other glyphosate-based products, use steam. Most steam mops can be taken outside and used to steam pavers and any places where weeds are growing. You can also use boiling water.
  • Use fly swatters.

Comment or suggestion?

We hope this is helpful and welcome information. If you have a comment or suggestion, just drop us a note using our contact form. Make sure you include your contact information. We will get back to you as quickly as we can. Keep in mind that we are a small group of volunteers supporting this resource.

Topic contributors

Renee Wilson, Tilly Pick