On The House

A "green" green lawn that's good enough to eat.

The first time I encountered the new world of organic gardening I was 6 or 7 and in my best friends' kitchen. In an attempt to show off my excellent upbringing, I was rinsing out my glass of milk when I spotted the cookie jar in the form of a cute tin pail tightly covered next to the sink. Since my friends had only offered me two cookies and they were delicious, I thought, just one more. The pail was an adult-arm's reach away and I was alone. My excellent upbringing began to wane as I pulled a step stool to the counter, reaching quickly for the cookie jar, afraid someone might show up any second. Not wanting to get caught, I kept my eyes focused on the door. Quickly, I yanked off the lid and stuck my hand into what I knew would be chocolate chip heaven.

To my horror, instead I felt something that felt like a warm brain. I yanked out my hand so quickly that the can tipped over. I fell off the stool, landed on the floor and was immediately bathed in humiliation, worms, rotting orange peels, coffee grinds, lettuce and lima beans. I knew then and there I would never steal again because the consequences of this particular sin were just too severe. I was sobbing, and I can vaguely remember my friends' mother trying to explain composting and organic gardening as she picked off the worms from my bangs, pigtails and new pink dress.

It's taken me a good 25 years to really come around to the idea of organic gardening again (needless to say, my therapist thinks it's quite understandable). 

I suppose a lot of you still think organic gardening involves worms, rotted vegetables and smelly cow manure, and though you like the IDEA of no chemicals on your lawn, it seems a bit like substituting corn juice for gasoline-"Where the heck do you get the stuff and how fast will my car go?" Fortunately organic gardening has come a lot further than ethanol cars.

Going "green" has gone mainstream. Organic fertilizers, soil amendments, natural pesticides and grain-based weed killers are no longer the sole province of the hippies down the street with that musty odor oozing from the garage. Every garden store, large or small, carries a variety of products to make it easy for us to go organic. And in many cases, the products are in pretty packages at reasonable prices with easy instructions on how to use them. The naturally inspired Gro-well Brands has pictures of kids and dogs playing on the grass while Daddy fertilizes the lawn. That illustrates never-before-recommended recreation during lawn care as pesticides and chemicals were traditionally being applied.

So why go "green"? Do we really have to? Doesn't beauty always come at a high cost? Could the little white chemical powder I sprinkle on my lawn every few weeks to get rid of dandelions really cause that much damage? Is there really any proof that the toxic levels of our waterways, estuaries and streams can be linked to breast cancer via my lawn? Am I sounding like Erin Brockovich? OK, I am not a scientist, not a lawyer, but I do know we ALL live downstream! If we are not harmed by our own chemical runoff, we are sure to be drinking our neighbors'. Now I, for one, would never suggest that you men of Pittsburgh do without your own personal putting greens and symbols of suburban bliss-the perfect green grass lawn. You're thinking it's a slippery slope, and you fear my next attack might be directed toward the excessive size of your grill! And I know how you think: Size really does matter. But wait. Let's put this all into perspective:

Remember 10 years ago when a juicy red strawberry was the size of an acorn? Today, we are not impressed unless it is the size of a tennis ball. But does it really taste any better? I think not. My theory is a generation ago the shade of green (that's now your front lawn) was not yet found in nature. For the sake of your health, and that of your children's, your neighbors', your town's and the Earth's, let's stop polluting at home. Isn't gardening supposed to be about making another little corner of the world just a wee bit better?

Now that I've convinced you that you should go green, do you want to know what you have to give up to do it? "Must my garden have small flowers and big weeds? Will my lawn become a field of dandelions?" you ask. "I'm all for others' going natural, just not in my back yard." But the truth is, it might take more time, more effort, a pinch more planning, but once established, a "green" green lawn and garden can become more carefree and less expensive in the long run. Roots grow stronger when they are naturally fed. And healthy plants make for an inhospitable environment for weeds and pests.



5 quick tips on how to go "green"…

 1. Begin with a more "organic" garden plan. That means a garden that truly "fits" your house, your neighborhood and your town. In other words, choose plants that grow naturally in your area. Because they are natives, these plants will adapt well to the soil, climate and conditions of your backyard. Now, I am not suggesting that you eliminate your green grass lawn, but consider shrinking the area that is traditional "lawn" and seek out some perennial grasses and ground covers that don't need to be mowed weekly, fed continually and weeded often.

 2. Make good dirt. My grandfather taught me that 90 percent of the success in gardening is in making good dirt. Have your soil tested by your local agricultural-cooperative extension. Learn what your soil both needs AND doesn't need. Don't overfertilize. Ask for the results to be accompanied by organic-amendment suggestions.

3. Install a good irrigation system. A properly watered lawn and garden not only save water but make for stronger plants, which leads to less feeding, fewer weeds, less work and more beauty.

4. Buy healthy plants. Buy from local, independent nurseries when possible, because they will have the best knowledge of the plants that do well with very little effort in the area in which you live.

5. Have fun. Play on your lawn, don't just work on it. Buy organic or all-natural soils, fertilizers and pest controls, and follow advice on the packages. Don't skip feedings and don't overfeed. Nurture your garden with safe, edible products, and it will reward you with a safe, edible yard. Your dog and kids will thank you.


* And if you do decide to compost your own kitchen scraps in a tin with your own pet worms, consider a transparent jar full of chocolate-chip cookies right next to it. It avoids confusion.


A Wexford native, Rebecca Cole has been co-hosting "Surprise by Design" since the show began in 2002. She has been a contributor on the "Today" show for six years running and has appeared on scores of television and radio shows. Her books include Potted Gardens and Paradise Found: Gardening in Unlikely Spaces. Her latest work, Flower Power, was released with an extensive gift line, and the empire keeps growing. Coming soon: her line of furniture, bedding and garden accoutrements.