By Ray Routhier
It’s more than just swapping out a chemical for an organic compound, experts say. You need to develop healthy soil – and to change your thinking.
If you squeeze the trigger on a bottle of Roundup in South Portland this summer, you’ll be breaking the law. An ordinance severely restricting synthetic pesticides on private property took effect in May. The law has been in effect for public property for a year. But advocates and city officials aren’t attacking pesticide use as if it’s a crime. In fact, no fines are attached to the ordinance. Instead, the rollout of the new ordinance is being used as a teachable moment.
The city’s sustainability director, as well as organic lawn and garden advocates, are using the new ordinance to educate people about ways to manage weeds and pests in lawns and gardens without the potential harm of chemicals.
The goal is to get people to think about lawn and garden care in new ways. Managing pests organically is not a product-for-product swap – replacing Roundup with some organic compound, say. It’s more about creating healthier soil, where grass and plants can flourish, and conditions where pests will not.
“The basic thing is you really need to go back to nature, and nature will take care of everything,” said Cathy Chapman, a member of South Portland’s Pest Management Advisory Committee and a certified Master Gardener. “You have to feed the soil and help maintain all the organisms in it that sustain life. With a healthy lawn, the grass will outgrow the weeds.”
The South Portland ordinance prohibits synthetic pesticides unless listed as “allowed” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or for certain purposes, such as commercial agriculture, pet tick and flea treatments, or insect repellents. Portland also passed an ordinance similar to South Portland’s, which goes into effect for private property in July, 2019. The Portland law allows fines of $100 to $500. Other Maine towns have some restrictions on pesticide use, but the ones in Portland and South Portland are broader than most, said Garrett Corbin, legislative advocate for the Maine Municipal Association. To see how your town restricts pesticides, go to Maine.gov.dacf and search for “pesticide ordinances.”
In announcing the ordinances, officials in both Portland and South Portland talked about widely reported health hazards associated with pesticide use on lawns and gardens. Studies have linked many commonly used pesticides to cancer, birth defects, and other ailments, said Heather Spalding, deputy director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. They are also considered dangerous to wildlife and water resources, Spalding said.
So even people who live where pesticides are not against the law might want to consider alternative methods.
Here, then, are some tips and resources that can help you manage weeds and pests in your yard without synthetic pesticides.
TAKE A TEST
Since managing pests and weeds organically starts with healthy soil, experts recommend you start with a soil test. South Portland, as part of the ordinance rollout, has test kits available at the city’s sustainability office. But people anywhere in Maine can get a soil testing kit from a University of Maine Cooperative Extension office (the Cumberland County office is in Falmouth) or by ordering one online at the extension’s website. Once you have a kit, you need to dig up soil slices for every area you want tested. Follow the instructions on the test, then send them to the UMaine soil testing lab in Orono. The cost is generally $15 per sample.
The test will tell you what nutrients your soil may need and whether it’s acidic or not. With that information, you can start figuring out what you need to do to make your soil healthier. It might be adding lime, or compost, or organic materials with “good” bacteria that make it tough for grubs or pests to survive.
“In the traditional chemical program, you’re just feeding the top quarter-inch of the grass, but with organic you’re looking to improve the soil biology, which in turn feeds your grass and makes it more insect resistant and drought resistant,” said David Melevsky, owner of Go Green Landscaping in Saco.
GREEN GRASS 101
Besides nutrients, an organic, weed-free lawn needs loose soil. Soil can become compacted over time, and weeds thrive in compacted soil, said Julie Rosenbach, South Portland’s sustainability director. One way to test for compacted soil is to try to stick a screwdriver in it. If you have to push hard, it’s compacted.
To aerate your lawn, you can rent a machine at most big-box stores or buy strap-on aerator shoes and just walk around in your yard. Walmart sells them for about $16. The best time to aerate, experts say, is either in early spring or in the fall. Once your soil is good and loose, plant grass seed where you need it, and fertilize it with compost for nutrition. The best time to do that is in the fall, says Chapman, the Master Gardener.
And just because you are going organic doesn’t mean you have to do it all yourself. You can still hire a lawn service to take care of things for you organically, such as Go Green Landscaping in Saco, Maine Organic Lawn Care in Richmond, Shaw & Son in Augusta and Peak Landscapes in South Portland.
PLANT AND MOW WITH A PURPOSE
What you plant in your yard can help control pests, too, experts say. When planting grass, one way to curb grubs is to add white clover seed to your grass seed, says John Bochert, organic gardening specialist at Eldredge Lumber & Hardware in York. Just add a small amount, maybe about 10 percent of your overall seed mix, Bochert said. Grubs don’t like it and will stay away, he said. You can also prevent pests from making homes in your garden by planting different things from year to year, Bochert and others say. If you plant the same things year after year, you provide a reliable food source for pests who like that plant. Take it away, and the pests will likely go too.
Letting your grass grow longer will help keep weeds out, experts say. While many people think short grass is the epitome of a neat and desirable lawn, that idea needs revisiting. Melevsky says the rule of thumb is to leave your lawn at about 3 inches. The roots will be stronger and the grass will “shade out” the weeds, making it harder for them to grow.
If you have a big patch of weeds, you might consider vinegar-based herbicides, which you can buy at garden supply stores. But be aware that vinegar, with the active ingredient acetic acid, will basically kill whatever it touches, said Eric Sideman, organic crop specialist with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
THE GRASS IS NOT ALWAYS GREENER
Sometimes the best organic solution to a lackluster lawn is no lawn at all. It may be better to plant ground cover in some areas of your lawn – moss or wildflowers, for instance. Grass will struggle to grow in any area of your yard that gets fewer than six hours of sunlight a day, Chapman said. Ground cover can help your yard in other ways, she said, like attracting pollinators or the “good bugs” who eat the bugs that munch on plants. In her South Portland yard, she has Solomon’s seal, a graceful plant with small, white bell-shaped flowers that attracts bees. She also grows sweet alyssum, with little white daisy-shaped flowers that attract bugs who eat aphids. Bonus for you? Less mowing time.
DON’T GO BUGGY
Some of the ways to keep pests out of your garden without pesticides are just common sense, like physically taking them out. That means pulling weeds by hands and also removing beetles or other bugs from plants.
Clay Kirby, an insect diagnostician with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, recommends going out in the morning when bugs (like many of us) are sluggish. He suggests holding a coffee can under the leaf the bug is on, then moving your hand toward the bug. Often the bug, especially if it’s a beetle, will drop from the leaf when it senses your hand and fall into the can. He’s also used a hand-held vacuum cleaner to suck bugs off leaves, though that method takes a little practice, to avoid sucking in the whole leaf.
“Hand-picking bugs can be great therapy after a long day at the office,” Kirby said. To keep bugs off of flowering plants or vegetables, consider row covers, swaths of fabric sold at nurseries and meant to fit over plants, Kirby said. Also, garden sanitation is an important way to stop bugs. When the plants die, chop up any debris and remove it. If you don’t, pests will find it and use it for their new home, Kirby said.
But if you want the ease of spraying an organic solution to kill pests, Bochert at Eldredge Lumber recommends products with red cedar oil for killing ticks, grubs and mosquitoes. One brand he likes is called Tick Killz, which can be sprayed on shrubs, mulch and lawns.
READ ALL ABOUT IT
Here are a few online resources that can give you more information on how to manage pesticide-free gardens and lawns:
• Beyond Pesticides – A Washington, D.C. -based nonprofit group that works toward eliminating toxic pesticides. The website has tips and links to information on weed management, encouraging native plants, the use of things like vinegar or herbicidal soaps to kill weeds, as well as information the management of pests like mosquitoes and other insects. Beyondpesticides.org
• Grow Healthy South Portland – This page on the city’s website has tips and links to information on managing specific bugs and weeds, healthy soil, and questions to ask if you’re hiring an organic landscaper. There’s also a Top Ten list of practices for organic lawn management, including soil testing, mowing, aerating, watering and choosing fertilizers. Southportland.org – Search for Grow Healthy South Portland.
• Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides – An Oregon-based group that posts helpful fact sheets on pests, weeds and the treatments or actions that might work on each. The aphid fact sheet, for instance, has pictures and facts to help you identify them, as well as tips for controlling and preventing them. Among the tips? Don’t plant birch trees, because while you may love them, aphids do, too. Pesticide.org
• Organic Materials Review Institute – The major certifier for organic land care products, this website lists thousands of products and materials. Search by category (such as fertilizer), by company, or look for products certified in the last three months. Omri.org
• The University of Maine Cooperative Extension – The website and staff have reams of information on understanding your soil and what lives there, which organic proponents say is key to managing a lawn and garden without pesticides. On the website you can sign up for soil test, ask a gardening question, and get information on how to identify pests. Extension.umaine.edu, search for “gardening.”
• Wild Seed Project – The website of this Portland-based organization offers guidelines and advice on how to create an organic/ecological landscape. It also sells seeds for native plants and offers other resources and reading on the subject. There’s a list of frequently asked questions, plus one of upcoming workshops and talks on landscape-related topics around Maine. wildseedproject.net/
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: