YARDS GO NATURAL

Manicured, chemical-laden lawns are out, and woodsy yards with groundcover, hedgerows, and dead wood are in. Today's ecology-minded, health-conscious citizens find the latter far more interesting and beautiful. So do the animals, birds, and fish! 

Lawn chemicals poison the earth and all its creatures. They poison the yard they're applied to and also travel via storm drains, streams, and toxic clouds to poison other areas. 

Birds and wild animals suffer even more than humans do. Classic signs of pesticide poisoning in birds are shivering, gasping, excessive salivation, grand mal seizures, wild flapping, and sometimes screaming. Birds often have these reactions out in the open, while small mammals may crawl into their dens to suffer and die.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials caution that their agency's registration of a pesticide does not guarantee that the product does not carry health risks. The EPA also says 33 of the 34 most popular lawn and garden pesticides have not been fully evaluated for their safety.

Many pesticides were introduced decades ago without being studied for environmental or long-term health effects. They remain on the market unless the EPA can demonstrate with data supplied by the manufacturer that they pose a serious threat.

GRASS: THINK QUALITY

A chemical-free lawn, like a tree, detoxifies the air of pollutants and brings better health to four- and two-legged property occupants. A lot of unseen underground activity by worms and microorganisms makes a lawn healthy. If you allow this biological activity to go on unharmed by pesticides, roots will be stronger and chemical fertilizers unnecessary. 

Sow grass in fall, when the weather is cooler and there is little competition from weeds. Keep the seeds moist. 

Grow a mixture of grasses that do well in your area, rather than a single variety. Zoysia, a spreading perennial grass, grows in thick, chokes out weeds, and stays green without watering. 

Never walk on wet or soft lawns. Where the soil is compacted, use an aerator, available at rental stores, to punch small holes in the ground, or walk over the soil in shoes with cleats. Raking removes thatch and other dead organic material that smothers grass. Using a sharp blade, mow high; a grass height of two inches will shade out crabgrass and many weeds. 

Leave grass clippings on the lawn after you mow. This natural, free fertilizer breaks down easily and provides up to one-half the nitrogen and potassium a lawn needs to green up and thrive. Earthworms and natural organisms eat the clippings to provide a natural cycle of fertilizing and aeration. 

Even leaves can be left in place if they are ground up with a lawn mower. Leaves also provide winter protection for tree roots. If you water, replace sprinklers, which waste water, with soaker hoses or "impulse" sprayers, which shoot water out in an efficient jet as the head turns. Plant ground cover in difficult areas. 

Mulch exposed ground with wood chips, hay, or pine needles to keep moisture around plants. 

Increase activity in spent soil areas by top dressing them once in spring and once in fall with organic matter such as compost, leaf mulch or peat moss. This makes plants healthier and more resistant to insects, drought , fungi and disease. 

Lawns can survive with little or no fertilizer. There are now excellent new organic fertilizers on the market, but beware of harmful petroleum-based products that are represented as "organic" because they contain a little manure. 

Remember, in a natural, healthy lawn, the grass will be slower-growing, stronger and more drought-resistant. 

Clover is not a weed and should not be killed. Its root nodules contain bacteria beneficial to the lawn and plants. 

Finally, don't worry about dandelions or other weeds. Weeds are judgment calls. Dig them out by hand if you don't like them, and be grateful for the exercise and chance to spend time in your healthy yard.