CHICAGO — With a front-yard view of the Fourth of July parade route in Arlington Heights, Ill., Lisa Croneberg feels extra pressure to make her lawn look good.
So her husband puts away the old-fashioned manual lawn mower, borrowing a gas-powered model for the occasion. He uses organic fertilizer, aerates the sod and waters it until it’s a deep green. But he won’t spray with weed-killer — that’s where the couple draws the line.
“I’m scared of the toxic way we’re treating the planet,” she said. “Nobody feels like their little bit is going to make a difference. But I feel like every little bit does.”
Once a rarity, natural lawn care is now becoming a feature of Main Street U.S. While for many homeowners, a carpet of spotlessly green grass remains the American ideal, a small but growing group is willing to accept a weed or two if they can do without synthetic fertilizers or weed killers.
Nationwide, the number of households that use only all-natural fertilizer, insect and weed controls increased from an estimated 5 million households in 2004 to 12 million in 2008 and is projected to keep growing, according to surveys by the National Gardening Association. Some of that growth, advocates say, comes from concerns over studies linking pesticides and fertilizers to illnesses and aquatic dead zones.
Advocates see the evolution in public attitudes about pesticides — like the shift in restrictions on smoking and wearing seat belts — reflecting a broader concern for public health.
In the Chicago area, Rachel Rosenberg has led a crusade to get public agencies to stop spraying grass with synthetic herbicides. A lawn devoid of other plants, by her standards, is like an African savannah with only one kind of animal. An occasional dandelion is a healthy sign for the environment and for people.
“People should not be scared of dandelions,” said Rosenberg, executive director of the Safer Pest Control Project. “Your hackles should be raised when you see a perfect green lawn, like, ‘Ooh, this is chemically treated.'”
Rosenberg has been working to get public agencies, landscapers and homeowners to drop pesticides in favor of a more natural approach. Her efforts, she said, are having some success, with the city and some suburbs calling for advice on going green.
The Chicago Park District does not spray weed killer broadly at its neighborhood parks, though it does at showcase areas for tourists like Grant Park and the museum campus. Complaints about dandelions have dropped from hundreds each spring to two this year, Director of Natural Resources Adam Schwerner said.
“I think community members get it,” he said. “I think we’ve come to a good balance. I hate dandelions, but I don’t think of them as the enemy.”
It’s not only good for the environment and public health, he said, it’s also good for the city budget. At $240 an acre, spraying weed killer would cost the city $1.4 million for each application.
Last year, the Evanston, Ill., city council passed a resolution to phase out pesticides except for limited circumstances. Now the city only uses them for problem spots, athletic fields when they get too weedy and a rose garden.
Lisle and Orland Park, Ill., also began natural lawn care demonstration projects last year, and officials say the response in each municipality has been positive.
Despite its growth, organic lawn care remains a small part of the market. Of the $29 billion American consumers spent last year on lawn and garden products and services, only about 6 percent was for organics, in part because conventional products often show faster results, according to Bruce Butterfield, market research director for the National Gardening Association.
Even The Scotts Miracle Grow Company, the lawn and garden market leader, has a line of organic products, with sales “across all consumer segments and walks of life,” spokesman Lance Latham said. Scotts promotes some of the same practices natural lawn care advocates suggest — like mowing high and leaving clippings — and expects organic sales to continue to grow.
For its part, the pesticide industry maintains its products are safe when used as directed and that consumers should have options.
Karen Reardon, a spokeswoman for Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, an industry-sponsored group, said lawn care products are thoroughly tested and regulated. When weeds cause health problems, such as ragweed that causes allergies, she said, it’s better for public health to get rid of them.
“Folks should have the choice to use what they like to use and what works for them,” she said.”There are some instances where you need the certainty that a product is going to deliver results for you.”
Some also say organic fertilizers and weed killers often are more expensive and less effective than synthetic herbicides.
Brian Kelly, of Algonquin, Ill., has a deep green, finely manicured, golf course-style lawn. For the last nine years he has used the same Scotts lawn care products he grew up watching his father use.
“I would consider using organic, I’m always up for change,” he said. “But I would have to see some proven results that it works before I can make the switch.”
While Bill Scheffler’s company, Pure Prairie Organics in Wheaton, Ill., focuses on natural lawn care, he says some customers request what he calls a hybrid program, using chemicals only for noxious weeds like poison ivy or thistle.
Organic lawn care doesn’t mean no care, advocates emphasize, but rather requires a program of fertilizing with organics in the spring, watering deeply once a week, weeding by hand and reseeding, and mowing at least three inches high. It can take a couple of years to get a lawn back in shape.
“You can have a perfect green lawn without any chemicals,” Rosenberg said. “I have that lawn.”