Grow a Beautiful Lawn without Chemicals or Fossil Fuels

| June/July 2007

  • Schythe2
    Ed Smith enjoys mowing the lawn with his non-polluting, noiseless reel mower
    Sylvia Ferry Smith
  • Schythe1
    Ed practices his technique with a 'fossil fuel-free' European scythe. The scythe is a perfect tool for trimming tall grass.
    Sylvia Ferry Smith

  • Schythe2
  • Schythe1

The recent wave of information about climate change, fossil fuel dependence and the ubiquitous presence of toxic chemicals in our environment has inspired many of us to look for greener approaches to the routine things we need to do. This amped-up awareness is increasing the popularity of 'natural' lawns. For most of us, this means eliminating chemical fertilizers, dyes and weed-killers from the lawn's diet. Others have decided to plant drought-tolerant native plants that need less water. Or food-bearing plants, such as strawberries, which cover more of the ground so their lawns require less all-around maintenance. The great news is that you can have a gorgeous, low-maintenance lawn that's safe for your family and our environment.

One inspiring lawn-keeper is Ed Smith, author of The Vegetable Gardener's Bible and Incredible Vegetables from Self-Watering Containers, who is about to embark on a 100 percent fossil fuel-free lawn care plan. Recently, Ed answered a few questions about what motivated him to begin this plan and how it's going to work.

Q. Tell me about your lawn maintenance plan. What made you decide to forgo fossil fuels completely?

A. Most lawn-keepers make their lawns pretty by applying lots of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides?and irrigating like the dickens. That is, in a nutshell, bad for the earth, for the air, and for water. Too much water used for lawns could be used for drinking or irrigating food crops, and chemicals leach from lawn soil and end up in streams, rivers, lakes and oceans.

I don't use chemicals on my lawn and never have. But until recently I've thoughtlessly used standard operation procedure: gasoline-powered rotary mowers, a riding mower, a couple of push mowers, and a gas-powered weed whacker. My increasing awareness of climate change and peak oil compelled me to ask myself if cutting the lawn that way is OK. It became increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that I really should find a better way. I decided to switch from fossil solar energy to here-and-now solar energy: me, combined with electricity from the sun.

Q. What is your lawn like now? What kind of maintenance does it require?

A. It's not one of those Better Homes & Gardens creations. It's just whatever comes up: a mix of grasses and some 'weeds' like dandelions. It requires fairly regular mowing of whatever nature has seen fit to plant around the house, the vegetable and flower gardens, and the fruit trees and berry bushes. There are a lot of rougher, hilly areas. Yeah, you can play croquet on my lawn, but it is a much more interesting and challenging form of the game than you might be used to!

Q. Are you starting cold turkey, or easing into the system one phase at a time? Will you allow any exceptions?

A. The first to go was the riding mower. That tool uses a lot more fuel than a push mower, because it's not just cutting grass, but also carrying its quarter-ton self plus me around. It was in the picture in the first place because the lawn was too big for a push mower alone. So there's the first element in the plan: Make the lawn small enough that I can tend it with appropriate tools. I'll be putting more of the lawn into white clover, which doesn't have to be mowed as much, and low-growing ground covers.

Dan Camelin
9/15/2007 12:00:00 AM

10% vinegar used on a sunny day will kill anything. Once the vinegar hits the soil, it is turned to a fertilizer with trace minerals. A great website for organics is

Cindy L_1
7/16/2007 12:00:00 AM

Thanks for being honest. I have recently started trying to reduce my carbon footprint and switched to a reel push mower. I don't notice any change in the amount of time or the effort required to cut the grass. I do take a pair of scissors with me when I cut the grass to get the pesky grass stalks that show up from time to time. When you stop a reel mower its easy to restart, just push. If any one is thinking about purchasing a reel mower try to buy American. I think there is only one company left in the states that makes them it would be nice to keep them in business

Twylla Roberts
7/9/2007 12:00:00 AM

I recently read about a non chemical remedy to spray on weeds - it has dish soap and alcohol? Can you help?

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