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plea for organic lawns
February 16, 2003 NY Times
Organic Methods Are Urged for Lawns and Farms
By CAROLE PAQUETTE
purred in part by the agency that supplies water to most of Suffolk
County, a campaign is under way to ask residents to rethink the way they
keep their lawns green.
Several nonprofit bodies are promoting the use of organic methods —
those that recreate the natural process — to maintain lawns and gardens,
a process those involved with water quality say would keep excessive
amounts of chemicals, like nitrates, found in synthetic fertilizers and
pesticides out of the groundwater.
According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, if the
concentration of nitrates found in drinking water exceeds E.P.A. health
standards, health problems may result. There are some drinking water
sources in East Northport and the North Fork area that, before
treatment, exceed these standards as a result of farming that was done
there many years ago.
While the use of organic products — like compost to fertilize and garlic
oil to ward off mosquitoes — is voluntary, some municipalities are
incorporating such materials into their landscaping programs, and new
federal standards are strengthening their credibility.
At the Suffolk County Water Authority, a nonprofit independent
organization that provides water to 80 percent of Suffolk's residents
and businesses, more than $2.5 million a year is spent in removing
nitrates from its 450 wells, according to Stephen M. Jones, the chief
executive. Because of filtration, nitrate levels on Long Island are
currently comfortably within E.P.A. and state limits, but costs could
rise if more filtration were needed, according to the water authority.
Because of a sharp increase in water use during the summer, the agency
has begun a campaign aimed at educating its 360,000 customers on how to
change their watering habits and still keep their lawns green and urging
them toward organic maintenance.
Last year, Suffolk customers used 12.16 billion gallons of water in
July, an increase of 23 percent over the 9.88 billion gallons used in
2001. The July numbers, since 1987, have traditionally been double the
amount used monthly from September to May, Mr. Jones said. "This has
been since the prevalence of the automated sprinkler, and people tend to
water their lawns indiscriminately."
Last year, the agency began a $450,000 three-year program to compare the
effects of lawn care with chemical fertilizers and pesticides with the
use of organic products. Its partners in the project are three nonprofit
groups: the Long Island Organic Horticultural Association and the Long
Island Neighborhood Network, a lobbying and educational group, both
based in Massapequa; and the Long Island Groundwater Research Institute,
based at the State University at Stony Brook.
In addition, the water authority has begun a $100,000 advertising
campaign to "get people to think differently," Mr. Jones said. Notices
will be placed with water bills, asking customers to water their lawns
every other day for longer periods of time, rather than every day for
"This method will send grass roots deeper and able to survive a dry
spell without turning brown and will thus require less fertilizer," he
said. "Shallow roots are unable to completely pick up the fertilizer's
nitrates, which then go into the groundwater."
The agency will also use only organic products at its eight customer
service facilities and Oakdale headquarters.
The use of organic products and maintenance, while increasing, has been
slow, mainly because initially it is more costly and "labor-intensive,
since weeding is done by hand," said Steve Restmeyer, president of the
Horticultural Association and owner of Eco-Logical Organic Landscaping
Nevertheless, he added, while it can take up to three years for soil to
return to its natural state, the cost and labor decrease as the lawn
becomes drought-resistant and the need for continuous fertilizing is
"Once an organic system is established, the property becomes
self-sustaining," said Beth Fiteni, program coordinator for the Long
Island Neighborhood Network.
While some commercial landscapers have begun using organic products,
there is still a long way to go. Out of hundreds of commercial
landscaping services, about 40 are estimated to offer organic services,
according to the Neighborhood Network.
AT this point there is no talk of government-imposed countywide
restrictions on the use of chemical products, like the ban in 1970 on
the sale of detergents containing phosphates. Despite an outcry at the
time, residents have come to accept having a less than traditional white
There is some evidence of heightened public sensitivity to the danger of
chemical lawn products. Over the past five years, nursery owners say,
there has been a noticeable increase in the purchase of organic products.
At the 150-year-old Hicks Nursery in Westbury, 33 percent of the lawn
and garden fertilizer sold is organic, according to Al Littmann, a manager.
"People are becoming more aware, and very concerned with the environment
and what they eat, especially vegetables," he said. "There are more
organic products on the market today, and people figure it's just as
good and it doesn't hurt you, so why not use it?"
As the sale of organic products has increased, the price of the products
"has come down substantially," he said. "Five years ago, 100 percent
organic tree and lawn food was three times the price of chemical lawn
food, now it's only $1 or $2 more," he said.
Suffolk County was prompted to put an organic maintenance program into
effect at county-owned facilities in the 1990's. The towns of Babylon
and Huntington have both instituted organic programs at their facilities.
The property surrounding Babylon's town hall, its ball fields and golf
courses are maintained organically and the town is phasing in the
program at its other facilities, according to Debbie Pfeiffer, a
In Huntington, as a requisite toward getting zoning approval to build
the Greens at Half Hollow in Dix Hills — a development of 1,200
condominiums and an 18-hole golf course on 400 acres of land — the
developer, SBJ Associates, was asked "to hire a consultant to gear the
course toward organic uses, and from what we know they are following
that action," said Mark Cuthbertson, a town councilman.
The town has also hired a consultant to plan organic maintenance at its
18-hole Crab Meadow Golf Course in Northport. "Our ultimate goal there
is to have it all organic," he said, adding that Huntington has
allocated $3,000 for a brochure showing property owners "how to move
At Planting Fields Arboretum, a 409-acre state historic park in Oyster
Bay, the 200 cultivated acres of flower beds are fertilized primarily
with leaf compost and organic products, according to Vincent Simeone,
the assistant director. "Chemical products are used on a limited basis,"
he said. "Over the past eight years we have been going more to the
natural. All we are doing is mimicking nature."
Last year a new set of federal regulations spurred farmers toward
In October, the United States Department of Agriculture set strict
standards for farmers with gross sales over $5,000 a year who wanted to
label their food products with the official "U.S.D.A. Organic" seal,
certifying that their crops were 95 to 100 percent produced by organic
methods. Among other criteria, they must prove their land has been free
of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for three years.
According to Rex Farr, a member of the Long Island chapter of the
Northeast Organic Farmers Association, a nonprofit group that has been
accredited by the Agriculture Department to inspect and certify farms,
the benefit is not to the farmer, but to the consumer.
"The grower doesn't get the certification for himself, but when the
consumer sees the word `organic,' they are more apt to buy those
products because they know rules have been applied," said Mr. Farr, who
owns a 60-acre fruit and vegetable farm in Baiting Hollow.
Of the state's 259 farmers with organic certification, 10 are on Long
Island, he said.
Green Thumb of Water Mill, a 100-acre vegetable and flower farm owned by
the Halsey family, who have farmed the land continuously since 1700,
"returned organic in 1976" and is certified, said Bill Halsey. "It is
more time-consuming and time is money, but we feel it is a better way to
farm concerning the health of both the farm and the farmer," he said.
However, not all farmers are able to make a commitment to "total organic
farming," according to Dale Moyer, a specialist at the Riverhead-based
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, an education and
research organization affiliated with Cornell University.
"The bigger you get, the more difficult it is to do organic produce," he
said. "For those farming on a larger scale for the wholesale market it
would be very labor-intensive. And there are major pest concerns, such
as worms in sweet corn, that would be very difficult to control."
However, he added, "Most of those with farms over 100 acres are looking
toward some type of organic practice such as crop rotation and