Are you using chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers on your lawn? If so, you really should stop. For a few reasons.
One reason is that you’re missing out on a lot.
Herbicides used on lawns will kill beneficial plants including White Clover, dandelions, violets, Spring Beauty and more that would otherwise grow in harmony with grasses. Why do I say these plants are beneficial?
Let’s take White Clover (Trifolium repans) as an example. Native Bumble Bees are important pollinators for both native plants and agricultural crops, and are frequent visitors to White Clover flowers, eating and harvesting pollen and nectar.
Honey Bees love to visit the flowers for nectar, and they make a great tasting honey for the bees and for people.
Many different butterflies visit White Clover flowers for their nectar.
Some butterflies who specialize on Pea (Fabaceae) family members as caterpillar food use White Clover. The females lay eggs on the plant, and after hatching, the caterpillars munch on White Clover flowers or leaves. The female Clouded Sulphur in the photo below is drinking nectar from a dandelion. If the male Clouded Sulphur is successful in persuading her to mate with him, there is White Clover nearby for egg-laying.
What about dandelions? If you aren’t using chemicals on your lawn, you can pick dandelion leaves and add them to salads, or cook them with a little olive oil and garlic or onions. Dandelion leaves have many times the nutritional value of spinach, and if you pick them from your lawn they’re free.
Eastern-tailed Blues and Sleepy Oranges are a few of the butterflies who visit dandelion flowers for nectar.
Got crabgrass? This pair of Sachem will thank you, because the female can lay her eggs on crabgrass, one of the few plants her caterpillars are able to digest.
Let violets creep into your lawn, and you can add the leaves or flowers to your salads.
Pollinators like Bumble Bees will thank you for violet flowers.
You may see Great Spangled and other fritillary butterflies, too, because violets are the only food their caterpillars can eat.
None of these caterpillars will damage your lawn. The caterpillars may make it through metamorphosis to become butterflies, or they may become a meal for hungry ground-feeding birds like Robins. Both fates are good options.
Bluets mix well with a lawn, and their basil leaves are evergreen.
While in bloom their tiny flowers offer nectar for a myriad butterflies, bees, flies and moths.
If you are using herbicides to kill the violets, dandelions, clover, crabgrass and other plants, you are eliminating any value your lawn may have for wildlife.
If you are using chemical pesticides, you are killing these animals outright, along with thousands of beneficial microbes that live in and help aerate the soil. These microbes help keep the soil healthy.
Not convinced yet to stop using chemicals on your lawn? Let’s consider a reason that might be more compelling.
You are also adding toxins to your soil, toxins that may find their way into the groundwater, our watersheds, and ultimately into your drinking water.
How toxic could these chemicals be? Let’s look at a few highlights from their material safety data sheets to find out.
One commonly used fertilizer shouldn’t be too toxic unless a large amount is ingested. But exposure can cause eye irritation, skin irritation, and if inhaled, may cause ‘respiratory tract irritation’. It also carries this warning: “Avoid discharges into waterways as fertilizer can cause nitrification and algae blooms.”
The material safety data sheets for herbicides, the chemicals that kill plants, are positively frightening. Here are a few excerpts (Bold added by me):
“There is no specific antidote if this product is ingested.”
For dermal exposure or inhalation, effects of exposure include: “Possible carcinogenicity, Allergic skin reaction, Drowsiness or dizziness”.
“Highly toxic to fish and invertebrates. Practically non-toxic to birds and bees.” (Please note, bees are invertebrates.)
“May cause an allergic skin reaction
May cause drowsiness or dizziness
Suspected of causing cancer
May cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure”
“Toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects”
“Danger. Causes irreversible eye damage. Harmful if swallowed. Harmful if absorbed through skin.”
“Application around a cistern or well may result in contamination of drinking water or groundwater.”
Some of these material safety data sheets include a skull and cross bones for emphasis. If you would like to read them in their entirety, there are links to them at the end of this post.
Do you want you, your kids, grandkids, or pets to play and roll around on that chemically treated surface? Do you want these chemicals getting into our water supplies and watersheds?
The use of these chemicals in lawn care is just a fashion, a choice. It’s not a necessity.
Years ago, lawn ‘fashions’ were different. White Clover was included in seed mixes for lawns, because the clover releases nitrogen into the soil in amounts that can be used by the soil and its microbe community. This helps lawn grasses thrive. Violets were commonly seen creeping in with lawn grasses, aided by their seed dispersers and excellent soil aerators, ants. When I was a little girl, I loved to pick bouquets of violets and clover from our backyard and give them to my mom.
With the fashion that has been in favor now for a number of years, lawns must consist of nothing but carefully selected grasses, species that naturally thrive in cool, moist conditions. They may look lush in spring, but when the heat and drought of summer arrives, lawns must be watered to maintain that green appearance. That costs money and uses a valuable resource unnecessarily. Some states and municipalities have instituted hefty fines for watering lawns.
Money is spent on chemicals that are applied to the entire lawn surface to kill the clover, dandelions, crabgrass, violets and other non-lawn-grass plants that might otherwise creep in. Chemical fertilizers are purchased and applied to add nitrogen to the soil, a job that White Clover does for free. This chemical application of nitrogen is often more than the soil can absorb. The nitrogen runs off, contaminating our waters with a toxic effect on aquatic plants and wildlife, and ends up in our drinking water.
We’re actually spending money to make our soil less fertile, our lawns toxic, and to contaminate our waters. Who benefits from this, other than chemical companies, and lawn maintenance companies who apply the chemicals?
Here are some alternative actions you can take.
Instead of using chemical fertilizers, when you mow, let grass clippings fall into the soil. In autumn, use a mulching mower to chop up any leaves that have fallen on the lawn. The leaves and grass clippings will act as natural fertilizer, breaking down with the aid of the microbes in the soil, improving the health and consistency of the soil. Microbes and invertebrates will aerate the soil, making it more hospitable to plant roots, and more absorbent of rainwater.
Are you trying to grow lawn grass in the shade? Just give up. Please. It’s a losing battle. Lawn grasses will never thrive in shade. In my experience, the grass will die every year by July, no matter what kind of seed mix you apply or how much soil you add. If you start with sod it might take a bit longer, but the grass will still die eventually.
Are you concerned about standing water in your lawn after a rainfall? Do you see erosion in some places? That’s because lawn grasses have very short roots. They are only a tiny bit better than pavement in absorbing rainwater.
The solution to the shade, standing water and erosion problems are all the same. Plant shade-loving native perennials, shrubs and trees instead. They’ll do well and be far more healthy and productive for you and for local wildlife. Their leaves will slow the flow of falling rain, and the roots will help the soil absorb rainwater, while holding the soil in place.
Be cutting edge. Be part of the lawn fashion revolution. Welcome the arrival of clover, dandelions, crabgrass, violets, bluets, spring beauty, sedges and so many other plants to your lawn. Don’t try to grow grass in the shade, where it will never thrive. You’ll be keeping your family healthier, and save money at the same time.
A wildlife, family and pet friendly lawn should be small, just big enough for playing. It should consist of a mix of grasses, clover, and other plants that might readily grow in harmony with each other, without any chemical applications.
For Great Spangled Fritillaries, Leave the Leaf Litter!
A Butterfly Garden that Embraces the Shade – Spring
A Butterfly Garden that Embraces the Shade – Summer and Fall
A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by Ants!
More pollinators on Bluets: https://the-natural-web.org/2015/06/19/late-spring-in-stowe-vermont/
A Homeowner’s Guide to Stormwater Management
Lawn and Garden Care, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay
Lowenfels, Jeff; Lewis, Wayne. Teaming with Microbes – The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. 2010
Mader, Eric; Shepherd, Matthew; Vaughan, Mace; Black, Scott Hoffman; LeBuhn, Gretchen. Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies. 2011.
Material Safety Data Sheets for some commonly used lawn chemicals
How to interpret a Material Safety Data Sheet
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Thanks for the reminders of why……? I never wanted to use pesticides because of pets and children but now, to see the wealth of butterflies, I have become a disciple. The Wildflower preserve has helped me immensely in my choice of garden plants. It is a grand adventure. You are my goddess.
Wow, thanks, Patricia!
I keep coming back to this post because it has been such a part of my life trying to get people I know to give up the immaculate golf course green yards that everyone thinks is the ideal. I point out the clovers especially as being essential to a yard if you want turf grass. I ask people why they would consider violets as weeds, mine grow everywhere under my shrubbery and then magically all summer long I have fritillaries in my yard and nectaring on my flowers? Of course I have the Monarchs also because I have areas of milkweeds growing (those bought me a lot of trouble from code enforcement) and even today I walked out and counted dozens of monarch cats which I know are the last brood who will be on their way to Mexico in a couple of weeks.
My other success story are the Buckeye butterflies which I astonishingly read that the old timers would introduce their eggs into their gardens for weed control, they host on many “weed” plants but do little harm to a garden. I chose to introduce plantains into some other areas of my yard. I know they aren’t really native but they are ubiquitous in suburbia and they are one of the “weeds” the chemical company yard care firms target. I put in some snapdragons also and voila I have Buckeye butterflies.
Lastly, I have host plants for every native swallowtail and I get many different swallowtails, still working on Pipevine and Zebra swallowtails. The Wafer Ash brought in Giant Swallowtails and when they make an appearance in my yard in Erie, PA people think I have some type of exotic butterfly because they had never seen them before. I walked the natural areas around Lake Erie, and believe me there are few left, but Wafer Ash or Hoptree or Stinking Ash (Ptelea) abounds on Lake Erie’s southern shore and there I saw Giant Swallowtails and I figured out the citrus tree that grows in our climate is mistakenly called an Ash. It grows well in clay soil, has early blossoms that smell of orange, attracts bees, wasps and flies in the spring and then draws the migrating Giant Swallowtails.
When you can do all of this with an 1/8 of an acre yard and I see these sterile yards all around me I just wonder if other people could just try to break the pattern. As it is now, just like when I lived in Maryland my yard, has to be just an isolated oasis viewed with hostility from people who just don’t want to understand. I’ve seen people grow hollyhocks and then spray them with pesticides when they saw Painted Lady caterpillars munching on them. My hollyhocks grow 5 ft. tall, the caterpillars can’t possibly eat them all and they are quite obviously evolved to grow rapidly and large because they are eaten.
I wish people could see the folly and unsustainability of current landscaping practices in suburbia. We people living on the shores of the Great Lakes should be really scrutinizing these practices and not just be pointing fingers at agriculture as the source of the excess nitrogen and phosphorus that is proving disastrous to the lakes. If some real research was done I would bet that much of the lakes’ pollution is from the endless miles of suburban lawns chemically maintained as sterile savannas in what was historically hardwood forests.
I completely agree. It sounds like you have done wonderful things on your property to make it wildlife friendly, things that don’t require a lot of money to implement. In terms of influencing your neighbors, have you tried certifying your property with one or more wildlife organizations such
as National Wildlife Federation or the North American Butterfly Association, and putting up a sign so people know the benefit of what you’re doing?
Engage your neighbors in conversation when you’re out, and draw their attention to all the critters you see on your property. It sounds like you are already doing that to some extent. You could write an op ed for your local paper, or try finding a sponsor for legislation that would be more favorable to natural landscaping methods.
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It is unbelievable the amount of pesticides, herbicides, and superfluous fertilizers applied to suburban lawns in the U.S. The chemical companies made the clovers a “weed” because broad leaf herbicides can’t discriminate weed from beneficial plant. So they just declared clover a weed. Even in the “good old” days when nobody cared about the environment anyone seeding a lawn knew that clover should be in the lawn seed mix to ensure nitrogen fixing in the turf. Anyway, my yard is an oasis of native plants, no chemicals and a mixture of trees, shrubs, grasses and I have all of the neighborhood wildlife. Wanted to mention the dandelions feed the larva that we know as wooly bear caterpillars. I love having all of the flora and fauna I can get into my yard and when it is blooming nobody complains. Code enforcement in my part of Pennsylvania will come after you so you have to show what was cultivated and technically they can’t cite you but they will so you have to pursue legal means to get them to leave you alone. They can fine you, come in and tear out all of your plants, spray it with herbicides and leave you with a fine and a bill and surprisingly most citizens think it is your just desserts.
We really have to work towards educating people, giving them better information with which to make decisions, and changing these counter-productive ordinances.
Beautiful!! Thanks for the specifics. I have been delighted to see the return of the clovers and the bees. Brings me back to my childhood! Your photos are a gift for the senses. P
It’s inspiring to see life even in a lawn.
Thank you, Mary Ann, for highlighting the single most important thing that we can do as homeowners to stop the assault of toxic chemicals on the natural world. Your stunning photographs of the many smaller butterflies that feed on “lawn weeds” provides convincing evidence of their importance in the landscape. Well done!