How green is your lawn? 

Local lawncare companies offer organic alternatives

The joys of an evening stroll through the neighborhood aren’t what they used to be. A mother expecting a dandelion bouquet may be disappointed when her little ones find only “Lawn Application, Keep Off The Grass” signs instead. Those signs represent a portion of the estimated $40 billion home and business owners in the U.S. spend on professional lawn care services each year, most of that on purely cosmetic weeding and greening. And the more than 90 million pounds of chemicals used to achieve unnaturally weed-free, deep-green lawns cause cancer, disrupt children’s development, interfere with brain activities, kill pets and contaminate groundwater.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency requires that pesticides be registered and labeled, registration with the EPA is no guarantee that a pesticide is safe to use. More stringent standards imposed by a 1996 law are slowly being implemented, but in the meantime, substances banned in other countries are readily available in the U.S.

According to the Toxics Action Center, on average, 10 times more herbicides are spread on lawns than on agricultural land — lawns where susceptible children roll, wrestle and recline, exposing themselves through their skin and lungs to absorption of known carcinogens and other poisons. Children are most vulnerable to the dangerous effects of toxic chemicals because of their high exposure relative to body weight. Then, the one-two punch of a still-developing immune system and a rapidly growing metabolism puts youngsters whose lawns are treated with chemicals at higher risk of developing leukemia and brain cancer, according to several studies reported on the TAC Web site at

Don Harvey’s wife works with special needs children, and he knows that “lots of people and animals are affected by chemicals.” When he was downsized from MCI a few years ago, he saw an opportunity to “get back outside” and in 2003 became NaturaLawn’s Indianapolis franchise owner (356-5296, This type of alternative lawn care approach treats the soil instead of the grass.

Brian Bengtsson, owner of Child’s Play Organic Lawns in Zionsville (733-1200,, says, “We feed the dirt. If you have healthy dirt, you can’t help but have healthy grass.”

Theresa Catron from NaturaLawn’s headquarters in Frederick, Md., agrees that “Weeds are a symptom of an unhealthy lawn.”

Organic lawn care works by building up the soil and promoting beneficial microorganisms and insects, providing grass with what it needs to thrive and basically crowding out weeds. The petroleum-based chemical treatments used in conventional applications kill off good bacteria. Both Bengtsson and Catron liken traditional lawn care fertilization to putting grass on steroids — the chemicals quickly boost the plants themselves but bypass the plants’ support system, which actually weakens the plant and soon necessitates another dose to green-up the grass again. This cycle perpetuates poisoning the soil and groundwater systems for the whole community.

Bengtsson warns that going organic “does mean changing your expectations” because he cannot give a 100 percent guarantee of ridding your lawn of every weed in it, although to the average eye, a lawn 80 percent weed-free looks perfect. And, the organic process doesn’t produce instant results. But NaturaLawn customers appear more than willing to live with the results they do get: Catron cites statistics showing that companies that provide chemical-based lawn treatments experience a 50 percent to 60 percent turnover rate whereas NaturaLawn’s customer turnover rate is a mere 13 percent.

Organizations that offer additional information on natural weed and pest control include Pesticide Action Network North America at and Beyond Pesticides at

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