Eco Queen

Eco Lawn Crusader

In a neighborhood of too-perfect chemical lawns, one eco-queen’s quest for true green.

By Patty LaNoue Stearns

Worried about her pets’ health and the toxic chemicals being freely applied to the lawns around her downtown Traverse City neighborhood, eco-conscious artist Julie Pearson pulled together some convincing materials, found some great alternatives for healthy lawns, and one by one is convincing her neighbors to start changing the way they are treating the Earth.

Yet as healthful a lifestyle as this Chicago-area transplant has lived since she moved to the city 13 years ago, her dogs have not fared as well, even though she feeds them the best organic stuff from the co-op. One died after eating some rolled-up sod. Another, Daisy May, her Sheltie pictured on the left, has bladder cancer. Pearson blames it on the chemicals that people spray on their lawns to make them green and weed-free, to which her pets are exposed during their morning and afternoon walks.

So far, Buddy, a mixed breed she rescued from a shelter, is okay. “They sniff everything,” says Pearson, whose hours of Internet research on the subject points to how the toxins enter their systems. That’s why she is crusading to banish the chemicals from her neighborhood. Since spring, she has been meeting with several neighbors, trying to convince those whose front lawns carry “just sprayed” signs — which clearly state that pets and children should stay off while wet — to stop their monthly service.

“If it’s killing your pets,” she reasons, “just think what it’s doing to humans.” Anecdotally, her two indoor cats, Laverne and Shirley, lived to the ripe old ages of 19 and 26, respectively.

So Pearson joined forces with Paula Colombo, Sharon Flescher, Laura Otwell and a few others to form the Boardman Neighborhood Green Initiative. They meet every other week or so to discuss a game plan for their mission and are planning a September event: A no-waste green block party — just in time to think about next spring’s lawn-care arrangements. There will be lots of literature, including a handout that accompanies an Indie film by Sanford Lewis, The Truth About Dogs, Cats and Lawn Chemicals.

“We’re trying to educate the neighborhood about the negative effects of lawn-care treatments because we feel not everybody realizes how dangerous these chemicals are. They do it because their neighbors are doing it — it’s kind of peer pressure, and in reality it’s really negative,” says Pearson, whose art works are featured in Traverse City’s Gallery Fifty.

Her friend Paula Colombo, who lives down the block, says their eco effort has been a passive movement thus far. “We’re talking with people we know who already are like-minded.” She and her husband, Curt Cummins, moved here from Madison, WI, where strict laws govern what residents can apply to their lawns, and were surprised that in such a relatively enlightened area as Traverse City — whose lifeblood depends on the health of its waters — the laws are far less stringent. The couple uses chicken manure from the local feed store, McGough’s, to green up their grounds.

Pearson’s arduous research turned up a number of informative sites about the hazards of routine chemical applications. She also uncovered a site called Safe Lawns, plus an excellent organic lawn-care system called Firebelly and a blog called “Guilt” that includes testimonials and confessions of one former lawn chemical applicator.

On a recent summer weekend, Pearson’s xeriscaped and native-planted city lot with its “Wildlife Refuge” sign in the front yard and rain barrel on the side was one of the most popular stops on the recent Traverse City Friendly Garden Club tour.

Hundreds of people who walked through her rambling pea-gravel pathways, edged in ground cover and indigenous perennials, were fascinated by her compost system, whose stackable bins she bought several years ago from Smith + Hawken.

“They wanted to know all about it — how to make it,” says Pearson. “It’s a three-bin revolving thing: I put fresh stuff in one pile, there’s another that’s about six months old that’s ‘cooking,’ and the third — the complete composted material — that you scoop onto the first pile to make it go down.”

In this summer of searing, record heat, Russian wildfires and gushing oil spills, both in the Gulf and Michigan, Pearson was happy to share all she knew with anyone who asked, and hopes she makes a difference in the way her neighbors treat this increasingly fragile world.

“I take it one lawn at a time,” Pearson says. “And that’s just how we have to do it.”

This article appeared Tuesday, August 10, 2010 in Northwest Michigan’s Second Wave.