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.
Bumble Bee collecting nectar and pollen from White Clover
Honey Bees love to visit the flowers for nectar, and they make a great tasting honey for the bees and for people.
Honey Bee collecting nectar and pollen from White Clover
Many different butterflies visit White Clover flowers for their nectar.
Eastern-tailed Blue drinking nectar from White Clover
Pearl Crescent drinking nectar from White Clover
Gray Hairstreak drinking nectar from White Clover
Least Skipper drinking nectar from White Clover
Baltimore Checkerspot drinking nectar from White Clover
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.
A female Clouded Sulphur nectaring from a dandelion, while a courting male hovers hopefully nearby.
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.
Eastern-tailed Blue drinking nectar from a dandelion
Sleepy Orange drinking nectar from a dandelion
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.
Sachem butterflies, mating
Let violets creep into your lawn, and you can add the leaves or flowers to your salads.
Violets in the lawn ready for picking for a bouquet.
Pollinators like Bumble Bees will thank you for violet flowers.
Bumble Bee visiting violet flower for pollen and nectar
You may see Great Spangled and other fritillary butterflies, too, because violets are the only food their caterpillars can eat.
Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies drink nectar from many flowers, including the Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) shown here, but their caterpillars can only eat the leaves of violets.
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.
American Robin. Insects, especially caterpillars, are an important source of food for birds. It can take thousands of caterpillars to feed one clutch of hungry baby birds!
Bluets mix well with a lawn, and their basil leaves are evergreen.
Bluets (Houstonia caerulea)
While in bloom their tiny flowers offer nectar for a myriad butterflies, bees, flies and moths.
White-spotted Sable Moth drinking nectar from a Bluet (Houstonia caerulea) flower
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.
Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)
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.
Our results when we tried to grow lawn in shade
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.
Our ‘lawn’ when it rained
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.
Soon after we replaced our lawn with a garden of native plants. It’s even more lush now.
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.
Variegated Fritillary drinking nectar from White Clover
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