Gardening on the Planet, Guest Rants, Lawn Reform

How I Became a Landscape Reformer

Today’s Guest Rant comes from Leslie Nelson Inman, an Adjunct English Instructor at Mercer University and Georgia Tech who is currently taking some time off to write a book. Leslie educated herself about environmental issues and has become passionate about spreading information and solutions widely via social media. Here’s her story, illustrated with infographics she  created.

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I have to give my little dog, Teddy, credit for starting me on my landscaping reform journey. I have a habit of walking my dog in downtown Atlanta historic neighborhoods, so I can gaze nostalgically at the century-old bungalows and Coca­Cola mansions in Atlanta’s oldest suburbs. My dog and I love to stroll through these old neighborhoods.

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Over time, I became distracted by the little ‘caution’ signs on every front yard, and I was seeing these signs more frequently. I didn’t want my dog on those lawns; I didn’t want her to even sniff those yards. What could the landscapers be putting on the grass that warrants a warning sign? And why would homeowners want something potentially dangerous in their yard? I spent a lot of time researching the answers to those questions.

The answers have become my environmental preoccupation, and as my neighborhood has become more upscale, it’s become an issue I am living with more and more every day. My home has become a little island of organic in a sea of Trugreen/Chemlawn and ‘Mow and Blow Guys’ with their loud, polluting leaf blowers.

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Conventional landscaping practices do nothing to promote a yard as a healthy, functioning ecosystem. Of course, most homeowners are not thinking of their yard as a functioning ecosystem. Yards are seen solely as a means to enhance the home, not as a way to sustain birds or pollinators. Landscapers help homeowners choose the usual turfgrass, Begonias, and Crepe Myrtles, and then manicure it weekly, OCD-­style. Not a twig or a fallen leaf rests upon these perfect lawns.

Yards are not considered nature. Lawns are extensions of living ­rooms, and the grass is living room carpet; the outdoor carpet needs constant vacuuming (or blowing), so the leaf blower brigade is needed as often as possible.

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The advent of these disagreeable tools—the leaf blower and lawn chemicals—have made it possible to have a compulsively neat and tidy yard. It takes a great deal of herbicide, glyphosate, and polluting machinery to achieve this ‘non­natural’ look.

Neighbors like me pay a high price with the constant leaf­blower noise, along with the chemicals that flow into the local stream every time it rains. If you use the normal rakes and brooms that we all grew up with, then you’ll have a ‘good enough yard’, but apparently that’s not good enough.

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To enumerate some landscaping issues more concisely, I find that conventional landscapers fail to understand these concepts:

  1. Biodiversity is highly desirable, but conventional landscapers plant monoculture turfgrass. (Scientific American, “Outgrowing the Traditional Grass Lawn ­ weed-free flowerless grass lawns are a monoculture in microcosm.)
  2. Native plants are best for providing food for birds, but conventional landscapers plant exotics. (Audubon.org, “10 Plants for a Bird-Friendly Yard“­ – insects evolved to feed on native plants and birds raise their young on insects.)
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  3. Peace and quiet allows birds to call, communicate, and survive, but conventional landscapers blast raging leaf blowers. (Current Biology,Noise Pollution Changes Avian Communities and Species Interactions” – Humans have drastically changed much of the world’s acoustic background with anthropogenic sounds that are markedly different in pitch and amplitude than sounds in most natural habitats [1, 2 , 3 and 4]. This novel acoustic background may be detrimental for many species, particularly birds [1].)
  4. Organic is healthy, but conventional landscapers use 2, 4-­D, Mecoprop-­P and Dicambia and other herbicides on lawns and glyphosate on understory and hardscape areas. (EPA.gov­, “EPA Proposes Stronger Standards for People Applying Riskiest Pesticides” – The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing regulations that will limit exposure to dangerous pesticides. These new rules are meant to reduce the incidence of diseases associated with pesticide exposure, including non­-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and lung cancer.)pastedgraphic-6
  5. Fall leaves make a nutrient-­rich mulch, but conventional landscapers cart them away. (Chicago Tribune, “Autumn leaves can add valuable nutrients to garden” – fallen leaves turn into a rich soil amendment when you add them to your compost pile.)
  6. Fragrant native flowers draw pollinators, but conventional landscapers use polluting machinery that spews raw, unburnt fuel along with noxious fumes which make it more difficult for pollinators to smell/detect the life-sustaining plants they need. (Environmental Health Perspectives, “Air Pollution: Floral Scents Going Off the Air?” – Air pollution interferes with the ability of bees and other insects to follow the scent of flowers to their source, undermining the essential process of pollination, concludes a study by University of Virginia researchers.)

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Included in this post are just a few of the infographics I’ve made and shared around social media in hopes of changing the current conventional landscaping paradigm.

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Posted by Leslie Nelson Inman on September 21, 2016 at 6:41 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Guest Rants, Lawn Reform.
24 Comments

24 responses to “How I Became a Landscape Reformer”

  1. Rod Kuehn says:

    My only objection to the article is that it is couched in academic terms. I like to emphasize the personal aspects.

    My front yard is planted to native prairie. Every time I walk by, I stop to take note of which plants have stopped blooming and which are just coming in. It changes from day to day and is never the same from one year to the next. We have a variety of dragonflies and bees. We have fireflies.

    Later in the season, crickets and other singing insects are heard. Going from my yard to the neighbor’s is like turning the sound switch on and off.

    Migrating swallows swoop around my yard and seem to have little interest in visiting other yards.

    In fall the Big Bluestem and Little Bluestem have real fall color. The Switch Grass turns yellow.

    In the warmer seasons, wind pushes the grasses around like waves on the ocean. In winter, the snow perches on the dry flower stems until they are finally crushed under the white blanket.

    I mow once/year.

    Neighbors with a lawn fetish have green and white. It’s always the same, regardless of the number of circuits they make on their double-bagger lawn tractors.

    Neighbors who merely mow, have green in the summer and brown later on as the annual crabgrass and foxtail die off.

    Excruciatingly boring.

    Turf has good uses as play area for youngsters and as milling areas when entertaining. Also good for people who simply are not interested in their yards.

    Native yards take more work and more knowledge, especially during the establishment phase. Later, native yards must still be watched for invasives. However, mowing is vastly less. No leaf blowers. Interest is vastly greater. No herbicides. No watering. Informed city managers welcome the tiny resource footprint.

  2. Jeff Merritt says:

    Very interesting article. I have been in the landscaping/nursery business for around 35 years. Everything you say in your article has a valid point. However it is hard to convince your regular lawn care company to stray away from their regular routine and pass up the normal revenue they make by doing the same old practices they have done for years. The new electric blowers, trimmers,etc. are great alternative to cutting down on air and noise pollution. However most of these tools are just starting to be recognized out there and they are quite expensive. Most companies will have to really think hard about investing and converting over to this new equipment. Hopefully more companies will really understand the benefits and environmental impact these tools provide and switch over to them in the future. Homeowners need to be more aware of what all these chemicals and pollutants are doing to the environment and reconsider the services they are paying for. They could start by possibly cutting back a little on having 4 to 6 lawn applications a year and just do the minimal to keep their lawn looking satisfactory. The problem is Truegreen, Scotts, or whoever brainwashes everyone into thinking you need a well manicured lawn that looks like a golf course. The application of herbicides and insectides are definitely used too much and can be used sparingly or not at all in some instances. The decline of bees is a real scary issue and everyone should definitely take a step in trying to reform in their practices to help prevent further decline. Hopefully everyone will wise up sooner than later and realize what they are doing to our environment.

  3. Leslie N Inman says:

    Thank you so much, Paul!
    I really appreciate your positive and encouraging words.
    The landscaping and lawn chemical companies make up a $76 billion industry. So anyone here unhappy with what I’ve said… don’t worry! There are millions of dollars put in to marketing departments to keep the typical landscaping going, just the way it is. Even though current landscaping practices take a huge toll on the environment with their wanton use of lawn chemicals and loud, polluting fossil fuel dependent equipment. So with my single voice, and my marketing department with its zero dollar budget, I have only persistence and tenacity on my side. Unfortunately, a lot of conventional landscapers will continue to get their gardening aesthetic from the Scott’s/TruGreen/Chemlawn commercials on TV so the marketing dollars are working. And given human nature, others will follow.

  4. Paul Grant says:

    Well said, Leslie. Thanks for clearly expressing your insights. Yes, we’re destroying our planet with our incorrect landscape choices but thanks for your guidance given on this blog.

    This will surely help everyone and I salute your passion! There’s a lot of advertisements that promotes garden chemicals, and leaf blowers. Anyone working without those, must be commended and supported.

  5. Leslie N Inman says:

    Aurora,
    Homeowners spraying their own property with pesticides is another story. My post was specifically targeting ‘conventional landscapers’ as I mention throughout the numbered items. The conventional landscapers are spraying RUPs (Restricted Use Pesticides) on homeowners’ property.
    Below is the label for exact pesticide/herbicide I mention in the post.

    Three-Way Selective Herbicide (Contains 2,4-D, MCPP and Dicamba)
    Selective Broadleaf Weed Control For Turfgrasses including for use on Sod Farms.
    Controls Dandelion, Clover, Henbit, Plantains, Wild Onion, and Many Other Broadleaf
    Weeds.
    Also for Highways, Rights-of-Way and Other Similar Non-Crop Areas.
    FOR USE BY PROFESSIONAL TURF MAINTENANCE PERSONNEL, LANDSCAPING OR COMMERCIAL APPLICATORS ONLY. NOT FOR SALE TO OR USE BY HOMEOWNERS.
    (Contains 2,4-D, MCPP and Dicamba)

  6. Aurora Toennisson says:

    Statement #4 about proposed EPA changes to rules was a bit misleading. The proposed changes are for “restricted use” pesticides. These are pesticides that someone has to have a pesticide applicator’s license to apply, not chemicals that are available for purchase by anyone at a local garden center. These changes will not have an effect on the rules governing the application of some of the pesticides you listed.

  7. Janet says:

    Thanks for your eloquent commentary. It all needs to be said over and over again until the message sinks in – we are harming ourselves and our one planet with our nasty landscape choices. This will change, too slowly, but you’re providing a needed voice.

    • Leslie N Inman says:

      Thank you, Janet! ‘Nasty’ is a good adjective to describe the practices of the typical ‘Mow and Blow’ landscapers that inundate my neighborhood. Their LOUD polluting equipment and their dangerous herbicides and insecticides make our entire neighborhood unwelcoming for humans and wildlife. I’m going to the schools to talk with kids and hopefully when they become homeowners the idea of ‘Gardening For Wildlife’ will be a well-known concept.

  8. Thank you, Leslie for your rant. Of course you sometimes overstate the case. That’s why this is a rant, and not a peer-reviewed scientific journal. One sometimes needs to exaggerate to make a point. And this is the forum for it.

    I applaud your passion and energy. With all the paid advertising out there promoting toxic lawn and garden chemicals, and leaf blowers, anyone working to show the other side of the coin, without pay, is to be commended and supported.

    Your reach, with your Facebook page, of over 3000 friends, is encouraging people to stand up for the creatures who don’t have a marketing budget: the pollinators, birds, pets, children, fish, and poorly paid agriculture and lawn care workers who are exposed daily to the pesticides, noise, and pollution, except for the few who are employed by organic farms and lawn care services.

    • Leslie N Inman says:

      I really appreciate those encouraging words, Diane. You expressed that very well. I’ve tried to convey that idea before…we are inundated with ads promoting the use of questionable products for our lawns and gardens on TV and the web, with virtually no one contradicting the status quo. Thank you for helping me question it.
      Are those chemicals we put on our yards safe? Are they being tested? How can the EPA keep up? Although The Toxic Substances Control Act was finally updated this year “there were already 62,000 chemicals already on the market when it was passed in 1976 and they were being used without safety testing.” How can the EPA possibly catch up and test all these chemicals that are already in use and all the new ones coming to market? It seems like an impossible quagmire of dangerous products sold to the public without safety testing in place. So, for me, organic is the best plan. Give me clover and dandelions any day!

  9. Mary Leming says:

    This is so well done. Thank you for putting it all together.

  10. Great article Leslie! There is so much information now about the deadly action of Glyphosate even to the billionth part as it breaks down into its metabolite AMPA. People need to understand that these systemic pesticides and herbicides such as Roundup, Dicamba and 2-4 D are derived from petro chemicals and like other similar substances can be deadly at very low levels, even as or especially I should say as nano particles. Here is an article, a statement for cessation of use atually, I found that goes into its history and toxicity but I can supply many many more.
    http://www.moraybeedinosaurs.co.uk/neonicotinoid/Glyphosate_Policy_Recommendation_25_Feb_2016.pdf

    • Leslie N Inman says:

      Agreed, Melissa. We are simply over-saturated with all these cosmetic pesticides and herbicides on the lawn.
      “Glyphosate is a chelating agent, which means it clamps onto molecules that are valuable to a plant, like iron, calcium, manganese, and zinc.…The farmers’ increased use of Roundup is actually harming their crops, according to McNeill, because it is killing micronutrients in the soil that they need, a development that has been documented in several scientific papers by the nation’s leading experts in the field. For example, he says, harmful fungi and parasites like fusarium, phytopthora and pythium are on the rise as a result of the poison, while beneficial fungi and other organisms that help plants reduce minerals to a usable state are on the decline.” Iowa-based consultant Michael McNeill, who has a Ph.D. in quantitative genetics and plant pathology from Iowa State University

  11. Garden Rant Susan Harris says:

    I take issue with much of this.
    “Pernicious lawn chemicals and fertilizers” – where to start? The language or lack of specifics? I would have stopped reading at that point if this weren’t on GardenRant.
    “Conventional landscapers plant monoculture turfgrass”. “Conventional landscapers plant exotics.” What IS a conventional landscaper, anyway? How many of them are doing what, exactly? Got a source?
    ” It takes a great deal of herbicide, glyphosate, and polluting machinery to achieve this ‘non¬natural’ look.” One can definitely have an attractive lawn without use of herbicides, and that’s what authorities like Cornell teach. http://gardenrant.com/2016/08/cornell-on-lawn-care-do-less.html
    What “organic native plants” would you recommend to cover the 45 million acres now in turfgrass? As someone who’s advocated for lawn reduction and helped actual homeowners do that, I WISH the answer were that easy. Lawns are simple; figuring out what to replacement them with and how to maintain whatever plants are used instead is not.
    “Organic is healthy, but conventional landscapers use 2, 4-¬D, Mecoprop-¬P and Dicambia and other herbicides on lawns and glyphosate on understory and hardscape areas.” More landscaper-bashing and “organic is healthy”? Jeez. How often does that myth need to be debunked? Reminds me of a famous quack who used to recommend spraying tobacco juice on gardens. It’s organic!
    “Fall leaves make a nutrient-¬rich mulch, but conventional landscapers cart them away.” Experienced gardeners know better than to leave fallen leaves on their lawns all winter but others are misled by this BS. The source for the “Don’t rake” meme specified this applies “in wooded areas,” but that important caveat is usually omitted, as it was here. (Here’s my rant about that. http://gardenrant.com/2015/11/nwfs-terrible-no-good-gardening-advice-goes-viral.html)
    “Conventional landscapers use polluting machinery that spews raw, unburnt fuel along with noxious fumes which make it more difficult for pollinators to smell/detect the life-sustaining plants they need.” OMG those conventional landscapers are such horrible people!
    I’ve found that practical, evidence-based ideas for more eco-friendly practices create more change than angry condemnations.

    • marcia says:

      Perhaps Leslie’s argument for altering typical lawn care practices came up a bit short for you, but, in my opinion, she hit on many of the practices that should change.

      1. May chemicals are persistent. I think the use of the term “pernicious” might be questioned because we have yet to fully study the harmful effects of persistent herbicides or their breakdown products which, in fact, may not be less harmful. Studies are onging. We do know that Atrazine, banned by the European Union is an endocrine disrupter in fish and can travel very long distances in its original state.

      2. In talking with the head landscape architect at Meadows Farms, with over 20 nursery locations in the Mid-Atlantic, he told me that the vast majority of his work and the other architects at Meadows Farms is one in which they make use of non-native shrubs, some native trees, and mostly non-native annuals. This is what the client wants.

      3. These days it’s very difficult to have a lush green weed-free lawn IF your neighbor does not. I use RTF Tall Fescue, http://kuenziturfnursery.com/turf-sod/rhizomatous-tall-fescue-rtf-sod/ mow high, fertilize in Fall and water appropriately. BUT, my neighbors do not seed and with the drier summers, goose grass and crabgrass have taken over most of their yards. Now, my yard is filled with it because seed and grass travel. Achieving a “natural look” with neighbors who don’t do the same is exceptionally difficult.

      4. I do not think all of the lawn needs to be replaced. A good section of the yard would be a great idea. It would get people outside to garden.

      I think you misunderstood her “fall leaves” comment. I took it that she meant “Fall” like “Autumn,” not “Fall,” like “Fall down.” She mentions that they should be put into a compost pile. What I do is make a compost pile of some of the leaves, BUT I also leave many of them on the lawn. BS? Not really. I mulch them into the soil, for studies indicate that this is a good thing:http://www.mlive.com/homeandgarden/index.ssf/2012/10/mulched_leaves_offer_food_prot.html

      5.Luckily, homeowners are buying the heck out of battery operated leafblowers and trimmers. Landscapers do like to use the nasty two-stroke engine units. On my street, they mow, then blow the clippings onto the street and sweep up an haul away. Of course, all the African grass seed makes its way to every other lawn. This one particular landscape company has over a hundred customers in my area. Thankfully, they mow high. They know that means more frequent business. They could do without the blowers, but the customers complain. If they knew that “The hydrocarbon emissions from a half-hour of yard work with the two-stroke leaf blower are about the same as a 3,900-mile drive from Texas to Alaska in a Ford F-150, maybe they’d be more conscientious.
      http://www.edmunds.com/about/press/leaf-blowers-emissions-dirtier-than-high-performance-pick-up-trucks-says-edmunds-insidelinecom.html

      Hopefully the era of better battery technology will get them to change their practices. (Effect on pollinators? Probably minor compared to traffic in general as we build and build and build more roads.)

      So, Leslie, I appreciate your passion . There will always be drive-by commenters like skr. Be ready with a response if a a cogent argument is presented. It’s sort of like what the Prez says. “Don’t boo. Vote.”

      I hope I may have added to the discussion.

  12. marcia says:

    Leslie,

    While Teddy got you started, it was my new neighbor who moved in and cut down the Spruce that was planted on his property 45 years ago that began my interest in beneficial gardening. The root system extended into my yard more than his. He left the trunk and roots and refused to have them removed. I ended up having my half of the roots removed for a good sum and used that emotion to begin my study of pollinator gardening. (His yard is still barren, so my yard has to make up for that. The signs in my yard may have encouraged my neighbors not to spray. Plus, I give them tomatoes. To them I’m being nice, but I have an ulterior motive. It’s a subtle way of making my point. :-) )

    In a way, he changed my life and those of the numerous insects and birds who live right outside my front door.

    As it is said in this short video, one yard can be of greater benefit than we know:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00gfxj7

    • Leslie N Inman says:

      Marcia,
      That is so great that you have signs in your yard! It really helps to educate people. The CDC states that 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are sprayed annually and that may just be enough, in my mind!
      Thank you for sharing your story! I’m on Facebook at Leslie Nelson Inman or Pollinator Friendly Yards. Thousands of us are trying to make a difference by making our yards pollinator friendly! Join us if you like! Thanks!

  13. skr says:

    Wow, Gardenrant is really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

  14. Leslie N Inman says:

    Hi Laura,
    I wish all the people who want to work WITH nature instead of against it could build a neighborhood together. I’ve always dreamed of a neighborhood that’s a designated “Bird, Pollinator and Wildlife Sanctuary” and all the like-minded treehuggers could live in the middle of it! Doesn’t that sound great!
    Have you seen this Doug Tallamy video? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UonRPIea48Y It changed the way I see nature… forever.
    Thanks for your nice comments and join us on Facebook if you like at Leslie Nelson Inman or Pollinator Friendly Yards
    Thanks!

  15. Laura Munoz says:

    Wow, I wish you were my neighbor or just lived in my town. Everything you wrote I agree with. After reading your post, I revisited the list of plants I want to buy at the upcoming Stephen F. Austin University plant sale. I may add more natives.

    The problem around here is the locals don’t sell that many native plants and gardening with chemicals and machines is expected. It’s part of the local culture. I’m the weird one who composts, saves tree limbs to make berms or use in a hugelkultur mounds and I’m constantly stealing peoples’ leaves to use as mulch.

    Please send other organic gardeners here ASAP. I need reinforcements!

  16. Joyce Bostwick says:

    Well written Leslie, wish everyone , city dwellers as well those in the country would read this… The attitude of some people is, “there’s plenty of wild weeds and flowers out there, let the insects, birds go get them …But there aren’t…especially in the country were they apply pesticides by tractors with 300 gal. tanks. Monsanto has most “convinced” it’s easier on them and more yield by poisoning anything that could drift into their fields. Responsible Stewardship is a thing of the past….Money is the engine that drives them.

    • Leslie N Inman says:

      Hi Joyce!
      The country is as bad as the city! We have to find safe, organic place for all of us who didn’t buy-in when the TV told us to buy all the pesticide products.
      I hope things are changing! We’ve gotta keep buying and growing organic. Thank you for being my Facebook friend!
      Leslie

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