It’s 7:30 on a muggy summer morning and Rich Staudt is brewing up some tea before he heads out for work.
He has the bag, he has the water. But this isn’t an ordinary cup of tea: Think bacteria, fungi, protozoa and other compost ingredients stuffed in what looks like a windsock inside a 22-gallon drum in his garage. The molasses-colored “compost tea” will soon end up on his customer’s well-manicured Long Island lawns.
Staudt is one of a growing number of landscapers who have embraced organic lawn care as an alternative to pesticides and other chemicals.
What once was nothing more than a grassroots initiative is increasing in popularity as concerns deepen about the effects chemicals are having on people’s health, the environment, and overall quality of life.
“It is becoming something that is not a bunch of tofu-munching tree-huggers running around in blue jeans,” says Staudt, who has studied organic lawn care for years and now speaks on the topic at the Queens Botanical Garden in New York, and elsewhere. He says seminars that once attracted a mere handful are now well-attended as a growing number of landscapers are becoming interested in “green” alternatives to pesticides.
“What’s happening on Long Island is reflective of what is going on across the country,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of the Washington-based group Beyond Pesticides. “There are concerns about public health issues, the impact on children, questions about groundwater and surface water threats.”
Bruce Butterfield, research director for the National Gardening Association, said a 2004 survey showed that 5 percent of American households with a yard or garden exclusively used organic fertilizers and weed and insect controls, compared with 39 percent that applied conventional chemicals. He expects the number of all-organic households to double to 10 percent by 2009.
In addition to spreading compost tea on lawns, proponents of organic lawn care use a variety of other tactics. They keep grass mowed a little higher than normal — creating shade that helps stunt weeds — and treat soil with calcium or other minerals rather than traditional fertilizers. Some even apply a soap-like substance that is environmentally friendly and helps eliminate fungus. Aeration is another common tactic.
Organic usually costs 15 percent to 20 percent more than traditional chemicals, and the process isn’t always effective at wiping out pesky weeds that plague people’s lawns. Those must be pulled out by hand.
But for some customers, organic gives them a peace of mind. For years, breast cancer survivors on Long Island and elsewhere have suspected that pesticides may be a contributing factor to getting the disease, although studies differ on whether there is a direct link and chemical manufacturers insist that if applied properly, their products pose no risk whatsoever.
“It’s just kind of crazy when you think about the fact that we’re doing this just to kill some weeds,” said Beth Fiteni, issues program director at The Neighborhood Network, a local organization in East Farmingdale, N.Y. that advocates for environmental and other causes.
Tom Delaney of the Professional Landcare Network, a national group that represents landscapers, tree care and lawn care specialists, said an increasing amount of shelf space is being given to organic lawn care products in major home and garden retailers — a reflection of increased interest. But he cautions that consumers need to do their own research on what works best for them.
“It remains to be seen how satisfied customers are with the price and with the result,” he said. “Home remedies? You have to be careful with that stuff.”
Staudt also concedes that it sometimes takes three to five years of organic treatments to take full effect, and while customers will have a lush, green lawn, they also may have to contend with a weed here or there.
He also said he understands why most landscapers still employ traditional chemicals, called “synthetics” by the industry. Many learned their business at seminars sponsored by the industry.
“Now, I’m coming along and saying: ’Forget everything you learned in the last 25 years, do it my way.’ You know what? They have to pay a mortgage, put the kids through school and its a huge leap of faith,” Staudt said.
On a recent summer morning, one of Staudt’s “converts” came out to watch him apply his compost tea to a customer’s lawn in Wantagh, N.Y.
Pietro Cipriano graduated from Cornell University and has persuaded his father to convert his family’s landscape business from synthetic to organics. More than 200 customers started receiving the organic treatments this year.
But he said weeds are particularly elusive to an organic lawn treatment, which can annoy customers expecting a “putting green” lawn.
“It’s very hard because customers really do complain. You have clover. You have dandelions, You have weeds. And their biggest complaint is they see the weeds,” he said. “We’re destroying our environment. So what? The lawn can be green and have a weed in it.”
Denise McGann, who stood in her driveway as Staudt sprayed her lawn, said she prefers the organic method.
“It’s the only way I wanted to go. I’m nervous with chemicals, there’s too many things going on,” she said. McGann added that her primary motivation for organic lawn care is “health ... I don’t know if this is it or not, but it sure makes sense to me.”