Organic lawn care takes patience, commitment
Michael Papa speaks with an Italian accent, but his message comes through sharp and clear -- lawn pesticides are not only potentially dangerous, but ultimately counterproductive for anyone who wants a lawn that looks its best.
Owner of Artscape Organic Care LLC in Stamford and one of very few pioneers in organic lawn care, for nine years Papa has brought Darien and New Canaan homeowners a conscientious approach to really keeping it green.
"It's just about being a good caretaker of nature," he said. "It's extremely easy if people are passionate about it."
Accustomed to the quick fix, however -- and holding high expectations for a certain quality of lawn -- he said many homeowners don't have the patience to bring their lawn along in what is ultimately a process that extends over seasons. Also, owing to misleading claims by many lawn-care providers, a lot of customers think they're using organic care when, in reality, they're not.
"I've been doing this for about nine years without the use of the pesticides," Papa said. "It's pretty much about management, like a caretaker."
"Organic lawn care is a very different approach," said Miki Porta, a member of New Canaan's Conservation Commission and co-founder of Pesticide-Free New Canaan, a nonprofit initiative aimed at curbing rampant chemical use in area homes. "It's not about using this product instead of that product. It's a method, and so it's more labor intensive.
"This is an issue of importance because those yellow pesticide flags are everywhere," said Porta, noting that the chemicals "are very, very powerful carcinogens and neurotoxins in many cases that are being used for cosmetic purposes when there are other substances and methods that can do the job.
"This is overkill," she said. "This is a place where we can really do better for our children, our pets, our water and our environment. And it's really simple to do. In most cases it's just a phone call to a provider."
Mark Miller, who runs The Organic Yard in Pound Ridge, N.Y., said in most cases good topsoil results in a good lawn.
"If you have healthy soil, grass will kind of take care of itself," he said. "Yeah, you'll have a few weeds ... but overall you mow your lawn weekly and keep it healthy."
Unfortunately in most new constructions, topsoil is scraped off and removed from the site, necessitating a chemical infusion to sprout a picturesque lawn in poor soil.
"It's an educational process also with organics," Miller said, noting that different techniques help the lawn flourish, such as mowing it high and less frequently. "It's a commitment over two or three years. You're building up soil health ... Then you have a healthier plant that can ward off disease, insects and recover a lot more quickly."
"That's the basic principle behind this," he said.
Miller believes there are times when chemicals are necessary to achieve aims, though he said it's only about 10 percent of the cases. "Our objective is realistically to reduce pesticides on property 80 to 90 percent," he said.
"We don't want to be rigid," he said. "We're sort of saying that any shift you can make toward organic is good."
Papa said the technique to stabilizing a lawn with organic care requires a thorough assessment of the minerals in the soil itself so he can know what nutrients it needs for recovery. This, he said, is the opposite of infusing chemicals for quick growth, for in the long run that depletes the soil of nutrients and disturbs the balance of a lawn's ecosystem.
"If you keep applying chemicals, you're going to exacerbate your lawn problems," Miller said. "They deplete the soil. Then you need the synthetic fertilizer ... but you're still on that treadmill."
"It's an art and a science," Papa said, calling the chemical cycle "a shotgun approach."
"When you go with the shotgun approach, you'll hit the wall," he said.
Instead, Papa speaks of understanding the lawn as its own ecosystem.
"The idea is that you've got to watch, do more observation, to see what kind of soil you have, what kind of ecological system you have," he said. "If you improve the ecological system, you provide a good place for the plant to grow."
"You just have to be careful," Porta said of lawn-care providers who claim to use an organic approach. "You have to know what to ask for from a provider."
"We try to weed out people that we think are just kind of lukewarm on organic lawn care from those who have really demonstrated a commitment," she said of her nonprofit group, which was formed in cooperation with the New Canaan Nature Center. "We try to steer people in the right direction."
For more information, visit www.pesticidefreenc.org.