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How GREEN is your grass?

Lawn owners are turning to natural products to treat their property

Dot Casey sold $1.7 million worth of Scotts products out of the Natick Home Depot last year. Her biggest seller — the Lawn Pro 4-Step chemical fertilizer-herbicide-pesticide program.

But when the garden center manager's orange apron comes off and she wheels a spreader over her own yard in Framingham, she uses Milorganite, a fertilizer made out of recycled municipal sludge from Wisconsin. For her vegetables, she uses Terracycle Garden Fertilizer, a product packaged in used 16-ounce soda bottles whose primary ingredient is worm manure.

"You should have seen my tomatoes last year, they were like this," the 58-year-old Casey said recently, holding her hands as if she were cupping a softball. "I'm one of those green people. I have to be. ..... I have grandchildren and dogs and a brand-new puppy."

The suburban lawn has always been a symbol of all that is good about living outside the city — the antithesis of paved-over urban life, a chance to own a little patch of the natural world. Yet over the years, the lawn itself — created through the liberal application of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides — has evolved into something roughly as natural as a pink-plastic flamingo.

Now some homeowners are questioning whether having a lawn that looks like a fairway at the Charles River Country Club is worth having to worry about the potential effects of herbicides and pesticides on their children, their pets, and the environment. They're looking to maintain their lawns organically — and organic lawn-care lines like Cockadoodle DOO are now outselling the classic Scotts' four-step synthetic lawn treatment program at some local independent garden centers.

Bill Winter, the longtime lawn-care products buyer for Russell's Garden Center in Wayland, said that organic products are now outselling conventional chemical lawn products there by a 2-to-1 ratio.

"The demographic is generally a younger crowd," Winter said. "They're buying homes, starting families, and they're concerned about the health of their kids and their pets."

Conventional chemical products from Scotts, however, continue to dominate sales in the big-box home improvement centers like Home Depot and Lowe's, while organic lawn-care companies still have a big hill to climb.

John Packard, a Worcester native who founded New Hampshire-based Cockadoodle DOO, said his company sold nearly $1 million worth of its organic products in Lowe's stores in 2006, but had to pull out after the chain demanded $350,000 in up-front advertising money and other concessions. Scotts, in contrast, sold nearly $1 billion of its products through Lowe's over the same period, Packard said.

"We're a small company, and we just couldn't afford it," he said.

(There is some evidence, however, that Scotts is listening to organic-minded consumers. It now has its own line of products for sale, Organic Choice, that includes a lawn fertilizer with processed poultry feathers as its main ingredient, as well as potting soil, garden soil, and garden fertilizer.)

"Consumers are looking for choice," said Su Lok, a spokeswoman for Ohio-based Scotts. Lok said the company stands by the safety of its conventional products.

"I think the issue is appropriate use and stewardship. Our products are safe if used correctly," she said.

A chemical lawn-care regimen consists of three basic components: a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, an herbicide to kill weeds, and a pesticide to control grubs that feed on grass roots below the soil. The genius of the traditional Scotts program, even organic devotees concede, is in its simplicity and ease of use — for about $59, a homeowner with a 5,000-square-foot lawn can buy all the products needed for a year, apply them in four easy-to-follow steps, and end up with a pleasingly green lawn.

"I know exactly when to put it down, and exactly what to put down," 42-year-old Chris Cordella of Framingham said recently as he loaded his Home Depot shopping cart with Scotts Step 2 Weed Control Plus Fertilizer. "It's simple."

Asked whether he had ever considered using an organic product, Cordella, the director of student services at Boston College, said "not really."

"Well, you should," piped in his daughter, Melissa, 19, who was along for the shopping trip.

While homeowners look to go organic at home, they're also lobbying local cities and towns to be 'greener" in their care of parks and playing fields.

Needham, Newton, Wellesley, and Weston have moved toward organic lawn-care practices and are encouraging residents to do the same.

The Needham Health Department, for example, last month released an advisory to residents encouraging them to drop chemicals altogether and adopt organic lawn-care practices.

Newton, meanwhile, has used integrated pest management practices — a technique that uses predominantly organic practices but allows the short-term use of chemical herbicides and pesticides to treat stubborn problem areas — for the past decade.

Some even believe that lawn chemicals may be next on the hit list for municipal officials after secondhand smoke and trans fats.

The components of a chemical lawn regimen have drawn increasing scrutiny over the last decade or so because of their potential effects on humans, animals, and the environment.

Bifenthrin, the key ingredient to many grub- and insect-control products, for example, has been listed by the US Environmental Protection Agency as a possible carcinogen and has been found to be toxic to fish. Its use also has been banned in several counties in southern New York state. A common herbicide, pendimethalin, has been blamed for serious eye and skin irritations among migrant farm workers and is also listed as a possible carcinogen by the EPA.

Another weed killer — 2,4 dicholorophenoxy acetic acid, or 2,4Dcq — has been linked in some studies to increased cancer risk, but has not been classified as a carcinogen by the EPA.

Winter, the buyer for Russell's, said that lawn-care professionals have broken down into three basic camps — those who believe in the use of conventional products, those who advocate organic-only methods, and those who favor an integrated approach.

'These things are tools," he said. 'You only use them when you need to use them. It's when you abuse them, that's when we hear the horror stories."

Advocates of purely organic practices, however, say that homeowners with patience and diligence can achieve Norman Rockwell-looking lawns without the use of any chemicals.

For weed control, the organic programs use two yearly applications of corn gluten, a byproduct of the manufacturing process for corn syrup. When applied to a lawn at the proper time and watered in, corn gluten forms a barrier around weed seeds and prevents them from putting down roots.

For fertilizer, organic programs usually use some sort of organic waste product, such as poultry feathers or poultry manure.

To control grubs, organic lawn-care backers favor the use of milky spore, a fungal disease that attacks grubs naturally. When an infected grub dies, it releases millions of more spores into the soil, making the soil self-sustaining for grub control for a decade or longer after two or three seasons of application, some believe.

The only caution about milky spore is that it is less effective in colder areas, although one consequence of global warming may be to make the organic pesticide more effective in parts of Massachusetts.

The key to the organic approach, advocates say, is creating a healthy environment — the soil — for your grass that will allow it to compete successfully with weeds and insects.

That process also includes less-frequent, deeper waterings that encourage long root growth, mulching grass clippings (which contain more than half the nitrogen a lawn needs on a yearly basis), and mowing to a height of no less than 3 inches, which protects soil from baking in the summer sun and denies sunlight to weed seedlings.

"When you give it a chance, grass can out-compete any weeds that are there," said Kathy Litchfield of the Northeast Organic Farming Association's Organic Lawn Care Program, which accredits landscapers in organic lawn- and land-care techniques.

While organics can be bulky and expensive — treating the same 5,000-square-foot-lawn takes about 360 pounds of material and costs about $300 — devotees say they are worth it.

"We try to switch people over," said Gary Graham Jr., co-owner of the Needham Garden Center. "It costs more, it weighs more, but it's just better. There's nothing negative about it."