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Grass au Naturel



A couple of weeks ago, a friend was complaining to me about the number of chemicals that an ordinary person can get exposed to in a typical day. "And then the weed and feed guys come by," she said, "and who knows what gets tracked into the house from the lawn?" It sounded as if the weed and feed guys just showed up on their own, unbidden, and sprayed chemicals around the yard. And in fact, that may be pretty close to the truth. Lawn care is a routine, and it's one that doesn't get questioned very often.

If you aren't convinced that your lawn can be organic and you need yet another reason to give it a try, consider the new research from Indiana University's School of Medicine. Children conceived during summer months have significantly lower scores on math and language tests throughout grades 3 through 10. One hypothesis put forward by the researchers is that pesticide and fertilizer use increases during those months, and the time immediately following conception is critical for brain development.

Not that I want to discourage taking a roll in the grass on a warm summer evening. If you're going to plant a lawn, you ought to be able to enjoy it, whether that means running around barefoot or scoring a romantic tryst at dusk. Your kids and pets will be safer if you're not pouring chemicals in your lawn, but that's not the only reason to go organic. It's also cheaper, because organic lawns and gardens require fewer and fewer inputs over the years as they become more self-sustaining, and it's better for the planet, too.

A new organization called SafeLawns ( was founded last year by Paul Tukey, the founder and publisher of the popular East Coast gardening magazine People, Places, & Plants. Its mission is to convince home gardeners to grow organic lawns, but also to make sure that public gardens, parks and the soccer fields where children play are also organic. Check out their website if you want to find out more; you could also read up on the Indiana University study and watch some how-to videos.

Fortunately, it's pretty easy to go organic around here. Most nurseries carry an organic version of the familiar weed and feed fertilizer that uses natural plant food ingredients and corn gluten, which has been proven to suppress the germination of weed seeds. Remember that corn gluten won't kill existing weeds, but if they are annuals they will die at the end of the year anyway, and if they are perennials, you'll just need to dig them out once and know that if you continue to use corn gluten, new seeds won't sprout.

The rest is pretty easy. Set the blade higher on your mower so the grass can get a little taller, and leave the clippings on the grass to decompose and provide extra nitrogen to the soil. The result will be a healthier root system and a thicker lawn that can crowd out weeds. You'll also be able to get away with watering less. In summer months, you should be watering deeply once or twice a week, rather than every day. You'll conserve water and encourage deeper roots. Oh, and by the way, if you switch to a push mower, you'll save even more energy and get a workout.

In the first few years, you might want to give your lawn an extra boost by raking in a layer of compost every spring and fall. If you don't have enough compost of your own, or if you're worried about introducing weed seeds from your compost pile, just buy a few bags of high quality organic soil conditioner and rake it in, then water well.

This year, Fickle Hill Old Rose Nursery in Arcata will open its gardens on Sunday, May 20, and again on Father's Day, Sunday June 17, and for a third time on Sunday, July 7. On all three days, the gardens will be open from 1-4 p.m.

Cindy Graebner started this garden 20 years ago, and it is now filled with mature old-fashioned roses, arbors covered with climbing roses, and her trademark mix of perennials, which includes salvia, columbine and other rose-friendly plants. She's also got shade-loving plants like species fuchsias and unusual shrubs.

Stop by the garden this Sunday afternoon and check it out. She'll have many fabulous plants for sale, and she always dispenses lots of useful advice for getting things to grow around here. Most of all, her garden demonstrates the roses don't have to be segregated from the rest of the garden. Check it out.

Fickle Hill Old Rose Nursery is located at 282 Fickle Hill Rd. Parking on site is reserved for disabled and older people, so the rest of you need to follow the signs for street parking on Bayview and Hill streets. For more information, call 826-0708.

Californians for Alternatives to Toxics , the organizers of the annual Organic Planet Festival every August in Eureka, are going to kick off the festivities this year with an organic garden tour. The tour will be held on Sunday, Aug. 19, with the Organic Planet Festival to follow on the next Sunday, Aug. 26.

Right now the organizers are looking for gardens to feature on the tour. They love to get applications from anybody who gardens in an organic or non-toxic way. In addition to flower and vegetable gardens, they would love to include ponds, orchards, greenhouses, wild or wetland gardens -- you name it. To apply, visit and fill out an application, or call 445-5100. You can also get more information by e-mailing [email protected]. Applications are due May 25.

And finally, on Friday, May 18 from 6-8 p.m., Blake's Books in McKinleyville will host four local authors. Barbara Kerley will sign two new children's books, the historical fiction novel Greetings from Planet Earth and the photographic picture book A Little Peace . Fantasy author Pamela F. Service will be there with Tomorrow's Magic , a two-volume reissue of her popular books starring the wizard Merlin. Natasha Wing will have her new book The Night Before Summer Camp , and I'll be there too, signing copies of my new book Flower Confidential . Please do drop in and say hello.


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