Seeing child make sand castles out of pesticide caused landscaper to change his practices

dew on blades of grass
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Caution.

Warning.

Dangerous.

Keep out of reach of children.

That’s what you’ll find on the labels of pesticides and other chemicals that people routinely spray on their lawns, said Paul Tukey, and he used to spray them, too.

Tukey shared his story of how he went from routinely using chemicals with warning labels to using all-organic practices in his landscaping business.

Now he is chief sustainability officer for Glenstone, a contemporary art museum in Potomac, Maryland. He is helping to create a living classroom on the all-organic 220-acre site that includes native meadows, restored streams and tributaries, forests and more than 7,000 newly planted native trees.

Tukey was in Buffalo earlier this month to receive the first-ever Green Medal Sustainability Award from GWA: The Association for Garden Communicators, which held its national conference here.

The New York Times has called him “The godfather of the natural land care movement.” His 2010 feature-length documentary film, A Chemical Reaction, which profiles the lawn pesticide bans sweeping across Canada and the U.S., earned three Emmy nominations.

His books include the Organic Lawn Care Manual (Storey 2007) and Tag, Toss & Run: 40 Classic Lawn Games (Storey 2012).

Winner of the prestigious Communicator of the Year Award from the American Horticultural Society, Tukey has been featured in thousands of media outlets including Martha Stewart, Good Morning America, Readers Digest and National Geographic. He has published four magazines, including People, Places & Plants (1995-2009), and produced and co-hosted an HGTV show of the same name.

The incident that made Tukey take an abrupt turn

Paul Tukey
Paul Tukey. Photo courtesy Glenstone

Despite the warnings on the products, Tukey used to use the chemicals for his customers when he owned a multi-million-dollar landscaping business with 27 employees.

Then he got sick and was eventually diagnosed with acute chemical sensitivity. Just as exposure to smoking can impact individuals differently, exposure to chemicals can impact individuals differently, he explained.

“The doctor said, ‘If you keep using all those toxic products, you’re going to be dead,'” Tukey said.

So Tukey gave up spraying the chemicals himself, but had his employees get their licenses so they could do it instead. He felt bad about asking them to do that, but continued the practice.

Then one day he drove to a store with a half-price sale of Weed & Feed so he could stock up for the coming season. When he got to that aisle, he saw a broken bag on the floor with the granules spilled out.

A little girl was keeping herself busy by scooping up the granules and using them to make sand castles.

Tukey gently warned the mother that her daughter shouldn’t be handling the material, but the woman was offended.

“They wouldn’t sell it if it wasn’t safe,” the woman told him.

The woman reported him to the manager, who came over and told Tukey that nothing they sold was dangerous. The manager said that they have to put those labels on the products by law, but that doesn’t make the products dangerous.

“That day changed me,” Tukey said.

His crew was waiting for him, expecting to help unload the truck, but it was empty.

“I told them, ‘We’re going to go organic,'” Tukey said.

“But I had no idea what that meant.”

Finding his way

At first, he thought he would simply swap out one synthetic chemical product and replace it with an organic product, but that didn’t work. After 15 years of putting down Weed and Feed, the soil’s ability to support grass was gone because the organisms in the soil that the grass needs were killed.

He realized he would have to use an entirely different system.

To go organic, he would need to enhance the soil’s abilities instead of overriding them, which is what happens when using chemicals.

One problem with this is that if it doesn’t work right away, people think it doesn’t work. But it may take time to start an organic program and get it to work.

“We’re selling the wrong expectations,” he said.

He compared using chemical fertilizers to buying term life insurance. You have to buy term life insurance every year, and the older you get, the more expensive it gets.

When you use Weed and Feed, after awhile your lawn won’t turn green unless you apply the product and keep applying the product, he said.

But if you leave your grass clippings on your lawn, that will supply half the nitrogen your lawn needs, he said. Allowing clover to grow will supply most of the rest of the nitrogen your lawn needs. And if you want more fertilizer, there are lots of organic products you can use.

Advantages of going organic on your lawn

Cheap

Many people think that organic solutions are more expensive than synthetic, but they can actually be less expensive, he said.

Letting the clover grow in your lawn takes no money. Leaving grass clippings on your lawn is free. And refraining from using chemical herbicides so you can eat the dandelions in spring, like his grandmother did, is free, too.

Compost isn’t very expensive, and you can make your own compost for free. There are plenty of places you can get manure in Western New York for free. One place is the S&L Ranch, 4447 Broadway, Cheektowaga. Hours are 3:30 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Getting the manure is a do-it-yourself endeavor, so wear old shoes or boots and take a shovel. You need to take your own containers, such as old storage totes or bushel baskets.

Gentle on the grass

Organic products are generally gentler on your lawn than synthetic products are, he noted. Tukey remembers back to a time before he got into landscaping. He had his first house and wanted a nice, green lawn, so he applied Weed and Feed. The next day his lawn wasn’t any greener, so he applied some more. And on the third day, his grass was burnt.

That’s not going to happen if you apply organic products to your lawn.

Gentle on people

Organic products are generally gentler on people, too, he noted. The girl he saw in the store was playing with granules that were supposed to be kept out of reach of children.

“I’d rather use compost,” Tukey said. “My kids can roll around in it. If I use alfalfa meal (as a fertilizer), they can put it in their mouths and they’re not going to get hurt.

“Nobody has been able to explain to me how we can keep these products out of the reach of children if we use them on lawns, in parks and at playgrounds.”

Doesn’t add to global warming

Producing nitrogen for synthetic fertilizers uses copious amounts of natural gas, he said, which can contribute to climate change. Organic fertilizers that you can buy are generally made from things that would be waste products, such as fish meal or bone meal, by-products of food production.

“We can start to make a difference in our own backyards,” Tukey said.

You can still have a beautiful yard

Ontario has banned cosmetic pesticides, that is, pesticides used simply to make your yard look pretty, for a decade. Despite not being able to use products like Roundup or Weed and Feed, “They’re still gardening!” Tukey said.

Companies that sell synthetic products are starting to get into organics, “but they’re only going to transition as fast as consumers make them transition,” Tukey said. “We can make decisions with our own pocketbooks. It’s a much better deal for you and the environment.

“We can create beauty without doing it in a way that creates peril for the planet.”

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