The Perfect Lawn Is a Thing of the Past

With Low Mow May gaining popularity over the past few years, fans of the perfect lawn are becoming a minority. Many have realized that uniform lawns are not very environmentally friendly, as they are almost impossible to maintain without products of all kinds. In fact, to maintain a monoculture of Kentucky bluegrass, you have to use selective herbicides that kill all the broad-leaved plants: clovers, dandelions, violets, etc. Unless, of course, you spend hours pulling out the “intruders”.

It is practically impossible to maintain a monoculture without selective herbicides.

Pesticides in Canada

Some counter that all pesticides currently used in Canada are government-approved. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe for our health and the environment. Glyphosate, too, is still permitted, yet it is clearly linked to serious illnesses such as cancer, cognitive disorders and Parkinson’s disease.

In Canada, pesticide registration is overseen by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA). But the government doesn’t conduct tests. It relies on data supplied by the industry. The federal government has even given the industry carte blanche to regulate itself when it comes to managing new GMOs! In other words, the government is going to rely on the biotech industry to tell it which GMOs are on the market. Thus jeopardizing the integrity of organic farming! 

In Quebec, the Pesticide Management Code regulates the use and sale of pesticides. Only twenty or so pesticides were banned, and only on public lawns in 2003 and private lawns in 2006. This provincial regulation is currently under review and is intended to apply to all landscaping. The list of banned products is also set to grow.

Towards Stricter Regulations

Fortunately, many cities, like Montreal, have already adopted stricter by-laws banning the application of all pesticides except for a short list of low-impact products, such as insecticidal soap. But are these regulations really enforced? Cities react to complaints, and it’s often very difficult to prove that a banned product has been applied.

In principle, the name of the product used should be written on the sign that must be affixed to the lawn after a treatment.

It’s Up to Us!

So it’s up to us citizens, to be vigilant and ask questions of the contractors who look after our lawns. First of all, it’s not a good idea to sign a contract in the middle of winter when the snow is still covering the ground. A good contractor should diagnose our lawn and give good maintenance advice, such as: cutting the grass no lower than 4 inches, grasscycling, overseeding bald spots, etc. Next, they should use 100% natural fertilizers or compost. Pesticides should only be used when absolutely necessary (not to kill dandelions), and low-impact pesticides should be preferred.

Have a great summer away from chemicals!

Edith Smeesters is a biologist and a pioneer in ecological horticulture in Quebec. She has given countless conferences and workshops and written several books on the subject for over 20 years. She founded and has been president of several environmental organizations, such as Nature-Action Québec and the Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. She was a key figure in the creation of the Pesticide Management Code of Quebec, which has been in effect since 2003. She has received several awards for her involvement in the environment and is a member of the prestigious "Cercle des Phénix".

3 comments on “The Perfect Lawn Is a Thing of the Past

  1. marianwhit

    Some of our biggest introduced “land grabbers” “ecology changers” “pollinator network disruptors” and “soil chemistry and nutrient manipulators” come from lawns…quitting mowing them and allowing them to seed means they don’t stay in the lawns or on the roadsides, but colonize new areas putting additional pressures on native plants for the same finite set of resources. Native plants ALREADY have a lot of pressure…for space to live among humans, but from massive numbers of predators, which introduced plants are free from, meaning we have given the introduced plants MASSIVE evolutionary advantages…and they take it, growing without check.

    Thanks to “No Mow May” I am losing ground in several “managed for native species” native plant areas, some of which were never invaded before, and some of which I have years of work invested in returning to more functional sunny habitats. That Facebook phenomenon developed in Europe…and most of the lawn weeds are from Europe, native there, and evolved for heavy grazing pressure that they do not get in the Americas.

    My heart sinks as I am inundated…it literally “snows” dandelion seeds here. I am still out there trying, because I know only humans can put a check on introduced plants with no predators. If you think it is bad now, want to throw up your hands and ignore it all, how will our landscape be in another 100 years? Kew estimates 40% of all our plants face extinction…and that loss will carry right up the food change if we all don’t pay more attention and take an active role in the defense of native plants. We reap what we sow, and the biological mess of living competing things that grow feral and without check in wild places is…massive.

    I suggest this…halve the lawn…make a glade…make a space small enough that you can weed by hand or selectively with a whipper snipper. Mow high…plant low growing “weedy” native plants like wild strawberry, viola, calico aster, grasses, sedges, rushes, mosses, lichens etc. in it (that is for my zone…check for plants in your own). Increasing and protecting co-evolved biodiversity should be our highest goal at this point.

    Put the other half of the lawn into larger native plants, trees shrubs, and perennials, creating needed three dimensional habitat that provides food and floral resources through the year. Realize that more than food is needed…winter insulation, places to hide from unnatural predators like domestic cats and dogs, and nesting materials are all necessary. This is consistent with the teachings of the late great E.O. Wilson. Search “E O Wilson Half Earth Audio book” and the third choice is a free version read by that gentle man who defined ecology in ways we never understood. This means there is hope…in our efforts and self-education as gardeners in the face of massive anthropogenic planetary degradation.

  2. Ann T Dubas

    I wish it were possible to have a selective herbicide, specific to each region, that would attack only invasive plants. Not every broad leaf plant in a lawn is a native plant. And some natives are invasive. We are infested with sprouts of wild cherry as well as the Norway Maple and Alanthus altisima. We spray every year for the Japanese stilt grass. I wish we didn’t have to. It’s one evil or another.

  3. Chemical pesticides are not so commonly used in chaparral climates of California, perhaps because the turf grasses that are popular here are so aggressively competitive. The limiting factor is (or should be) water.

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