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Outdoor Living: Back to Nature
Comments () | Published May 1, 2010

Natural Weed Control

Whether you take care of your own lawn or hire someone, it’s good to do some homework on lawn treatments.

When a lawn company says “lime and fertilize,” what exactly does it mean? What’s in the fertilizer? Some organic, non-synthetic fertilizers are as good or better for lawns, though they may be slightly more expensive. Espoma makes good lawn and garden products, all organic.

When the lawn company “treats” a yard for pests and diseases, what is it using? Ask for product names and ingredients, then research them online, beginning with the Environmental Protection Agency ( Keep in mind that definitions of what a safe chemical is can change over the years. Many chemicals used liberally in the past—DDT being a prime example—turned out to be deadly to more than just pests.

The chemical now used most for weed control on lawns in this country is 2,4-D. Some European countries have banned 2,4-D, and it’s the subject of ongoing studies questioning its link to cancer, reproductive problems, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

There are other ways to get rid of weeds and pests. Corn gluten can be used as pre-emergent weed control. Applied in early spring, it prevents the germination of weed seeds. Several annual applications might be needed, but it’s organic and safe.

Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a naturally occurring good bacterium used as a pesticide on all kinds of plants and in water to kill mosquito larvae.

For other green ideas, see the Web site Joe Lamp’l has a wide following on the Today show. A former user of chemicals, he offers reasonable arguments against their use on his Web site and lists alternatives.

Each gardener has to balance the need for perfection with the question of what perfection costs. Personally, I’ve learned to love my patchy lawn the way it is.

You could replace some of your lawn with no-care shrubs. Viburnums are easy to grow, beautiful, and not susceptible to pests. Some varieties have fragrant flowers; most have berries for pest-eating birds, gorgeous flowers and leaves, and lovely fall color. Viburnums come in sizes ranging up to 12 feet tall and wide. Another lovely shrub or small tree is serviceberry, or Amelanchier. Or consider one of the deciduous holly hybrids such as sparkleberry (Ilex serrata x verticillata), developed by the National Arboretum. Their bright berries last through fall.

Leave Those Leaves

Trees, a part of any green yard, are underappreciated as air purifiers. They also stop rapid water runoff and provide shade to lower air-conditioning costs.

A 2002 DC law prohibits residents from removing any tree with a diameter of more than 55 inches unless an arborist deems it dangerous or unless the homeowner pays a fine and/or plants trees of equal diameter. For a list of trees that do well in this region and fascinating interactive maps of DC’s trees, check out

If you have trees, you have leaves. And leaves are the great unappreciated bounty of nature. If not raked up, bagged, and removed, leaves can feed the soil in your garden and enrich the plants that grow there.

Most people have trucks bring in loads of mulch or they buy bark mulch in plastic bags. Mulching around plants and trees is a good idea; it keeps down weeds and maintains soil moisture. But chopped-up leaves do the same thing, only better. Leaves put nutrients back into the soil while they’re also working as mulch. Could there be a more elegant biological equation?

Instead of letting your leaves get blown away or sucked up, save them. Pile them up on the lawn and run the lawnmower over them a time or two. Then rake them into a corner or bag them until spring, when you can use the resulting mash for mulch.

Lawn companies can do this for you, and they’re increasingly familiar with the process. Many jurisdictions now offer ground-up leaves for pickup or delivery.

Ultimate Recycling

Leaves can also become the basis for the most magnificent component of nature-friendly gardening: a compost pile.

Composting defines the natural cycle of a garden. Plants gather nutrients from the soil and grow. Then they get pruned or they die. If the cuttings or remains are composted, those nutrients again feed the soil.

You can make compost by layering the following ingredients in a pile: leaves, grass clippings (if you don’t chemically treat your grass), prunings, produce peelings or leftovers, eggshells, coffee grounds (some cafes save their grounds for customers who compost), and horse, cow, or sheep manure. Some people also use fish parts, but never meat.

You want the pile to heat up sufficiently to decompose its contents. The best compost will steam a bit when it’s turned and will feel hot if you plunge your hand into it. Turning the pile frequently helps in decomposition, as does watering it every week or so. Smaller items such as fruits and vegetables decompose faster and help the process. There are also compost-heating concoctions available at garden centers.

If you worry that a compost pile will attract varmints, you can use a closed bin. Garden centers and hardware stores sell different kinds; a good one called the Deluxe Pyramid Composter is about $170 through Gardener’s Supply Company in Vermont ( It comes with a top to let in water and an optional rodent screen.

The Rolls-Royce of compost bins is made by Mantis. It has two barrel-shaped bins that are varmint-proof and can be rotated to redistribute contents. But it’s pricey, at more than $500. It’s available at, where there’s also lots of good information about composting.

When it’s done, compost is dark, moist, and crumbly. It smells earthy but not rotten or sour. Once you have compost, which takes anywhere from six months to a year, you have the most magnificent soil conditioner and fertilizer on earth.

Good bagged compost is available for sale. If you don’t want to bother with compost, some organic soil additives made by Espoma will fertilize soil naturally. But nothing improves the texture of soil like compost. Texture is important for drainage and moisture retention.

For every gardener, there’s a garden. What it looks like, and what it uses up or pollutes or adds to the natural world is infinitely adjustable. You can be green and a garden artist at the same time.


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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 05/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Articles