Twenty years ago, I moved with my husband into a little house in Helena. We dug into yard work – pruning the existing apple tree, laying stone walkways, removing piles of chewed up mattresses left by the dogs of the previous owner, and growing our first lawn amongst the flower beds.

We knew almost nothing about soil or growing, but we loved our yard. In the years since, we have lived in a handful of homes and maintained lawns of varying quality. We practiced “organic” in that we did not use synthetic pesticides (the most common pesticides are herbicides) or fertilizers. We pulled dandelions by hand and had them return year after year. Only recently did I begin to understand the more thoughtful and active approach that truly constitutes organic land care.

This spring Missoula Parks & Recreation offered a virtual training event, Organic Lawn Care 101. Healthy Babies Bright Futures and Grow Safe: Non-Toxic Missoula took part in the event led by presenters Jay Feldman, Beyond Pesticides Director, and nationally recognized organic turf expert, Chip Osbourne.

Feldman and Osbourne each have decades of experience with organic practices and deep knowledge about the risks of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. They are leaders in a national movement to educate and implement safe and healthy land care. Organic practices protect human health, pollinators and wildlife, keep our waterways free of polluted runoff, and sequester carbon, among other benefits.

According to Osbourne, homeowners use as much or more pesticides on their yards than all agricultural pesticide use combined. These toxic chemicals are applied primarily for cosmetic purposes. There is a history here. Synthetic nitrogen and an assortment of chemical agents were developed for warfare. After WWII, industry found alternative uses.

In the 1950s and 60s, industry purposely created an expectation for a mono-culture lawn that has persisted up to today. Picture the suburban development of the 1950s and you begin to see the foundation of our current culture. These expectations were established to sell product. Housing developments sometimes had sales agreements that committed the homeowner to maintain the lawn with specific pesticides and fertilizers. 

The average person can stop in at their local garden supply and go home with a vast range of toxic lawn products. That individual may or may not read or understand the safety guidelines. They almost certainly won’t realize that only the active ingredients are tested– and those active ingredients are not registered as “safe.”

Instead, they are tested to establish the level that prevents acute poisoning or immediate death. Pesticide registration does not take into account the effects of low exposure to a chemical over long periods of time. No one is testing the “inert” or “other” ingredients or how a combination of active ingredients may become more toxic when mixed together.

The carbon footprint of using these products is staggering–it takes 5 tons of petro-chemical equivalent to manufacture a single ton of synthetic fertilizer.  THere are plenty of reasons to embrace organic lawn care. As Feldman says, “The only option for a livable future is organic.”

We don’t need synthetic products to have a beautiful lawn or yard. Organic land care is not a product-swapping strategy. Instead, it focuses equally on the soil below and the plant we see growing above. Osbourne has many recommendations for growing a vibrant lawn. To start:

  • Aerate- avoid compaction by using an aerator to bring air into the soil. This gives plant roots space to grow.

  • Overseed- filling in bare spots and keeping the entire lawn thick will crowd out weeds.

  • Water- no more than 2” a week at the hottest times of year. Overwatering is one of the biggest problems.

  • Mow- to 3” height, keep blades sharp, and leave clippings on the lawn.

  • Compost- introducing organic matter feeds the soil microorganisms. Living organisms support healthy grass.

  • A Guide to Organic Lawn Care is a free, local resource with step-by-step plans to meet your expectations.

The basis of sustainable, organic land care is nurturing healthy, biologically active soils and always leaving the soil better than we found it. We can have beautiful yards that are also safe. The full recording of Organic Lawn Care 101 can be found on MCAT’s YouTube channel. Let’s embrace organic practices for a healthy and sustainable Missoula.

Alison Reintjes is a Volunteer with Grow Safe: Non-Toxic Missoula. More information and resources at: https://www.growsafemissoula.org/Sustainability Happenings


Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. For more, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter via their homepage here. And sign up for the Home ReSource eNews via their homepage here.

Sign up to be a volunteer Zero Waste Cafeteria Coach with MCPS.

May is Bike Month – Missoula’s Bike Month Calendar here

May 18. –   Reduce Waste & Save Money at UM’s Thrift Sale. 9 am to 2 pm at UM Schreiber Gym.  Students leaving for the summer donate clothes, bedding, kitchen items, office supplies they don’t need. Supports UM’s Sustainability & Recycling programs. Volunteers needed before & during the sale.  Volunteers can sign up here.

May 21 — Bike for Shelter — FUNdraiser for Watson Children’s Shelter, Missoula.

May 22 — RIVERFESTFort Missoula, noon to 4pm. FUNdraiser for Trout Unlimited WestSlope chapterInfo here. 

May 31 — Gardening Knowledge Sharing at Bonner Park, Missoula, 6pm. Share your questions & knowledge. Hosted by Seedlings for Solidarity. 

June 2 (Thurs) — Join the Beaver Brigade (Clark Fork Coalition’s Beaver Conflict Resolution project). info session: noon-1pm via zoomRegister here.

June 7 — Plastic & Climate Change. 5:30-7 pm. Missoula Public Library (room 410) & on Zoom. More Info & Zoom link here.

Don’t forget – Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.