Creating Clean Landscapes

Toxin-free gardening gains traction, creating safe places for humans and animals

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An eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly on a butterfly bush in a toxin-free wildflower meadow. DANA SHAW

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A ladybug enjoys bright butterfly weed. LISA DAFFY

Amonarch butterfly lands on a bright purple coneflower, pausing just long enough to draw out some nourishing nectar before flitting off to try a different flavor a few feet away. Beekeeper Mary Woltz says it’s one of the first monarchs she’s seen this year, and her smile says she’s relieved to see it.

Like the honeybees that are her life, monarch butterflies and many other less famous species are threatened by shrinking habitat and environmental toxins.

Ms. Woltz is standing in the middle of about a quarter acre of waisthigh wildflowers on the edge of a lush, multi-acre East End estate, a huge, busy beehive next to her. Goldfinches light on a feeder not 10 feet away, unbothered by our presence. Extending out from the pollinator meadow is an expanse of healthy green lawn, dotted with clover. Behind the tennis court sits an enormous vegetable garden, bursting with tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and greens, as well as buckwheat, a favorite of the bees. Herb and cutting gardens sit closer to the house. Mature copper beech and linden trees tower over everything else. It’s all healthy, it’s all thriving, and it’s all being managed without pesticides or herbicides.

For decades, while environmentalists and other hippie types of questionable repute carried the banner for going chemical free, landscapers and property owners scoffed. Conventional wisdom held that the only way to maintain high aesthetic standards in landscaping was to spray the heck out of it.

Good news—the conventional wisdom is wrong, and the move toward toxin-free landscapes is gaining serious traction.

“I’m so grateful to property owners like this who get it, because it’s such an important message,” says Ms. Woltz, owner of Sag Harbor-based Bees’ Needs. “Ownership becomes stewardship at some point. There are so many critters here that we’re caring for in this landscape—not just the honeybees and the butterflies, but the whole diversity of pollinators.”

“A property like this is an oasis,” she continues. “We talk about creating safe places for our kids; this is a safe spot for nature. When I see those little yellow signs warning that a property has been sprayed with pesticides, I want to put up my own little sign saying ‘Bees can’t read!’”

Edwina von Gal, a renowned landscape designer since 1984 and founder of the East Hampton-based Perfect Earth Project, is a vocal proponent of chemical-free landscaping. She says people don’t realize how pervasive many common garden chemicals are. “A lot of lawn chemicals get tracked into the house and they exist in the rugs and furniture for up to three years. Out of the sun, they just don’t

break down.”

Not a big fan of manicured lawns, Ms. von Gal urges people to “think of a lawn as an area rug instead of wall-to-wall carpet,” she says. “How much of it do you actually use? Keep that part mowed shorter, and mow the rest once or twice a year. Then you can turn the water off and it’s so much simpler.”

She adds that leaving an unmowed buffer zone is especially important if your property is near the water—which is pretty much all of the East End. “Buffer zones can be beautiful—it’s like having your own meadow. We’re really in a crisis moment with our waterways, and we can all do something about that.”

Besides grass, your buffer zone can contain wildflowers, native plantings, anything that doesn’t require much care. That buffer, located between more cultivated garden areas and water runoff zones, serves to trap fertilizers and other chemicals, keeping them from ending up in ponds and bays, where they can contribute to algae blooms and other hazards.

Ms. von Gal says we also need to change our perception of what a healthy lawn looks like. “The ideal of the military precision lawn, where you’re cutting it very short, and it’s all perfectly uniform, is very bad for the lawn, and you can only sustain that kind of a lawn with chemicals.”

For starters, she says, “people want their lawns to be greened up early in the season. Most of the chemicals you apply at that time of year end up in the local waterways. And you’re forcing the grass to do something it doesn’t normally do. It’s like the difference between putting someone on an IV feed or feeding them a healthy diet. “Chemicals force the grass to grow rapidly, but it’s soft growth, and you’re asking for trouble later,” she continues. “It will be prone to fungus, so then you’ll need to add a fungicide, then that kills nematodes, which kill grubs, so then you’ll need a grub killer. You don’t need your lawn to be green in March, but it’s a great deal for the chemical companies.”

Ms. von Gal says a beautiful lawn is within easy reach once you understand the biodynamics. “Leave the grass a little taller,” she says. “Taller grass has more photosynthetic surface, so it has deeper roots, better nutrient uptake, and it shades out the weeds.”

Leave the clippings, she advises. By leaving the clippings and adding clover to your lawn, you’re adding nutrients back into the soil, which in turn makes for a healthier lawn, which doesn’t require chemical treatments to thrive.

Perfect Earth works with homeowners, businesses and communities to go chemical free. “The first thing we do is ask a homeowner if their landscaper is up for this,” says Ms. von Gal. “We don’t want to get anybody fired, so we will train them. We’ll look at the chemicals they’re using and ask why do we need these? We point people to our website, which lists all these chemicals and the effects they can have.”

Surprising effects in some cases. You’ve probably heard that neonicitinoids are deadly to bees and other pollinators, but did you know that exposure to herbicides can cause erectile dysfunction? Or that common crabgrass killers are extremely toxic to fish and other pond life?

“Pesticides kill,” says Ms. Woltz, urging residents to think about the health of their children, their pets and the people caring for their property when weighing the pros and cons of using chemicals.

“It’s really not hard to take a property pesticide-free,” says Tish Rehill, owner of Gardeneering, an East End landscape management company. “It’s just a matter of educating homeowners that this is the right thing to do for all concerned. A perfect lawn is an advertising campaign created by chemical companies. In Europe, a lawn is not solely glass. It may have chamomile, thyme, clover or veronicas interspersed with the grass. It’s beautiful, and it smells lovely when you walk on it.”

One concern expressed by many homeowners is that without chemical sprays, their property will be overrun with ticks, putting their families at risk of Lyme disease and other tickborne illnesses.

Ms. Woltz suggests balancing that concern with worries over pesticide exposure, and looking for ways to balance the environment to discourage ticks. “When you’ve got a pest that’s taking over, you’ve got to look beyond that pest and see where the ecosystem is out of balance,” she says. “If you create an ecosystem that’s active and diverse, it tends to self-regulate so that no one organism dominates.”

Ms. von Gal agrees, noting that frequent watering, a necessity with very short grass, is ideal for ticks. Water a couple of times a week, but water deeply, encouraging roots to go deep into the soil.

“Everybody’s backyard should be treated as a national parkit’s all the same,” she said. “We’re working with a place that’s supporting a lot more than just our whims. The more you beat nature into submission, the more it takes to generate support from nature when you start working with it. All land should be treated as conservation area, and all people are land stewards.”