Tending the Chemical-Free Yard

Learn to live with some weeds and bugs in your garden, and keep away the peskier ones with these tips.

Alex Eben Meyer

Spraying chemicals in the yard—to make the grass greener, stop pests from nibbling the vegetables, or prevent dandelions from taking over—is a tempting shortcut for many a home gardener. “The main ones people use are insecticides and herbicides, or weed killers, or a combination of fertilizer and herbicide known as weed-and-feed products,” says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with NRDC’s Health program. But these products aren’t necessary—nor are they healthy, for either the environment or our bodies. Try these strategies instead.

Stake out your turf.

There is a movement toward reducing the amount of turf grass in yards to make way for more sustainable plantings. But the goal isn’t to eradicate every inch of the green stuff. “Turf grasses have fibrous root systems and prevent erosion,” explains Bill Hlubik, a professor of agriculture and natural resources at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. If you choose the right grass and treat it well, you won’t need any fertilizers or pesticides. “Look for grasses known as low-maintenance,” Hlubik says. “They have deeper root systems that let them survive droughts and absorb more nutrients, so they need less fertilizer.” (Your options in this category will depend on where you live.) Blending a few types of low-maintenance grasses will ensure lawn health too—any diseases or insect problems will affect one type but not the others. Hlubik also recommends endophytic grasses, which contain beneficial fungi within the seeds that deter common lawn-eating insects. Finally, after your grass is set and grown, water deeply but infrequently (about once every one to two weeks, in the absence of a good rain), and early in the morning.

Embrace a shaggy lawn.

Here’s a tip that might make your weekend of chores a little less burdensome: Mow less frequently, and with your mower on the highest setting. And learn to appreciate longer grass. Hlubik recommends leaving it at least 3.5 inches long; Sass keeps her own grass at a similar length but will sometimes let it grow longer, with benign neglect. “Leaving the grass long will ensure that you don’t harm the clover, which attracts pollinators,” Sass says. “Plus, a longer lawn will crowd out weeds, hold soil moisture better, and can even reseed itself.”

Find peace with (some) weeds.

Sass doles out some tough love: “Get used to how your lawn looks with weeds,” she says. In addition to providing some nourishment for the pollinators we all depend on, some of the most common and vexing weeds can have upsides. “Even dandelions are quite beneficial,” says Barbara Pleasant, an expert on organic gardening and coauthor of Compost Gardening. “They can have roots 18 inches deep that act as biodrills” to loosen compacted soil.

To prevent weeds from taking over and stealing too many nutrients from your lawn, vegetable garden, or flower beds, hand-pick them—and skip the herbicides. You don’t need to dig into the dirt; just lop them off at the surface, Pleasant says. You’ll need to be more aggressive if you find yourself with an invasive species issue—as when a plant that’s not native to the area starts to dominate the landscape, with no natural control on its growth. Pull those plants out by the root, and don’t toss them into your compost pile if you plan to sprinkle that mix back onto your lawn. Instead, Hlubik recommends chopping the invasive plants up into tiny bits with gardening shears so they don’t reroot or germinate. Sass says she leaves them on a paved pathway to fully dry up in the sun before throwing them into her yard waste bin for curbside pickup.

Nourish your plants with compost.

There are many reasons to compost, and one of them is to improve the health of your soil naturally, which cuts down on the need for water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Pleasant recommends compost for vegetable gardens. “I use it as mulch or, for tomatoes, I put some at the bottom of each planting hole.” Over three years or so of adding the compost yearly—typically after the last frost—for any new plant, you’ll notice the soil improve and become loose, crumbly, and primed to help vegetables grow and resist pests and diseases. For your lawn, if you have well-broken-down, dry compost, you can shake it through a quarter-inch screen, then spread it one-eighth inch thick on your lawn. “It adds organic matter and good bacteria, which helps the soil retain nutrients,” Hlubik says.

Don’t bug out over insects in your flower beds.

“Flowers are usually under the protection of bees and buzzing things—some insects eat flowers, but it’s not that common,” Pleasant says. Still, if you’re finding that bugs are devouring your blooms, consider planting more pest-resistant varieties, like zinnias, cosmos, and petunias (which even deer won’t eat).

Rose lovers should be prepared for the possibility of attracting Japanese beetles. To help manage an infestation, Pleasant suggests letting the rosebush bloom, then cutting it back and covering it with tulle. Luckily, the problem is only short-term. “Japanese beetles only feed for six weeks, so when the plant is ready to bloom again, I take the net off and the beetles are gone,” she says.

If you spot soft-bodied insects like aphids, don’t panic. “A few aphids are not a problem. Leave them alone, and the next thing you’ll see are ladybugs and hoverflies—they’ll eat up aphids like popcorn,” Pleasant says. “But if you get lots of aphids, you can spray them with diluted dishwashing soap—it causes them to desiccate and die.”

Manage pests in your vegetable garden on a case-by-case basis.

Arachnophobe? Before you worry about the spiders roaming your tomato plants, remember that these often-misunderstood creatures are effective predators in your garden that keep away the true villains—like mites and mosquitoes. But if you really can’t cope, you can spritz some diluted white vinegar on your plants a few times a day.

If snails and slugs are the problem, note that these creatures are shade-seekers, so keep your garden thinned out and exposed to lots of sun—this is also healthy for the plants. If you do spot their slimy trails and clean-edged bites on your plants, Pleasant suggests this nontoxic trap: fill a tuna or cat food can with beer or sugar water with a pinch of yeast, and the critters will slither in. “They are attracted by the gases given off and crawl in and drown,” she says.

Or maybe the pest is not the small, creepy kind. If your issue is deer, “plant things they don’t like up front,” Sass says—such as lamb’s ear. “It’s an attractive ground cover, a draw for butterflies and hummingbirds, it’s self-propagating and needs almost no care. Make that the front border of your garden.” For a more heavy-duty solution, you can install a chicken-wire fence, although be aware that deer can jump quite high.

You can also look for nontoxic sprays, like ones made with fox urine or strong-smelling sulfur compounds. The deer will keep away from the sulfur odors, which “mimic the smell of rotting flesh,” Pleasant says. But this goes only so far. “In all cases with wildlife, really hungry animals are not as likely to be repelled by scents that suggest danger.” Sometimes, it’s best to let nature take its course.

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