By Holly Hickman
Recently, a man I know sprayed his front and back lawns with a brand of weed killer he'd bought from the store and administered himself. He had lived for years in Long Island, the capital of "green carpets," and now insists that the only acceptable lawn is a uselessly beautiful, quasi-sterile one. But he does, on some level, realize that Poison = Bad. So, he thought he'd mitigate some of the hazards by using an over-the-counter bottle, rather than a lawn service, and by applying the herbicide himself.
Turns out he was wrong about store-bought herbicides being any safer, but we'll get to that later.
Anyway, a few hours after he'd applied the stuff, his little grandkids came over, jumped out of their car seats and immediately began running barefoot through the yard.
He didn't flinch.
Had he read Nancy Gift's new book, "A Weed by Any Other Name: The Virtues of a Messy Lawn, or Learning to Love the Plants We Don't Plant," perhaps he would not have been so sanguine about the chemical cocktail to which he had just exposed his wee progeny. The book is part memoir, part field guide, and part gentle rally for the aesthetic and health benefits of organic lawns. Dr. Gift is the acting director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and I read her book and interviewed her in the secret hope of cajoling this man into changing his ways.
"It's the YIMBY book," I told him. "Yes in My Back Yard."
My friend has resisted my previous attempts at change, but perhaps Gift will succeed where I have not. The most winning feature of her book is that Gift does not hector. She does not bludgeon. She is not (forgive me, Ingrid) PETA.
"People don't like being criticized," she says. "It's much more fun to try to lure people with sweetness."
Love your lawn
Gift knows her stuff. She's a weed scientist who wields a PhD from Cornell, an infrequently used bottle of poison ivy killer, and a not-so-poison pen (unless you happen to be a company at the end of her j'accuse). She fell in love with all things green as a child growing up in Kentucky. Her family indulged her love of wild flora, so she was "never really indoctrinated" to believe that certain flowers were flowers and therefore good, and others were weeds and therefore bad.
"I grew up loving wildflowers and, when I was in college, I studied botany and found that wonderful. But...hardly anybody really cared what my results were. Most of my friends were interested in more charismatic megafauna, as we called them — lions and tigers and bears — but I was more interested in the plants."
Realizing that the way to make people care about plants was to "hit them in the stomach and talk about food and how much we need plants to eat," she applied to grad school, thinking she'd focus on agriculture. Instead she found that her botany background and the ability to identify plants in the field was useful for weed science, so she ended up there. "It was a wonderful accident."
Thanks to her field studies, she realized that, although organic lawn care is very much in symbiosis with organic agriculture and the local/organic food movement, it requires a different mindset. Organic food looks largely the same as non-organic food, she writes, but an organic lawn doesn't look like the "green carpet" we're all used to cultivating now.
"It takes re-thinking what we've been taught," she says.
And that might need to happen sooner rather than later: The New York Times recently detailed new research that suggests that atrazine, a common weed killer that often ends up in water supplies and has become among the most common contaminants in American water reservoirs and other sources of drinking water, could actually be dangerous at lower concentrations than regulators previously thought.
Eat your weedies
While in school, Gift learned that traditional agricultural does not necessarily imbue weeds with negative qualities. In fact, some eagle-eyed farmers have even capitalized on the health benefits of many weeds: as Gift and I spoke, I was drinking dandelion root tea. (I don't have a yard, so I had to buy it pre-made from the grocery store for something like $5 a box. A colleague pays ten times that much to regularly eradicate dandelions from her lawn.)
Since before Plato, the Greeks have been eating dandelion leaves in salads, or steaming and dressing them with a slick of herby olive oil. Lamb's quarters make a wonderful salad addition. So do violets, which turn into a delightful dessert accent when sugared and candied. Wood sorrel is a tasty, tart, lemony green. Amaranth is a nutritional powerhouse, and its grain is especially helpful for those avoiding wheat. You can steep nettle to create a detoxifying tea, or you can turn it into pesto. No nettle? Try garlic mustard instead. Gift says she tucks backyard plantain leaves into her BLTs. Burdock root, embraced by macrobiotics, is delicious in stir-fries with carrots, onions and tamari. You can also make healing tinctures with many of the above (and other) "weeds." The list goes on. For some ideas, take a gander at my site, SustainableSuppers.com, or at this previous Ethicurean post, "Weed'em and Reap."
Weed power also extends beyond the belly: weeds can often act as deterrents to pests that might otherwise gobble up a crop.
"In Central America," Gift says, "there are terms for "good" weeds and "bad" weeds in agricultural fields, and so if they're growing corn, for example, and they have lamb's quarters or amaranth come up, they recognize that these weeds have a use, and so those might be termed "good" weeds.
"We don't have such a term at all. The idea of a 'good' weed is an oxymoron for us."
For the record, Gift is not agitating for all weeds to survive at all times. She herself hacks away at a multiflora rose bush in one chapter of her book, and does indeed kill off her backyard poison ivy to protect her young daughters. But "the green carpet," as she calls it, is not her goal:
"The carpet is a really strange phenonmenon. And I get these glimpses of understanding it, but not quite enough to really want it for my whole lawn. If I do avoid being self-righteous in the book, then I hope that that's part of what does it: understanding that desire to have something look and feel like a carpet but then talking [about] why that isn't going to work ecologically."
One reason it doesn't work ecologically is that lawn pesticides and herbicides and fungicides actually contribute a great deal to, say, that atrazine in our drinking water and in the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. (The Dead Zone is an area virtually devoid of any fish and marine life; scientists predict it will grow to about the size of New Jersey this year.) Gift says we shouldn't always be so hasty to blame big farms, though.
"In terms of number of acres, farmers control more, but in general, the fact that a lawn owner is fertilizing more per acre and is spraying more pesticide per acre than a farmer...should really give us pause," she says, adding that farmers should take responsibility for their role. "But their responsibility is tempered by economics: they're not going to spray more per acre than is actually going to kill the weeds. Whereas, [non-farmers] will spray to the acre to get every single last dandelion."
I tell her that most of my friends who employ lawn services don't know what the workers are spraying. Or why. They just accept the exercise at face value and pay up.
"Yes, and the person who comes out and sprays your lawn is not necessarily the person who would evaluate it and say, 'We need this many gallons per acre,'" Gift says.
"They have a set rate that they're spraying for that day. And it doesn't have any basis on evidence of looking at what's in your lawn — as if spraying a lawn would be necessary anyway — but even if they were looking at it, I doubt that the rate of pesticide is calculated that way."
And what about homeowners who bear forth the chemicals themselves, such as the grandfather who sprayed his lawn before his grandkids arrived?
"One of the scary points that I make is that the pesticides that you can get over-the-counter for yourself are not actually safer than the ones that would be applied by a professional applicator. It's not at all like prescription drugs. What makes them be over-the-counter vs. professional is actually more about concentration, and how much you're paying per gallon, than it is about anything to do with safety. So, I think looking at the safety level of products, even in your home, can be really important."
But that's not as easy as it sounds. Gift says that companies often don't list their "inert" ingredients on the labels of their herbicides, pesticides and fungicides: those inert ingredients are considered trade secret and therefore confidential. But inert does not necessarily mean "harmless." ("That's how our food used to be, too," she adds.)
Product names, Gift says, are also often something that can be easily (and deliberately) confused with other products: "For example: you can have two products that have the same active ingredient, but they have different trade names, because the trade name is suggesting power. It's trying to market the product, essentially. But you're not acutally told what's in it."
The whole business has become so complicated that even farmers who have traditionally done their own spraying are turning now to people who specialize in spraying, according to Gift.
If you succeed in getting your hands on both product names and labels, Gift recommends researching the possible health effects of some of those products at Beyond Pesticides, or other Dirty Dozen websites. She believes such research could prompt people to curtail spraying down to one application per year — or even less.
"There's nothing wrong with going cold turkey, though, because even if you go cold-turkey, there's still going to be some residual in that lawn for the first year or so. It'll take a little while before the weeds start popping through."
The transition time also allows people adjust to their lawns' real state state. Gift hopes born-again sprayers might actually find an au naturel lawn more beautiful than an outdoor carpet. Her lawn, for instance, is green all summer because she avoids the pesticide cycle in which many of her neighbors' yards are caught: all that spraying begets more spraying …and more water …and more fertilizer …leading to crispy summer yards.
Gift recalls one yard where, "fertilizer had caused growth that was beyond the ability of those roots to acquire water later. And so the watering became necessary, but, of course, if you're watering, you have to do it pretty carefully in order not to encourage thatch on your lawn, because the surface water will tend to make the grass form surface roots, and those roots will die and then all of a sudden you've got big patches of dead grass. And it all starts with that fertilizer application, which is essentially a vanity application."
Like a detergent that strips away all the natural oils?
Gift thinks that a movement towards appreciating natural lawns is gaining some traction, although it might take some time to encourage new perspectives. Friends of hers in New Mexico ripped out their lawn and replaced it with gravel, "because a lawn is completely inappropriate in New Mexico, ecologically."
Instead of grass, her friends planted a lot of native plants, the husband being a botanist.
And then the law came down.
"A police officer tried to give them a citation for all the weeds in their lawn. And [Gift's friend] went through the lawn identifying what each of the plants were and basically said, 'Look, these are native.' And they ended up agreeing that she would pull up four different plants, and that was about it, and he had to go away because they knew what they were talking about."
Sod, oh my
In a bit of tragic irony, the Southwest — which the writer Barbara Kingsolver has compared to a "space station" in terms of natural resources such as water — plays host to some of the biggest sod farms in the country.That's an unconscionable use of resources, Gift says: "One might say sinful if you were inclined that way. If we put half that energy into keeping the soil healthy in the places where we're about to put the sod, there would be so little need for that sod in the first place."
Some good news: the National Wildlife Federation has started a backyard habitat certification program that encourages diverse lawns. The Rachel Carson Institute (where Gift works) and Rachel Carson Homestead and their local county extension have discussed trying to start a certification program for natural lawn care providers. "We're trying to add prestige to a different kind of lawn than has typically had any prestige added to it," Gift explains.
Gift encourages lawn skeptics to visit local businesses or campuses that don't use pesticides on their lawns. "Here in Pittsburgh, the Conservatory, which is a really well-known botanical institution, doesn't use pesticides on their front lawn. And this is an extraordinarily well-kept, manicured space, but they still have clover and violets and some plantain and that kind of thing in their lawn space. And I think a visitor would really have a hard time saying that an unsprayed lawn looked low-class, because this is a very high-class spot."
And it's dinner.
"And it's dinner!"
Holly Hickman is author of the forthcoming Sustainable Suppers on the Road, a travel guide listing restaurants that serve pastured meats, organic food, and local, seasonal fare. She's also Chief Guinea Pig at Sustainable Suppers, where she emphasizes frugal flavors from plate to planet. The audio version of Holly's interview with Gift, along with recipes for nettle tea, sorrel mousse, and dandelion hair care products can be found on the site here.