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Protecting your Lawn from Lawn Care Providers

Q. We get lawn care service from {a well-known national firm} (name withheld) on a routine basis. Recently they called and wanted to treat the lawn for fleas and ticks. We do not have a dog. I don't like the idea of adding chemicals if the benefit/risk ratio does not justify it. Is this just a 'value added' thing?

    ---Anita in the Andorra section of Philadelphia
A. Well, that's kind of a trick question, Anita. 'Value added' can mean that something of actual additional value is being added. In this case, 'no value' is more like it.

I often wondered why so many people were always emailing me to ask about controlling ticks on lawns, when I—and just about every other reliable source out there—repeatedly explain that ticks are rarely found on lawns. (And when they are, its because they just dropped off of some bird or mammal and are making their way to the damp brushy areas they prefer as fast as their eight nasty little legs can carry them.) Then a bunch of recent questions—yours included—helped me realize that many of these missives have been prompted by lawn care companies exploiting people's (extremely justified) fear of ticks to peddle unnecessary products and services.

Yes, unnecessary. Keeping nearby brushy areas trimmed and dry will keep tick numbers low. Spraying a lawn (where, again, there are no ticks) with toxic pesticides only wastes money, further pollutes our environment and puts your health and the health of your neighbors and the health of the poor schmuck doing the spraying at risk. (This would be true even if you had a dog; they also pick up their ticks in damp brush and tall un-cut grass, not lawns.)

You can get fleas in a lawn that's frequented by unprotected pets, but those fleas can be controlled in their larval stage by completely non-toxic beneficial nematodes. And 98% of any 'dog gone' fleas that are making a pet owner itchy came from inside the house, not the lawn. Flea traps that utilize small lights hanging over a sticky pad are great for eradicating this problem. Set up some traps, turn off all the other lights, go to bed, and you'll wake up to find a gadzillion fleas stuck to the traps—its better than presents under the tree on Christmas morning!

But this entire issue illustrates the biggest problem with chemical lawn care services. They only have a short season in which to make a year's worth of profit, and the natural temptation is to constantly come up with more things they can charge homeowners for spraying.

Bottom line: No lawn needs to be sprayed with anything, anywhere, at any time, for any reason. But good luck finding a service to agree to that.

Q. Our HOA (Home Owner's Association) posted signs warning they would spray the community's lawns for weeds on April 15th. It is now the 19th as I write you and I can still smell it. Despite the warnings, kids and pets were out playing on the grass before 24 hours were up, and were certainly exposed to large doses of chemicals. Is this type of spraying really necessary?

    ---Linda; in a condo community in Olney, MD
A. Of course it isn't, Linda; the future health of all involved is being sacrificed so the company doing the spraying can make a buck. If they would cut the grass at the right height and feed it correctly, the grass would naturally out-compete more weeds than any chemical herbicide can kill. But people, pets, and your priceless and perpetually threatened Chesapeake Bay be damned when there's money to be made.

Because you're at the mercy of your HOA and can't 'just say no' personally to such spraying, you face a special challenge. But a happy ending can be written.

A few years back, I agreed to design a chemical-free lawn and landscaping plan for an upscale New Jersey community just outside of Princeton. Their HOA recognized that they had a special location, with streams running through the property and an abundance of trees; and they had already gotten their landscaper to give up a good three-quarters of the chemical applications that had previously been utilized. But they weren't sure how to replace the last few things—mostly weed controls. And there were—and still are—precious few resources to guide such noble efforts.

Luckily, the landscaper was more than willing to do a super hero team up with yours truly. He used no chemicals at his own home, understood that non-toxic is the coming trend in lawn care, and was eager to learn how to transition to drug-free on a large scale. So we cut the grass higher, used corn gluten meal for the Springtime weed and feed, and—bless his soul—he learned how to apply yard-waste compost for the fall feeding. But even though his contract paid him the same amount as in previous years; and even though he UNDERSTOOD that summer feedings only weaken cool-season lawns, his hands still shook non-stop from April through August that first year. Old habits are hard to break. But the lawn thrived.

However, one or two of the 300 plus residents now began to complain. We had charted the level of weeds, and weed pressures were clearly the same or lower than before—and this in the very first year, with guaranteed improvement every season to come. But these few people obsessed; they knew that their bucolic landscape—which they had sought out FOR its rustic beauty—was now chemical-free, and they fixated on every weed.

Luckily, the HOA never wavered, the grounds look better every year, and songbirds are back in huge numbers. So get involved in your HOA; maybe rail against the health menace of lawn chemicals; maybe promote the change to drug-free as money saving.

Do whatever it takes, because, as has been famously said: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." Or, in your case, a good woman.

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