Demand for organic lawn care surges

Some say the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence if you choose to "go green." That's the message behind a new movement in lawn care. As summer approaches, more people are choosing to use natural or organic products to grow environmentally-friendly lawns. Organic, or "green" lawn care, avoids the use of chemicals and man-made synthetic fertilizers.

John Solomon, owner of ProMark Landscape Management in Traverse City, has been helping people grow "green lawns" for the past six years. He says his business has increased in the past few years as people hear about his eco-friendly approach to lawn care.

"More customers are now starting to wonder and ask what is being put on their lawn. I think it is my job to educate them about the different options out there."

Some of those options are using natural or organic fertilizers. It can be up to 50 percent more expensive than synthetic fertilizers, but Solomon says it's worth it. That's because fertilizer made from composted organic material is rich in carbon, moisture, and nutrients. It's the same type of natural material that develops in forests and has helped trees grow for thousands of years. Solomon says it helps grow strong turf and enriches the soil because it releases nutrients slowly, over time.

Man-made, or synthetic fertilizers, are made of chemicals including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Critics say the chemicals give plants an artificial boost that can never be as good or long-lasting as Mother Nature. Eventually the chemicals can seep into ground water, and some may even end up in local lakes and streams. Over time, the water's eco-system can change, increasing algae and plant growth, and harming native fish and other animals. High nitrate levels in water have also been shown to be harmful to humans, especially young children.

Jim Balamucki, of Earth Friendly Lawn Care, also opts to use organic and natural fertilizers. He took on this approach when he started his business six years ago. Before that he was the golf superintendent at Leland Country Club for 11 years. Right now he has 175 customers, and says his business increases each year as people lean towards more "green" practices.

Balamucki says his customers' lawns and plants benefit from organic fertilizers because it helps build soil structure, which continually feeds plants. This organic matter or "humus" releases nutrients slowly, helping grow strong turf and enriching the soil over time.

While Solomon and Balamucki both use natural fertilizers, they agree there are times when chemicals are needed.

"You have to use some pesticides to control weeds," said Solomon. "But I limit the applications and do spot spraying on the problem area instead of the whole lawn."

His company also uses what's known as "integrated pest management" to protect landscaping from harmful insects and bugs. That's a process where chemicals are used as a last resort. If the insects aren't doing any real damage, they're left alone. If there is a pest problem, mechanical devices, like vacuums, traps, and even the human hand are used to remove them. If that doesn't work, beneficial insects – ones that eat the harmful ones – are introduced to the environment.

Commercial uses

Organic landscaping isn't just for neighborhood lawns. It's also catching on at golf courses and athletic fields. Tri-Turf in Traverse City finds it pays to go green on a large scale.

Controller Bob Reed says the amount of organic products Tri-Turf has bought from vendors has doubled over the past few years as it takes care of nearly 1,000 golf courses and sports fields across the state, including TBAYS.

"While organic is more expensive, in the long run it can pay off because of how much more efficient it is for the soil," said Reed.

As an eco-friendly resort, Crystal Mountain in Benzie County is also taking a "green" approach to maintaining its two golf courses. Public relations manager Brian Lawson says Crystal was among the first golf courses to take part in the Michigan Turfgrass Environmental Stewardship Program. The voluntary program requires members to help minimize pollution and decrease the negative impact that landscaping can have on the environment. Along with using organic products, Lawson says Crystal also has a computerized irrigation program that controls the amount of water it uses to keep the courses green.

"The program allows us to more precisely irrigate and use the most efficient flow of water in the shortest water window. Our crews also leave the edge of water areas un-mowed or taller in order to create a buffer to prevent the run-off of fertilizers."

At Traverse City Golf and Country Club, golf course superintendent Steve Hammon says they have been using natural products on their greens, tees, and fairways for 11 years and estimates that 65 percent of their fertilizers are organic.

"Being surrounded by the two bays and the Boardman River, we just wanted to be proactive with the environment."

He says the organic products do cost the club more money, but in the end the committee thought it was worth the extra price. But it's not only organic fertilizer that the country club is using to keep up with this green movement. This spring it will start using bio-degradable oil in its equipment. Hammon says this new eco-friendly oil doesn't burn the grass, and will break down into the soil if there is a leak.

Paul Galligan, Director of Golf and Grounds at the Grand Traverse Resort, said the resort has been using organic fertilizer on their tees and grounds for three years.

"We do not use it (organic fertilizer) on our fairways yet because of the extra cost and we just don't have room in our budget." He likes the organic products because they suppress certain fungus-which means less disease.

He hopes that companies will manufacture less expensive organic and natural products.

Green costs more green

In the end, it may just be the extra expense of organic and natural products that keeps people from "choosing green." Steve Lord of Traverse Outdoor says a lot of customers are excited to use organic products, but they get sticker-shock when he tells them the price.

"Right now, the main deterrent is price. When they find out how much more expensive it will be, many opt to use the synthetic fertilizer instead."

Solomon says prices do vary, but on average the cost of a bag of synthetic fertilizer is $20, compared to $30 for a bag of organic.

But you don't need to rely only on professional lawn services to use organic or natural products. Many area stores are stocking their shelves with organic landscaping and gardening products because of consumer demand.

"The demand for organic products has snowballed in the last six months," says Gordy Sovereign, owner of Garden Goods. "They want more 'greener' options."

While store-bought organic products may be a bit more expensive than other products, Sovereign says prices are a lot more competitive than in the past.

Lynne Myers has been a nursery specialist at Lowe's on U.S. 31 for almost four years. She says every summer the home improvement store has increased its stock of organic or natural products because of consumer requests. One of its most popular items is its phosphorus-free fertilizer.

"This is a big seller because we live near the water and I think people feel an obligation to protect it." BN