More homeowners are choosing safety in lawn care


The robin swooped down over the yard, lowered his landing gear and dropped gracefully onto the back lawn. I spotted him from the kitchen window. Though we were of different species, our stomachs spoke the same language. As I prepared my breakfast, he was hunting his own.

The robin ate first. He hopped twice through the glistening grass, stopped at the edge of the garden and cocked his head toward the ground. Something must have twitched imperceptibly in the soil. The bird pecked at it twice, then gave a mighty yank, the way birds used to tug at recalcitrant worms in those old cartoons.

The robin's struggle paid off. Out of the ground popped the biggest worm I've ever seen. It was fatter than the sausage links I was frying. This worm was so big that you could have mounted its head for a trophy, providing you could tell one end of the creature from the other.

Alas, I only saw the worm for a second. I was happy for the robin, who flew off with a full belly. I imagined him perched on a telephone line, spreading the news to his feathered friends and giving them directions to my yard (as the crow flies). Then all of the birds would converge on the lawn and, in their quest for

the ultimate worm, discover an abundance of less spectacular treats, like grubs and beetles.

The loss of a single worm, even one the size of a sausage, would not damage the garden. There are plenty of worms out there.

The only thing I lost that day was my appetite for breakfast links.

I do worry about the birds in our neighborhood. Our lawn is free of chemical fertilizers and toxic herbicides, but some other yards are not. Can a robin tell the difference? Not until he is dead.

Each spring in our community, lawn care companies that spread their polysyllabic poisons mark the treated yards with tiny yellow flags. Yet I wonder if the flags aren't really a signal that the worms have surrendered.

Most depressing this year was the sight of a chemical lawn company hard at work on Earth Day.

Cheer up, says Rob Ringer. Homeowners are embracing organic alternatives in increasing numbers. The good news is that by the year 2010, science permitting, America's lawns and gardens will have gone back to the birds. And the worms.

"It's a long process. You're talking about changes in peoples' lifestyles," acknowledges Mr. Ringer, spokesman for Ringer Products, the nation's leading producer of natural lawn and garden care products.

"It's obvious we live in a society of instant gratification, and that includes instant 'green.' While a chemical lawn company can turn our yards green in two days, we've got to take a long-term look at what we're doing," says Mr. Ringer.

"Baby boomers are starting to care about everything from apples to where their kids are rolling around on the lawn. People are making compost and finding that it isn't such an icky, yucky process. Besides, it gives them a chance to make a difference

in their own back yards.

"This movement has mainstream appeal. It's not the flash-in-the-pan fad we saw in the 1960s," he says. "We're in a dead-end street. If we don't change now, we're in big trouble."

Of course, Mr. Ringer is paid to say this. The success of the family business is at stake. But so is the earth's future.

These are his predictions for gardening in the 21st century:

* Natural herbicides, derived from plants, that inhibit the growth of weeds. The pre-emergent organic herbicides may be on the market within five years.

* Liquid natural fertilizers that can be sprayed on lawns and gardens.

* Safer fungicides that will make it possible to "spray your roses without running in the opposite direction afterward."

By the year 2010, says Mr. Ringer, "we'll have naturally derived remedies that you can use from one end of the yard to the other. There will be simpler products to replace the diazinons of the world. You'll see more biological bacteria for killing bugs and weeds. And lawn services will do all lawns organically."

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