Do you pull out the weed killer at the first sign of dandelions? If so, you could be putting your family at risk. All pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides are toxic on some level. Along with killing pests and weeds, they can also harm you, your children, your pets, and any wildlife on your lawn.
Young children are especially at risk from pesticides. Their bodies and immune systems are still developing. They are also more likely to spend time outside on the lawn, playing or crawling and coming in contact with any pesticides used there.
It is possible to keep your lawn healthy and looking good without using pesticides. And, if you must use pesticides, you can help keep your family safe by using them with care, and only when needed.
Lawn Care: Start With the Basics
When your lawn is healthy, there's less chance that weeds or pests will take it over. Pests often indicate that your lawn isn't getting the nutrients it needs.
The first step to a healthy lawn is healthy soil. Without healthy soil, grass and other plants have a harder time growing and staying healthy. A soil test will tell you what the pH level is and whether your soil needs extra nutrients. Most grasses do best in a soil with a pH between 6.5 and 7.0. If you find that your soil needs help or a pH adjustment, you can add nutrients as needed.
Most lawns need fertilizer once a year. You can top-dress with a quarter- to a half-inch of compost. Or look for fertilizer that's labeled "slow release" or "natural organic" fertilizer.
Next, find out what types of grasses do best in your area. Each type of grass has different needs for water, sun, and temperature, and choosing one that matches your climate will improve your chances for a healthy lawn.
Know How to Mow
The way you mow your lawn can also make a difference. By leaving your grass a little longer -- usually between 2 ½ and 3 ½ inches -- you can usually improve your lawn's health. This is because the leaves of longer grass have more access to sunlight, which helps the grass grow thicker and create deeper roots.
Longer grass is better for your soil, since it provides more shade and helps the soil retain moisture. It also makes it more difficult for weeds to grow.
To mow your grass at a longer height, you may need to adjust the blades on your mower, since many are adjusted too low. And while you're looking at your blades, make sure they're sharp. Mowing with dull blades can tear and injure your grass.
It's also a good idea to mow often, cutting no more than one-third off of the grass at one time. And those short clippings? No need to bag them. You can save time and money by simply leaving them on the grass to recycle nitrogen.
Use Water Wisely
All lawns need water to grow. But most are watered too often and with too little water. Although each type of lawn has different watering needs, a good rule of thumb is to water only when needed, and then to water deeply, with about an inch of water.
If you use a sprinkler, you can tell when you've watered an inch by putting a few cans of the same size around the watering area. Then time how long it takes to fill them with an inch of water and use that as a guide. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation are more cost-effective than sprinklers, however.
It's also a good idea to let the lawn dry out in between watering. When footprints remain in the lawn after you walk on it, it's time to water. The best time is in the early morning, when the water will be absorbed instead of evaporating. Watering in the evening may lead to mold or diseases.
And if a green lawn isn't important to you, you can choose to water an established lawn just once a month during dry periods. Any areas that turn brown will come back in the fall.
Lawn Care: Pest Control
When pests do appear, many experts agree that integrated pest management (IPM) is the most effective and environmentally friendly way to control pests. Basically, this means using holistic ways to treat pests when possible, such as mowing your lawn higher to shade out weeds or planting more disease-resistant types of grasses or plants, and only using pesticides when needed.
Here are a few suggestions to try before you reach for the pesticide:
• Give nature a little time to work. Damaged parts of your lawn may bounce back over time. And most lawn and garden pests have natural enemies that will help control pests. For example, ladybugs and praying mantises eat other bugs while not damaging your lawn or garden.
• Pull out weeds using a long-handled weed puller. It's usually easier than by hand. Vinegar can also be used to kill weeds.
• Mulch garden beds to prevent weeds.
• Remove diseased plants so the problem doesn't spread.
If you do decide to use a pesticide, follow these guidelines to help keep your family safe:
• Make sure you know what kind of pest you're dealing with so you can choose the right type of pesticide. Your local extension agent or other local lawn expert can help you identify the problem. There are also organic lawn and pest care companies.
• Don't treat the whole lawn if it’s unnecessary. Use pesticides just where you have the problem.
• Read the label on the pesticide carefully and follow the instructions.
• Wear gloves, and long pants and sleeves while using the pesticide to protect your skin. Wash clothing separately before wearing them again.
• Keep children and pets away from the area for the time recommended on the label.
• If you hire a lawn care service, find one that uses an IPM approach to lawn care or uses organic or chemical-free processes.
Setting Realistic Goals for Your Lawn
Having a safer lawn may mean that you learn to live with a weed or two. But even healthy lawns have a few weeds and pests. Knowing that your kids are safe when playing hide-and-seek or leapfrog should make any weeds that do pop up a little easier to tolerate.