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Nonchemical Trend Spreading Over Lawns Once Drenched in Pesticides

July 27, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ That suburban tradition, a picture-perfect lawn drenched in pungent herbicides and pesticides, may soon be history.

Environmental activists, dedicated gardeners, pest control experts and manufacturers of alternative lawn-care products say the organic ideas once limited to granola-eaters are spreading like crabgrass.

″There’s a change of philosophy, a change of feeling,″ said Phoebe Driscoll of Ambler, Pa., an officer in the Garden Club of America.

″You can’t go through a typical development and not notice there’s a lot less of the smell,″ she said. ″I think people are making the connection that it’s a poison.″

The effects are wide-ranging, including a boom in sales for an old-line organic gardening products firm and establishment of a community dandelion dig in a Chicago suburb that stopped spraying its parks.

And the trend is showing up not just in the front lawn, but in the back- yard garden.

A Louis Harris poll conducted recently for Organic Gardening magazine found that 60 percent of fruit and vegetable gardeners said they used no chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, up from 52 percent two years ago.

″Chemical use in a lawn or garden has become like smoking,″ said Mike McGrath, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. ″People are becoming more aware of hazards in the environment. People are taking it personally.″

One who took it personally is Diana Fleming in Helmsdale, Ill., organizer of what is being called a Great American Dandelion Dig, scheduled for Earth Day next spring.

Ms. Fleming was involved in persuading Helmsdale authorities to stop spraying the village’s 113 acres of parklands with herbicides. Now there are plenty of dandelions, and the villagers will be going after them the old- fashioned way - on their knees.

″It’s putting a positive twist on things,″ she said. ″We hope to have a lot of fun with this.″

Congress is coming under pressure to restrict pesticide use for lawn care, possibly by requiring notification of all neighbors before any application, as two dozen states already do.

″You can have a beautiful lawn without using pesticides,″ Jay Feldman, head of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, told a Senate hearing in May.

″That means the use of toxic pesticides for lawn care is utterly unnecessary and results in unacceptable human health damage and environmental injury,″ Feldman said.

Warren Stickle, president of the Chemical Producers and Distributors Association, replies that pesticides are safe and effective, when the right product is used in the proper amount.

″It’s most important that people read the label and follow directions explicitly,″ Stickle said.

He said people use lawn-care chemicals not just to have beautiful yards, but because they’re concerned about fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, fire ants, ragweed, poison ivy, and poison sumac.

Even dandelions and clover attract bees, Stickle said, pointing out that 50 Americans a year die from bee stings.

All in all, the industry expects steady sales, with perhaps some modest growth.

″For the last couple of years, the amount of lawn care pesticides has been fairly stable, has not gone up and has not gone down,″ Stickle said.

About 15 percent of U.S. households use commercial lawn services that apply pesticides, the Environmental Protection Agency says. It estimates that another 20 to 25 percent are do-it-yourselfers, using pesticides on their own lawns.

Victor J. Kimm, the agency’s deputy assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances, told the Senate hearing that EPA is trying to come up with more data on the environmental effects of pesticides, as well as get more information out to the pesticide-buying public.

″Many people have not fully appreciated the inherently toxic nature of lawn care pesticide products,″ Kimm said. ″Our goal is to improve the public’s awareness that lawn care practices do have environmental consequences, and that there are cost-effective alternatives to reliance on chemicals.″

Sheila Daar, executive director of the Bio-Integral Resource Center in San Francisco, which researches those nonchemical alternatives, says pesticides are still widely overused.

″Most spraying is absolutely unnecessary,″ she said. ″These sprays knock off the natural enemies of pests of all sorts. They simplify the garden ecosystems.″

She said there are now about 60 beneficial insects that can be purchased through the mail for lawns and gardens to control pests without the toxic dangers of pesticides.

The Ringer Corp., based in Minneapolis, sells an array of non-toxic products for lawns and gardens, inspired by founder Judd Ringer’s reading of Rachel Carson’s ″The Silent Spring″ more than 30 years ago.

For years, retailers treated Ringer representatives as if they were peddling snake oil. Sales went nowhere. But the public mood changed.

″For the last five years, our sales are up over 50 percent a year,″ said Rob Ringer, Judd’s son, who is now public affairs coordinator for the company. ″It’s an amazing change of attitude.″

Ringer recorded $14 million in sales last year, and is marketing its products through 12,000 retailers, up from 1,000 just five years ago.

″This is not a fad. It’s not the organic phase people went through in the 60s,″ Ringer said.

″People are looking for effective alternatives. These are scientifically advanced products that work as well or better as what they’re using,″ he said. ″People find they can make a difference in their own back yard.″

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