As the weather warms and your backyard begins its transformation into a summertime playground, take a fresh look at how you’re tending your lawn and pool. “The toxic ingredients in lots of lawn-care products have been linked to a whole spectrum of childhood illnesses,” warns Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual. Moreover, chlorine in swimming pools was found to weaken children’s lung function in a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, while a Centers for Disease Control report released last February suggests that swimming in chlorine-treated pools may lead to eye irritation and skin rashes.
Fortunately, you don’t need all those nasty chemicals to build a beautiful backyard, promises Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Really Green. “We have such a mindset that chemicals are necessary, but the truth is that nature grows wonderfully without them,” she says. So for a lush lawn and sparkling swimming pool that better support your family’s wellbeing, turn to these safer, more environmentally sound solutions.
A healthy lawn thrives on healthy soil, says Tukey. Once properly prepped—rather than treated with synthetic fertilizer—soil can produce robust, verdant grass, which then releases vital nutrients like potassium and phosphorous back into the earth.
Growing clover on the lawn can help nurture your soil, since the plant provides naturally fertilizing nitrogen, says Dadd. Many other organisms are also essential to cultivating healthy soil, including fertilizer-excreting earthworms, fungi, non-parasitic nematodes (or roundworms), and bacteria—all of which are usually wiped out with synthetic fertilizer.
To lure these friendly creatures to your lawn, Tukey suggests spreading a half-inch layer of compost over the lawn’s surface at least once a year. (For a guide to composting, which involves saving food scraps and other organic materials, visit www.epa.gov/composting.) He also recommends spraying your lawn three times a year with compost tea—a liquid you can create by steeping two pounds of dry compost (contained in a filter bag or even a pair of nylons) in a five-gallon bucket of water for seven to ten days.
Although feeding your lawn with compost may deliver results more gradually than synthetic fertilizer, Tukey cautions against using compost and chemicals simultaneously. “When you use chemical fertilizers, you’re inherently damaging the soil,” he says. Plus, by working with natural alternatives, you’ll effectively eliminate the need for conventional lawn care’s most dangerous element: pesticides (a class of chemicals associated with increased risk of liver and kidney damage, disruption of the endocrine system and suppressed immunity). “With standard lawn care, you’re generating quick spurts of growth, which in turn encourage insects to come out and start eating like crazy,” explains Tukey. “But with an organic system, you encourage the good bugs and bad bugs to be there at the same time. Because the good bugs generally win out, pest management is rarely necessary.”
The grass is greener
When deciding which kinds of grass seeds to grow on your lawn, Dadd recommends choosing varieties that are native to your area and require little mowing or water. For help finding an ideal grass, contact a local nursery.
Keep your grass 2 1/2 to 3 inches tall to help hold moisture in the soil and prevent weed growth, advises Dadd. But when it’s time to cut, consider passing up the fuel-guzzling motorized equipment and choosing an eco-friendly alternative like a reel push mower. As you’re mowing—preferably when the grass is dry—leave the grass clippings behind so they can supply nitrogen to the soil.
Like mowing, watering shouldn’t be overdone. Limiting irrigation time and frequency not only conserves H20, it can strengthen grass roots. Water until the soil is drenched down to eight inches deep. “You can test this by taking a spade and digging a small hole to examine the soil,” says Tukey. Then give grass time to dry thoroughly before re-watering.
Keeping your pool bacteria-free is key for safe swimming. But treating pool water with chlorine can pose a range of health risks, according to a report published last year in Environmental Science & Technology. Chlorine by-products found in swimming pools—such as trihalomethanes, a class of compounds that includes the carcinogen chloroform—have been linked with increased asthma risk and shown to irritate the eyes, skin and mucous membranes. The report’s authors note that young swimmers may also be more likely to develop respiratory-tract and ear infections.
It’s possible to maintain clean pool water without the use of chlorine—but not all alternative chemicals make for healthier choices, warns Dadd. “The thing to watch out for with chlorine-free pools is that some just require [different] toxic chemicals, like bromine,” she says. In her own pool, Dadd uses a chlorine-free system developed by Go Beyond Organic. Instead of relying on disinfectant chemicals, the system staves off disease-causing organisms with the help of hydrogen peroxide and a specialized water conditioner. (Although using hydrogen peroxide in swimming pools is considered safe, Dadd recommends wearing goggles and gloves whenever handling the chemical.) Another Dadd-approved alternative, ECOsmarte, purifies pool water by employing oxygen electrodes and algae-killing, antiviral copper. In addition to lacking the health risks associated with disinfectant chemicals, both alternatives are better for the environment, according to Dadd.
Since many pools require a certain level of chlorine concentration to prevent the growth of algae and harmful bacteria, it’s best to contact your pool company for guidance in making the switch to an alternative system, says Ultimate Guide to Pool Maintenance author Terry Tamminen. And if you decide to stick with a traditional chlorine system, you can still lessen your health risks with these tips from Tamminen:
- Avoid over-chlorinating by regularly assessing your pool’s chlorine levels with either an orthotolidine or DPD test. (The ideal level is three parts per million, says Tamminen.)
- Because organic debris calls for more chemical use, try to landscape in a way that prevents trees from dropping leaves into the pool.
- To keep the water clean and decrease your need for chemicals, cover your pool as often as possible. Covering also saves water: An uncovered 500-square-foot pool loses 50 gallons a day and more than 18,000 gallons each year.
Even if you can’t completely make over your lawn and pool this year, try to strive for a few changes that will allow your kids to build their defenses against toxic chemicals. “Because children’s immune systems and endocrine systems aren’t fully developed yet, they’re much more vulnerable to the effects of chemical exposure,” Dadd points out. And with all those sunny days spent rolling around the lawn and splashing about the pool, going greener and cleaner can only make summers sweeter for years to come.