It’s startling but true: Many of the poisons commonly used on our landscapes and lawns today have their roots in war. When World War II ended, chemical manufacturers had a surplus of nitrogen and the factories aplenty to produce more and more and more. Nitrogen is a primary component in explosives. It’s also a powerful fertilizer. The industry switched from making bombs to pushing perfect, nitrogen-fed lawns. As G.I.s returned from Europe and the Pacific, suburbs and bedroom communities grew — and so, too, did the neighborhood lawn envy that swept across the nation, fueled by an advertising blitz paid for by chemical companies.
That snippet of history is one of the first things Charlie Marder, above, in his garden in Springs, shares to illustrate how Americans ended up pumping oceans of nitrogen and other chemicals into our back yards and gardens.
Running one of the region’s most prolific landscaping companies for the past 40 years, Marder’s Garden Center in Bridgehampton, Marder is, one customer at a time, trying to undo decades of extensive environmental damage at the hands of chemical companies.
Research has tied human exposure to certain pesticides and fertilizers to illnesses such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and endocrine disruption, along with environmental problems like the algal blooms we’re seeing in East End ponds (which are potentially deadly to creatures that live in the water).
With awareness increasing about the dangers of chemicals in our environment, the demand for chemical-free lawns and gardens is growing among both contractors and customers.
But the transition, for customers, isn’t just about ditching the chemicals. It requires some concessions about what we have been sold to believe perfection looks like.
Beautiful lawns and gardens are possible without pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, and chemical-laden fertilizers, experts say. But properties maintained chemical-free look a little different Marder said. You can still have a green expanse, but you’ll have to get used to clover, perhaps the spread of buttercups, and a little crabgrass, which he says every truly healthy lawn should have anyway. Flowers and vegetables grown the green way may not look totally unblemished, but they will be healthier to eat.
“You have to look at your turf differently,” Marder said recently. “You have to look at it as a garden that you’re eating. You walk on it, you bring it into your house, your kids play on it, your dog plays on it. The mower blows particles into the air for you to inhale.”
And the populace is getting on board. Jason Norris, who started his landscaping company six years ago, Norris Organics in East Hampton, said his list of clients grew by a factor of six in his first year, to more than 80 customers, and it keeps growing. “Even if customers want chemicals, we tell them they have to find another provider, because we won’t go back on our methods and what we know is right to do,” Norris says.
Compost tea, a brew of decomposed organic matter and water, is one place to start to nourish a healthy, chemical-free yard. Mr. Norris makes his own. “It gets bubbled in with water and either molasses or some kind of fish enzyme, and makes a living fertilizer that re-creates the biomass, the biomass being the soil.”
Bridge Gardens, a five-acre public garden on Mitchell Lane in Bridgehampton, took the final step toward all-organic landscaping last year when it stopped using chemicals on its rose garden. Rick Bogusch, the garden’s manager, said the response has been positive, even if it means the blooms aren’t quite 100 percent flawless: “We’re not putting anything toxic into the groundwater, so I think it’s worth it in that respect, to put up with a little extra black spot.”
Younger homeowners are most apt to demand chemical-free yards, according to Tony Piazza of Piazza Horticultural, Southampton.
“Prior to now, there was almost an ignorance where people didn’t realize that what they were doing was harmful to themselves and the environment,” he says. “I’m 53. Younger people are questioning this. They want toxin-free, organic lifestyles, and I think it’s coming from that, and from pioneers like Edwina von Gal and her Perfect Earth Project.”
Von Gal, left, a landscape designer with an international reputation, founded the Perfect Earth Project in Springs with a broad agenda: to educate consumers, retrain and certify landscapers to be “Prft (chemical-free) professionals,” and to convert public spaces into “Prfct places.” Among the places branded as “perfect” by von Gal’s organization are the grounds of the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, the Garden of Hope in Brooklyn, and numerous community gardens New York City.
Right now, says von Gal, the mainstream garden and lawn-care industry promotes “a death-based process, as opposed to a life-based process.” She compares organic landscaping methods to one’s own diet and exercise habits.
“It’s not easy,” she says, “but you’ll be healthier for the effort. Most landscapers will probably tell you going without chemicals doesn’t work and is more expensive. We don’t feel that has to be true. They never learned how. It’s our job to teach them.”
Perfect Earth will host its biannual benefit at the Springs home of artist Cindy Sherman Sept. 3 from 3 - 7 pm. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi will be the emcee, and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie headline the musical lineup. Info at www.perfectearthproject.org