Paul Tukey is a journalist turned safe-lawn advocate, as well as the founder of SafeLawns.org and the author of the best-selling book The Organic Lawn Care Manual. With environmental issues coming to the forefront in recent years, Tukey found the inspiration to inform the masses about a more holistic approach to lawn care, which can improve the health of the planet and those inhabiting it. Tukey has now hit the road, traveling across the country to speak about the dangers that synthetic chemicals pose and why organic lawn care is the safe option.
On Thursday, April 19, Tukey will be sharing his award-winning presentation at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
I spoke with Mr. Tukey before his arrival in Indianapolis to learn more about the Safe Lawns movement and his goals for the future.
INDIANA LIVING GREEN: People often hear that they should eat organic, natural foods because the processed foods tend to contain more sugar, sodium and various synthetic ingredients, which can lead to health issues like diabetes. We know organic foods have greater health benefits, but why are organic products better for lawns? Do they improve the health of our lawns?
TUKEY: It is very, very similar. It’s a more holistic approach, it’s a soil-based approach and it’s safer for our kids, our pets, and our planet. We have absolutely unassailable evidence that a lot of the synthetic lawn and garden products that we use are toxic for kids and pets. They are certainly toxic for amphibians and other kinds of wildlife, they’re toxic for water, they pollute the air that we breathe, and quite frankly, there’s just no reason to use those products. So we focus on sustainable techniques that are all soil-focused.
INDIANA LIVING GREEN: What are the health risks associated with synthetic chemicals used to treat lawns?
TUKEY: There’s one organization in this country that has assimilated 350 peer-reviewed scientific studies that all point to various health impacts, everything from ADHD to autism to cancer to neurological impairment to endocrine disruption, so there’s absolutely all kinds of evidence. In fact, if you look at the back of every package of synthetic chemical lawn and garden product, every single one of the labels says caution, warning or danger, keep out of the reach of children. The mere fact that it has an EPA-registered label on it means that it is inherently dangerous. Products that are considered to be fundamentally safe don’t require an EPA label.
INDIANA LIVING GREEN: If somebody was to treat their lawn with synthetic chemicals and they used a well, would that increase the health risks drastically?
TUKEY: Yes. I’m not sure how to respond to the word drastically, but is there a risk? Absolutely. There was a study done in Connecticut of wells that were residential water supplies and 11% of the wells were found to contain lawn and garden pesticides. Another organization did a test on open-water sources (lakes, rivers, streams, all the above) and they averaged five different lawn and garden pesticides in measurable amounts.
INDIANA LIVING GREEN: People might argue that maintaining an organic lawn requires more time and money than traditional methods. Do you agree with this statement?
TUKEY: No, in fact the data and the practice show quite the opposite. When you transition to organic maintenance, you mow less often, you water much less often and you apply fewer products. If you’ve been treating your lawn with chemicals, the so-called 4-step plan, and you want to transition to a holistic, soil-based approach, it’s not a product-for-product swap. You can’t replace every product you used to use. You have to look at what the soil test says you need. If the soil is completely dead and it’s only been growing grass or flowers or vegetables because of the synthetic products you’re putting into it and the soil doesn’t have the ability to grow things naturally, then you may have to take some remedial steps like adding in compost, adding in lots of organic fertilizer to get your soil back to life. That can be expensive in the first couple years, but if you’re averaging out the cost three or five years after the fact, you will save money time after time after time.
INDIANA LIVING GREEN: On your website, SafeLawns.org, you say your mission is: “To create a broad-based coalition of non- and for-profit organizations committed to educating society about the benefits of environmentally responsible lawn care and gardening, and effect a quantum change in consumer and industry behavior.” How successful do you think you have been in achieving this goal?
TUKEY: Well, we’ve been around as an organization since 2006 and when we started, the data showed that less than 5% of the nation was purchasing 100% organic products for their lawn and garden. Now, that figure is somewhere around 17 or 18%. So, it has grown significantly in the last several years and it continues to be one of the only growth sectors of the lawn and garden marketplace. In a down economy, there’s a lot less money being spent on lawns and gardens, since they’re a disposable income. The reality is, food is essential, education is essential, but is a rose bush or a 2-acre lawn essential? No. People aren’t spending as much on the lawns, but each year, the percentage of people who are turning to organics is growing by leaps and bounds. And it’s being driven by young mothers primarily who are very concerned about poisoning their children.
Of all the groups of beings most impacted by this stuff it is the youngest children because they are low to the ground, they have small bodies and they roll around in the stuff at a ground level. Think of where kids can take this stuff in. They can breathe it in, they can absorb it through their skin, they can get in their eyes and their ears and their mouth and they tend to touch their hands to their mouth all the time. 50% of the pesticide poisonings in this country are kids under the age of 5. So this very important when there are children around, as well as pets. Canine and feline leukemia has increased exponentially in the last 30 years.
INDIANA LIVING GREEN: So you said young mothers are particularly receptive to your message because they are worried about the health of their young children, but have you found that many corporations or even the government have begun to use your method or been receptive to your message?
TUKEY: One of the most encouraging things that has happened so far is that in the state of New York and in the state of Connecticut you can no longer apply Weed & Feed or other weed-killing synthetics near schools and daycare centers. The health officials in those states and the legislators have gotten together and said we are no longer going to put the youngest population at risk, at least while they’re at school. In the entire nation of Canada, you can’t apply Roudup and Weed & Feed – it’s against the law. If you’re a homeowner, you have to come to the United States and buy the stuff and bring it back to Canada illegally. That’s the thing that inspired the Safe Lawns movement to begin with, the fact that in 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that towns could ban these products if they wanted to and since that time, more than 80% of Canadians now live in municipalities where you can’t spray Roundup or Weed & Feed. Canada is light years ahead of us. Now there are 36 towns in New Jersey that have banned the use of all lawn and garden pesticides on public property.
So we’re starting to make a little bit of headway with the government and now we’re seeing companies like Scotts Miracle-Gro offer some organic products now. More than 90% of what they sell is still synthetic, but they’re starting to see a consumer demand, so they have started to offer some safer alternatives. There’s a company called Ecosmart that sells 100% natural insect killers. There’s a company called Espoma that has sold fertilizers for over 80 years and 2 years ago, they decided they were going to make all their products organic. So we’re definitely starting to see some change.
INDIANA LIVING GREEN: Do local hardware stores and chains carry organic lawn care products, like the ones you just mentioned?
TUKEY: Yes they do. They are doing so more and more because it’s driven by consumer demand. Home Depot in Canada came out in 2008 on Earth Day and issued a nationwide press release in Canada saying that we’re going to be friends to the environment and we’re no longer going to sell synthetic lawn and garden products, and I called Home Depot in the United States and said “how come you’re still selling them here in our country?” and the response was “because people still want to buy them.” So, I tell consumers they need to vote with their wallets and help these companies make the right decision.
INDIANA LIVING GREEN: SafeLawns.org also mentions that you began contacting community members when global warming emerged as a mainstream issue. What does organic lawn care have to do with global warming?
TUKEY: It has a lot to do with it because the excess mowing of lawns with all those gasoline mowers pump pollutants into the air, that’s one thing. All the electricity that we use to run the pumps that water in all that chemical fertilizer, that’s another thing. So, you’re burning fossil fuels to run them and you’re burning coal to generate electricity. And number three, the biggest one of all, the thing that most people don’t even think about is that the way that synthetic chemicals are manufactured – synthetic lawn and garden products – is through the burning of copious amounts of fossil fuels, and one of the byproducts is carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and you burn methane and you burn other petroleum products. So this is a huge contributor to global warming and greenhouse gases in air pollution.
Organic or natural products by definition are products that come from an animal or a plant, so when we look at organic fertilizer, a very popular one is fishmeal, alfalfa, cornmeal, different kinds of manures, all those are recycled waste products that are turned into fertilizers. So, the insecticides that we used to use used to be plants by and large. They are derived from plant oils and that kind of thing, they are botanical insecticides and the new formulations of botanical insecticides work incredibly well. That’s just for clarity of definition, so it is definitely a global warming related issue.
INDIANA LIVING GREEN: Lastly, where should people begin with organic lawn care?
TUKEY: I would begin by getting a soil test and looking at how much organic matter you have in your soil. Ideally, you want 4 or 5% organic matter and if you’ve only got 1 or 2, you need to figure out how you’re going to get organic matter in there. I would try to find a good bulk source of compost from a farmer, or some of the municipalities do a pretty good job, and I would start there because it all comes back to adding life in the soil.
Organic matter is where the life of the soil is. The higher the organic matter, the more vitality you can have and that’s where disease resistance comes from. I talk a lot to second graders, third graders, fifth graders, sixth graders, and I ask the same question every time: how do trees grow so tall in the forest? This is always a good place to start for everybody.
How do trees grow so tall in the forest? It wasn’t because anyone was running around with Miracle-Gro; it’s because Mother Nature already knows how to grow things. The leaves of the pine needles that fall to the ground every year become the fertilizer that makes growth possible. Trees basically grow their own food with the help of the sun and photosynthesis, but if we rake up all that stuff and put it in a plastic bag by the side of the road, we’ve taken away the free fertilizer. If we bag all of our grass clippings on our lawns when we mow, we’ve taken away free fertilizer. If we kill all the clover on the lawn with weed killer, we’ve taken away the lawn’s own ability to feed itself because that’s clover’s purpose.
Weeds are messages sent by Mother Nature to tell us something about the soil and so start there. Start with “how does Mother Nature grow trees out in the forest with nobody’s help?” And so as gardeners, as organic lawn care people, we are simply enhancing what Mother Nature already knows how to do.