Its Not Easy Being Green: Reflections On A Summer Of Yard Work

Over the past few years, my family and I have integrated various “green” practices into our home life. We eat more home-grown vegetables, have joined various community shares agriculture  programs (CSAs) and co-ops and have faithfully visited our local farmers’ markets.  “Going green” also means being considerate about the amount of waste generated by our family and about being good stewards to the land by monitoring our usage of various chemicals.

We live in a typical “cookie-cutter” suburb which happens to house some of the best schools in the state. We chose our neighborhood because of the decent sized lot filled with mature trees, easy access to the airport and other amenities as well as close proximity to the city and places of employment. We confidently bought our little slice of “pretty and safe” Americana as a place to raise our then newborn as well as the rest of the brood still to come. Naively, we did not know the full extent of all the latent rules which flow through the burb-topia machine; we soon figured out the hidden rules of the neighborhood game.

Every lawn in our neighborhood is picture perfect as if it belongs in the latest edition of Golf Digest. While living right smack in the middle of the suburban golf course, one is expected to follow suit and keep your lawn looking the same as all the rest. If you are not par to course, you are the sore thumb and you are the kid that no one sits with during lunchtime. So how does one achieve lawn perfection? One word: chemicals.

As the new kids on the block struggling to fit in while maintaining our own unique identity, we had to make some tough choices. Do we stick to our ideals and risk being outcasts when our lawn comes up short compared to the rest of the lot or do we cave and spread the chemicals known for eliminating the native weeds and “greening up” the lawn?

Now I am not a chemist, nor do I play one at the local theater and I do realize that not all chemicals are bad. Furthermore, I'm not claiming that my family could be cited as a model "green family" that lives life in the pure. We are however, taking heed and asking questions before following the status quo of conforming to the neighborhood barking order.

The burning questions: What are the chemicals placed on the lawns which magically transform them from celery green to a deep and rich broccoli leaf green? What sort of chemical magic is involved when one application will kill off clover, weeds and dandelion while sparing the blades of grass? What are the long term effects of these chemicals on barefoot pregnant moms or toddlers playing in the grass? Where do the chemicals go when the ground becomes over saturated with sprinkler water? What are the long term effects of that run-off which ultimately enters our water systems which are the arteries of our mother earth?

Consider these facts

  • Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides 19 have studies pointing towardcarcinogens, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 15 with neurotoxicity, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 27 are sensitizers and/or irritants, and 11 have the potential to disrupt the endocrine (hormonal) system.
  • Children take in more pesticides relative to body weight than adults and have developing organ systems that make them more vulnerable and less able to detoxify toxins.
  • Exposure to home and garden pesticides can increase a child’s likelihood of developing asthma.
  • Studies link pesticides with hyperactivity, developmental delays, behavioral disorders, and motor dysfunction.
  • Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater, and 23 have the potential to leach.
  • Runoff has resulted in a widespread presence of pesticides in streams and groundwater. 2,4-D, found in weed and feed and other lawn products, is the herbicide most frequently detected in streams and shallow ground water from urban lawns.
  • Of the 50 chemicals on EPA’s list of unregulated drinking water contaminants, several are lawn chemicals including herbicides diazinon, diuron, naphthalene, and various triazines such as atrazine.
  • Runoff from synthetic chemical fertilizers pollutes streams and lakes and causes algae blooms, depleted oxygen and damage to aquatic life.

This recent research indicates a strong correlation between commonly used pesticides and Parkinson's disease. Other research shows strong links between children's exposure to lawn chemicals and disorders such as ADHD and Autism. Do your own researchperhaps it will do us all some good to stop and question just how “normal” is the norm, anyway? And if the costs outweigh the benefits.

In my household, we have decided to go old school and try to tackle the lawn issues sans harmful chemicals; this means a lot of elbow grease hours have gone into pulling weeds. Never before had I felt the primal satisfaction in getting a “good pull”- where I succeed in uprooting the entire three inch root of the weed beast. Armed with spray bottles filled with vinegar and water, my son and his neighbor friends beg me to allow them the joy of “shooting” down the dandelions. We have even taken to eating lion's tooth (dandelion) salads. Still, our lawn doesn't stand up to par with the rest in the lot. We have bald patches and spreading clover and those darn dandelions put up a good fight, popping back up sooner than I prefer! As for fertilizer? Chicken poop is our preferred choice.

It is not always easy “being green”. It is, at times, difficult to face the neighbors or even my own fears of being labeled as weird for having such a strange looking lawn. It is also much more labor intensive to spray and pull the weeds on a one by one basis. In the end though, I feel really good about allowing my children to play in the grass and about doing my little part in healing our earth.


Leigh Ann Ahmad was dragged kicking and screaming to the Cities by her husband; having been born and bred in Cleveland, Ohio, she just could not fathom how colder could be better. Now, five years and two kids later, she cannot imagine a better place to play and thrive. She’s a reformed carb-aholic, wannabe writer, social justice advocate, book- club geek, veggie grower and local foods connoisseur.