Many homeowners are joining the SafeLawn movement and not using chemical pesticides.

By Marne Kaeske

I would never pay to have my fingernails “done.” In my humble opinion it is one of the greater wastes of time and money.

My idea of a productive and exciting day involves time spent outdoors digging in the dirt. For me, getting dirt under your fingernails is the true nail job. Many of my dearest friends don’t share my opinion on manicures.

However, I use this example to highlight the greatest challenge faced by public educators: addressing social change. Whether it is targeting human health-related issues, addressing segregation, or protecting water quality, breaking an old dog of old habits is a daunting task.

A thick green, monotypic carpeted yard is not a naturally occurring event. Pesticides – toxic substances designed to repel, control and kill unwanted guests – play a major role in the age-old quest for lawns that resemble fairways. In 1999 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that an estimated 78 million pounds of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides are applied by homeowners on lawns, gardens and in homes.

Although pesticides have a specific target, once applied, children, pets, birds, and beneficial insects can be exposed. Because kids and pets have a smaller body size, tend to roll on the ground and frequently put yard toys in their mouths, they have a higher risk of being affected than human adults. Pesticides can aggravate or cause asthma, and chronic effects can manifest as cancer or nervous system damage. Dogs whose owners use lawn care chemicals are more likely to develop cancers like canine malignant lymphoma.

Pesticides have become so ubiquitous that the U.S. Geological Survey has found evidence of them in the surface and groundwater of 20 major watersheds. On the Door Peninsula, we have 18 inches of soil at the most. The “Swiss cheese” bedrock beneath the thin soils is highly erodible, and summer rains can permeate the groundwater in mere hours, moving with it any small particles existing on vegetation around the yard. This is the same aquifer from which our wells pump drinking water.

Encouragingly, the movement to reduce the quantities of pesticides dumped into our yards is spreading like wildfire in Door County. A special interest group is spearheading a local initiative under the national SafeLawns umbrella.

You may have seen the “Safe to Play” signs posted throughout your neighborhood. A petition to eliminate pesticide use on park lawns and school yards can be signed by the public at the Blue Front Cafe in Sturgeon Bay.

And, as part of its Master Plan, Crossroads at Big Creek passed a rule not to apply fertilizers or pesticides in any gathering areas on their property, with the exception of treating plants that cause human health hazards like wild parsnip or poison ivy.

The Door Property Owners’ website lists alternatives to traditional lawns and provides links to a multitude of resources ( Many homeowner associations have chosen to eliminate pesticides used in their shared yard areas. And Cottage Glen in Ellison Bay has no traditional lawns at all, thereby avoiding the entire circuit of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and weekly mowing.

All private property owners, businesses and local governments can reduce the amounts of pesticides that end up in our groundwater and on our small loved ones. Identify the pests that exist in your yard and determine the best treatment. Consider alternatives to traditional “lawns.” The sky is the limit on how artistic, organic or edible a yard can be. Practicing lawn care that protects our water quality will also make your lawn a place to play, a safe place with healthy soils, where thriving dragonflies eat irritating mosquitoes.

Like apprehensively switching to online banking or encouraging my dad to try Thai food, I’ve found that “we often grow more by bending with the wind than by standing in ridged defiance.” Learning to love the golden smiling faces of dandelions in the lawn is not so hard when your grandson presents you with a lovely bouquet he picked, just for you. Social change can start in your backyard.

And there’s one other benefit to abandoning the notion of a perfectly manicured lawn that I should mention. The time spent on grooming, watering, weed-and-feeding, mowing, watering, calling landscapers, watering, edging and more watering can be spent playing bocce ball with family, taking a birding class, taking your wife or daughter out to dinner – or getting your nails done.

Marne Kaeske is the Stewardship Coordinator for The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor. The Landowner Stewardship Program assists public and private landowners in implementing land management practices and ecological restoration projects for the long-term benefit of the environment.