Real Costs of Lawn care

Our company, Greener by Design, has had an upsurge in local calls for pricing on organic lawn care. Consequently, we have a price sheet similar to what chemical lawn care companies have pricing various programs in thousands of square feet per year. We are not unique in this, there is a national organic franchise offering services locally that operates similarly. Interestingly though, despite the growing concern for the environment, consumer preferences are still very price driven.

It is ironic that the same factor raises our concern for the environment and makes a more harmonious lifestyle seem too expense.  Specifically it is the price, and after effects of oil. Most of our environmental issues have to do with being a petrochemical industrial society. Carbon from oil production and usage accounts for a large percentage of our global warming issues. Plastic products and oil byproducts are the source for a good deal of our pollution. The fact that we are running out of oil has both made it (and our lives) more expensive and food prices are going up as more acreage is dedicated to growing alternatives. As a culture we are driven to alternatives that appear too expensive given how costly our lives have become, a “catch 22” situation.

The truth is however, that getting off of oil products like chemical fertilizers and pesticides is only expensive for the first year. Here is why; lawns and gardens that have chemical nitrogen and pest controls applied to them at the manufacturers recommended rates have dead soil. These chemicals basically kill all the biological agents in the soil that help plants digest organic material like leaves, and grass clippings for example. Chemical fertilizers feed plants directly, similar to if we were all to take food intravenously and kill off the symbiotic organisms in our intestines.

The result of killing the biological is that lawns can no longer digest mulched organic material like grass clipping and leaves and so develop “thatch” requiring additional services. Thatch is removed; leaves are blown and removed using more energy. Soil is further depleted and holds less water as it has less and less organic material, more water is needed to keep plant material alive as there is less organic material to hold moisture.

When you look at the cost as a whole, not even considering the carbon footprint left by chemical fertilizers, blowers, municipal trucks hauling leaves, etc, the chemical approach is more expensive in terms of labor, and water costs. Consumers tend to focus on the initial application cost alone and don’t see the increased water usage and the blower and leaf collection service cost (which is supplemented by municipal governments that collect and remove leaves with taxpayer dollars). 

To convert your lawn to organics from years of chemical use takes more than just putting some organic fertilizer down. Much like people who have had their intestines depleted by heavy antibiotic use are told to eat yogurt with live cultures in it to re-establish digestive agents in their intestines, it is necessary to restore the biological agents in the soil so that it is better able to digest the organic material. In addition to using chemical herbicides which are known to kill helpful biological agents in the soil, the national franchises miss this point as do many consumers. Consequently, the first year of organic lawn care can be more costly, but following years will be equal to or less than chemical applications. The reason is not the cost of the applications themselves by the way, but the fact that your lawn and garden is now a mulch eating machine. Grass clippings and leaves no longer need to be moved, but simply mulched into the lawn. Higher organic content means you use less water since the soil will retain moisture better. Live soil means deeper healthier roots and stronger more valuable plant material. Stronger plant material means less disease and insect infestations which in turn means lower mortality and replacement as well as little or no pesticide us. Less pesticide use and elimination of chemical fertilizers means stronger ecology and development of beneficial insects that prey on plan predators.

The punch line here is pay a little more in the first year to get your plants off of their chemical addiction and you will reap the benefits in healthier, stronger, more valuable plants in the years to come. You will reduce your water costs (which go up 6% a year), and eliminate the need for blowers on your property. You will be feeding the soil directly with the clippings and leaves that land on it and reducing the need to amend the soil and feed it as often as you did when you were chemically fertilizing, and you will turn your property in a carbon sequestering machine instead of increasing your carbon footprint by using chemical fertilizers and herbicides (6lbs of carbon released into the atmosphere to make 1 pound of chemical fertilizer).

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