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Grow Grass That’s Good for the Bay

Friends of the Bay Lecture on Sustainability Gardening

If it’s true that the grass is always greener in another man’s lawn, it also means he is probably using too much fertilizer.

Here in suburbia, where grass is king, homeowners are always interested in a better way to go green. Wednesday, Feb. 3, Friends of the Bay provided some of the answers as George Thompson of Dodds & Eder; and Neil Lewis and Beth Fiteni of Sustainability Institute at Molloy College (and the Long Island Neighborhood Network) talked about environmentally responsible and sustainable gardening techniques, including how to have a beautiful garden and protect water quality at the same time. The meeting was held in the FOB offices at 2 Townsend Square. It was fitting that the talk was sponsored by FOB since fertilizers are a source of pollution in the bay.

The need for a sustainable garden approach is explained as, “Over 10 million pounds of pesticides are applied on Long Island every year. This presents a threat of exposure to toxic chemicals and contamination of our underground drinking water aquifers.

“Insects, weeds, and fungal diseases in a lawn are often symptoms of underlying problems. Conventional methods that address the symptoms with chemicals that can be harmful to human health and the environment are simply not sustainable.” The quote is from the brochure Do-It-Yourself Organic Lawn Care from of the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College. Neal Lewis is the executive director of the Sustainability Institute.

George Thompson Talks

George Thompson of Dodds & Eder was the first speaker and he quoted from an article in National Geographic by Edwin Wilson, who extolled the beauty of the soil with its myriad plant life enriching the earth which feeds us all in a circle of interdependedness.

He encouraged gardeners not to use leaf blowers to clean out the landscape of fallen leaves, but to allow them to mulch under bushes and create a biosphere for predatory insects to grow – they are natural pest killers; and the debris will decompose and form a natural soil enrichment. Do less and get more was his mantra.

He talked about Integrated Pest Management, IPM, a concept of using very little pesticide if needed, but he encouraged homeowners to first use simple methods to ensure plant health. They include knowing if a plant is in the right location – does it need more or less sun; is the soil too moist or too dry. Is the plant from another area, and therefore is not doing well here. He said get to know your plants and even encouraged going around with a Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass to really see what is going on in your garden by paying attention.

Lawn Care

All the speakers agreed that a lawn should not be manicured like a golf course. It is appropriate for golf balls but blades of grass should be 3 to 3.5 inches high to create a matching root system which keeps plants healthy in drought. Grass should be watered in the morning, and for a long enough time for the water to get deep into the soil.

He encouraged biological control of pests. They included a protein by Messenger that enhanced the plants immune system: a bacterial product for leaf chewing insects; and insect predators such as - praying mantis and lady bugs available at Dodds & Eder.

There are specific organic methods to get rid of whatever creepy crawlies are attacking your lawn. You can get information from the Internet said Mr. Thompson. But go to a reliable information source such as the Cornell Cooperative Extension or a reliable garden center, he cautioned. The Neighborhood Network website has a list of books available.

Sustainability Institute

Neal Lewis, executive director of the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College, and Beth Fiteni added to the information. They provided guidelines to creating a hardy lawn. It included a four-step toxic free plan: practice healthy maintenance; give your grass a balanced diet; improve the life of your soil; control pests naturally. They expanded on each subject and referred people to their website:

They recommended products for use and discussed the purpose of each, including: Concern, Critter Ridder, Earth Tone, Espoma, Garden Safe, Garlic Barrier, Hot Pepper Wax, Liquid Fence, Organica, Ringer, Safer Brand, Shake Away, St. Gabriel Organics; and Victor Poison Free.

They suggested an easy way to go on the journey from fertilizers and pesticides to a healthy organic lawn was to call an organic landscaper for help. You can take over once the lawn is established which can take about three years, he said.

They have a list of certified organic landscapers, that is updated yearly by giving the landscapers a test; and is arranged by location. See for information.

The audience listened in rapt attention during the two presentations. Some asked questions. A gentleman in back said he decided last year to do his own lawn instead of having his landscaper do it. He said last year he had an astounding number of worms and no grass. FOB advisory board member Ralph Fumante, (deputy mayor of Oyster Bay Cove) said, “You picked the wrong year to start. I’ve been gardening for 30 years and 2009 was the worst year ever. You can’t have rain for 45 straight days and have a successful garden.”

Some buzz words: keep grass tall, don’t water too often but water long enough to reach the roots; the height of the grass is the depth of the roots; Long Island land needs lime, have your soil checked to see how much you need; don’t leave a bare patch on the lawn, keep it seeded; professionals throw grass seed on the lawn all year long; a balanced pH reduces crabgrass; put compost over weeds to keep them from getting sun, and then put in grass seed. When pulling out weeds, dig a hole, throw in some compost and seeds, to start a healthy area.

There is a lot to learn about gardening but luckily there is a lot of good information out there, and a lot of good people aware of the need for better sustainable methods.

Synthetic Turf Questions

As the meeting ended, Mr. Lewis was asked about the use of synthetic turf fields. He said, “Very little research has been done on them. A lot depends on what it is made of. Most importantly there have been no environmental impact studies done on the fields. That is what is needed, a thorough analysis of them.” One of the benefits of an EIS is that it includes alternates to use, he said.

Mr. Lewis said the sand used in artificial turf is also a problem. He said, “The silicon is so fine, when the kids fall down on it, it causes a pouf. The children breathe it in and it can have an effect on lung function. There are a range of issues that should be looked at.”

Mr. Lewis said people think of the artificial turf as a good alternative allowing continuous use of fields, and that it doesn’t need added chemicals. He said, “Look at what the Locust Valley school district did, they don’t use chemicals on their fields and they look very good.” He showed slides of them in the presentation. “It takes more work and more knowledge but it is doable.” He said the Locust Valley school district had a committee that pushed through the idea of not using pesticides and chemicals.

Another aspect of artificial turf, he said, is that “It is expensive to get rid of after 10 or more years of use. It has to be ripped up and gotten rid of. It really takes a beating with one team after another using it, but we are risking children’s health,” he said. “The children can’t process the chemicals, while on adults they may have no effect,” he added.

Organic Turf Show

There will be an Organic Turf Show, a trade show at Farmingdale State College on Feb. 16. Mr. Lewis said it is for professionals but that the public is welcome too.

Next Lecture

Friends of the Bay’s next lecture takes place on Wednesday, March 3. Matt Draud, chair of biology of C.W. Post College will talk about The Diamondback Terrapins of Oyster Bay - Denizens of the Marsh.

Oyster Bay supports a robust population of the once critically endangered estuarine turtle, the Diamondback Terrapin. Over the past decade Dr. Draud and his students have studied many aspects of this population, including their demography, nesting habits, dietary habits, movement patterns, and hibernation. They have discovered a large adult population with mainly older turtles. It appears to be a population struggling to replace itself with young turtles. The main problem is lack of quality nesting habitat coupled with nest destruction by raccoons. In this lecture, Dr. Draud will present the natural history of the Diamondback Terrapin in Oyster Bay and discuss plans for the conservation of this important denizen of our marshes. The lecture takes place in the Friends of the Bay Offices at 2 Townsend Square (intersection of South and West Main Street, Oyster Bay). The doors open at 7 p.m. and lectures begin at 7:30. For information call 922-6666.