Second Nature

Before The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Botany of Desire, and In Defense of Food, there was Second Nature, Michael Pollan’s love letters to gardening written in 1991. In it, Pollan posits something revolutionary: that gardens can be places where nature/wildness and culture/history/people have equal power. And that by gardening mindfully and following nature’s lead (such as, in the flow of water and insect control), we can make safe places for birds and pollinators, create mounds of rich new soil, and turn land into beautiful places that please the eye and the palate.

SecNatureFamiliar now, but in 1991, these were new ideas. There was nature, over there preserved in sanctuaries, and there were our separate gardens and yards. Over time, many of us have tried to merge the two worlds, bringing some wildness to our own yards. Decades after Second Nature came out, University of Delaware professor Douglas Tallamy wrote his popular Bringing Nature Home, which celebrates the benefits of gardening for wildlife. Hundreds of books and articles have followed.

Not surprisingly, Pollan doesn’t much care for American lawns. In his own yard, he ended up letting his grass go to seed. I take no offense. Huge tracts of grass are boring and wasteful. Our suburban Maryland lawns often are small circles, rectangles, or squares in landscapes that emphasize trees, shrubs, and garden beds. Maintaining these relatively small grassy areas without polluting the air and water is the least we can do.

Not only can gardeners protect and improve the environment,
they can spread genetic diversity by planting heirloom or old seed varieties.
Check out J.L. Hudson, a public access seed bank.

A section on lawn history was new to me. According to Pollan, Frederick Law Olmsted is credited with its invention. In 1868, Olmsted received a commission to design Riverside, outside Chicago. His design “stipulated that each house be set back thirty feet from the road, and it prohibited walls. … In Riverside, each owner would maintain one or two trees and a lawn that would flow seamlessly into his neighbors’, creating the impression that all lived together in a single park.”

Sounds more like a golf community to me. I prefer less grass and more trees and shrubs (and a watercourse, if possible) in my parks. 

Pollan’s writing is effortless, and Second Nature swept away the tedium I can feel toward gardening and “yard work” and replaced it with an eagerness to experiment, play, and grow, grow, grow.

ANS Meadow Update

The meadow at the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Woodend Sanctuary in Chevy, Chase, MD, is growing up. When I wrote about it this spring, the meadow land had recently been stripped of its top weedy soil layer and several thousand plants and plugs had been installed. Solar Mowing began tending the designated grassy path through the meadow in late April.

“By far the most successful plant has been Maryland senna,” says Marney Bruce, an ANS member who volunteers on the Meadow Team. This native perennial can grow to six feet and thrives in open sunny areas, such as this meadow that abuts Jones Mill Road.


Grasses and wildflowers that have grown tall this summer will be cut back to about 12 inches in height early next spring.

The pre-existing common milkweed has also been growing strong along with sundrops early in the summer; and partridge pea, mountain mint, black-eyed Susan, blue mist flower, and asters later this summer.

Joe Pye weed and New York ironweed have been munched on by the deer, adds Bruce, who points out that the area inside the deer exclosure has fared better than the larger area beyond the exclosure.

Oh, dear.

“We’ve been spraying the meadow regularly with a natural deer repellent,” says Yoli Del Buono, Jr., leader of the Meadow Team.

Flowering native pasture thistles attract many pollinators.

Flowering native pasture thistles attract many pollinators.

Deer don’t seem to like the pasture thistles that are blooming now, which is great because these native plants are attracting goldfinches, butterflies, and a variety of insects, says Del Buono, Jr.

This fall, the Team is planning a “work day” to control non-native plants, and next spring the meadow itself will be mowed to a 12-inch height. Mowing the grasses and flowers strengthens their roots, and of course, it will be done before nesting season.

To help prevent the spread of invasive weeds, Solar Mowing will continue its job of cleaning the blades, drum, and tire treads of its mower before taking it onto this beautifully maturing natural habitat.

Come, take a look for yourself. The meadow and the entire 40-acre Sanctuary is free and open to the public from dawn to dusk.


Bethesda Green —— Almost an Institution

Bethesda Green grew from a vision by Honest Tea TeaEO (not a typo) Seth Goldman and members of the Montgomery County Council to make Bethesda a community that can sustain growth, reduce congestion, and be environmentally friendly. Its first project: to install two recycling bins in downtown Bethesda. 

Nearly six years later, the nonprofit has impacted local life in countless ways, including a GreenerLiving series to teach residents about energy efficiency and home energy audits; “On the Farm, Around the Table” events, which connected farmers and consumers; several Solar & Green Home Expos; the first green business incubator in Montgomery County; the installation of dozens of recycling bins; and a Green Gala co-hosted each fall with Bethesda Magazine.

2014BGGalaLogoThis year’s Gala will be held at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club on October 9, 6:30-9:30 p.m. The event will feature seasonal food from local sources, live entertainment, beer, wine, and a dessert reception. Plus, Gala goers will enjoy a silent auction of one-of-a-kind experiences and environmentally friendly gifts. As in past years, Green Awards will be given to businesses, organizations, communities, and individuals who are promoting sustainable living practices. For tickets and more info on this year’s Gala, click here.

(Thanks to nominations by customers and supporters, Solar Mowing received a runner-up award in a category recognizing businesses “selling an innovative green service” at the Second Green Gala in 2011.)

And thanks largely to the mentoring efforts of Bethesda Green, the “greens” are spreading. Check out the happenings at Silver Spring Green and Green Wheaton.


The Fight of our Lives

I doubt I would’ve started Solar Mowing if carbon dioxide wasn’t a major cause of climate change. The smells and noise made by lawn mowers, trimmers, and blowers might not even bother me that much.

carbon-emissions-coalCigarette smoke didn’t bother me before I understood how deadly it is to smokers — and to nonsmokers. After seeing lung cancer up close, I can barely stand the smell of a lit cigarette. It smells like disease and death. And gas-powered lawn equipment, to me, smells like a planet burning.

Climate change is the issue that will define our time and our children’s time. Which is why I want you to know about a movie premiering this Sunday, September 7 at 7 pm. Disruption, about the “science, politics, and movement around climate change,” can be seen for free at these and other venues.

1.  Butler Conference Room, American University, Wash., DC
2.  A private home in Takoma Park, MD
3.  Bar Pilar, 14th & T, NW, Wash., DC

Watch the movie trailer here.

ClimateMarchLogoTwo weeks later, you may want to attend what organizers hope will be the “largest public demonstration against climate change in history.”

The People’s Climate March will be held in New York City, September 21, 2014, starting at 11:30. 

Do I think replacing 100 or 500 gas-powered lawn mowers with clean mowers will prevent glaciers in West Antarctica from collapsing or storms worldwide from worsening? In a word, no.

But as Disruption makes clear, climate change is the fight of our lives. And like many of you, I’m a fighter.

Social Entrepreneurship at Home & by the Book

Anna atop Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, CO.

Anna atop Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, CO.

Last May I completed my first year at CU/Boulder as an environmental studies major. During my first semester, I took a class entitled “Sustainability and Social Innovation.” The main focus of the class was social entrepreneurship, a term I was originally unfamiliar with but discovered is a complex and sometimes even controversial concept. In time, I began to think of it simply as socially beneficial (“good”) work backed with a solid business plan.

I agree with Gregory J. Dees, a teacher of Social Entrepreneurship and Nonprofit Management at Duke, who claims that “… any definition of social entrepreneurship should reflect the need for a substitute for the market discipline that works for business entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurs play the role of change agents in the social sector by:

• Adopting a mission to create and sustain social value (not just private value)

• Recognizing and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission,

• Engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning,

• Acting boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand, and,

• Exhibiting a heightened sense of accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created” (Forbes, 2012).


Anna has spent much of the last six summers working for Solar Mowing.

When my mom started Solar Mowing in 2009, I had no idea that she was on her way to become a successful social entrepreneur. By giving local homeowners the option to maintain their lawns without harming the environment, she created an alternative market with a clearly defined mission.

I have worked for Solar Mowing every summer since 2009 and have been lucky enough to see, firsthand, how the company has grown and developed over these five years. We continually update our equipment so that we’re using the latest battery technology, added a second vehicle with a highly efficient solar array, increased both our staff and customer base, and expanded our services to meet our customers’ needs. One thing that hasn’t changed though, is my mom’s dedication to her community and her determination to create real and measurable change. Since Solar Moving began, more than 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide have been prevented from entering the air we breathe.

I am honored to be part of such an outstanding company. I invite you to join us (if you haven’t already) as we work to improve our lives and our world.


The Scoop on Dog Pee

No, it isn’t your imagination. The grassy spot where your dog and the neighbors’ dogs often pee IS turning brown. You may have heard that only big dogs or females cause such spots, but that’s not quite right. Bigger dogs just expel more urine than small dogs, and while females squat rather than lift a leg on a fencepost or utility pole, young male dogs and some small adult males also squat.


Salts and nitrogen in dog urine can damage, and even kill, grass.

The best way to keep your grass spot-free is to train Fido to use a mulched or graveled section of the yard or my favorite command:  “Go in the ivy,” while pointing to my ivy-covered corner. Also, vary the path you take on walks, so your dog won’t pee in the same ol’ places.

Salts and nitrogen in the urine seem to be the twin culprits here, and watering the spot is the best, and really only, remedy. Don’t waste your money on dog supplements that claim to prevent the spots or sprays or powders that are supposed to make the spots disappear.

Keep your dog watered as well as this will help dilute his/her urine. And if you have brown spots that won’t recover, let Solar Mowing clean and reseed them this fall.

Compost Tea … If it’s Good Enough for Harvard

Dylan Reilly works for Solar Mowing. He’s applied to the Landscape Architecture Graduate Program at the University of Maryland for the fall. 

The idea to make compost tea has been on a back burner, so to speak, since I read about Harvard University’s transition to organic care of the Harvard Yard. This time-honored landscape includes brick pathways, stately old trees, and a good deal of grass.

It began in 2008 when Harvard compared two plots of lawn: one treated organically and the other treated conventionally as a control. Both plots were tested for percolation, pH, and other metrics to assure a fair comparison. The conventional control plot received synthetic nitrogen/phosphorus liquid fertilizers, some pesticides, and annual aeration/reseeding. The organic plot received aeration, reseeding, topdressing of compost, pelletized organic fertilizer, and a special amendment called compost tea.

Compost tea is a mix of organic nutrients (nitrogen, potassium), actively aerated water (by oxygen pump), and compost (such as chicken manure, grass clippings, decomposing leaves) that steep together in a fine mesh bag that allow microbes, but not soil, to pass through. Harvard’s recipe mixed seven pounds of compost, eight ounces of molasses, eight ounces of liquid kelp, eight ounces of fish hydrolysate, and a half cup of vegetable oil into a 30-gallon container of water that was then steeped for 24 hours.

The heart of compost tea is not the nutrients from the various ingredients, but rather the biology that is harbored by the steeping process. This is where the aeration comes in. To create beneficial microbes for a healthy lawn you need food to help beneficial bacteria from the compost grow and air to help them breath and that is exactly what brewing/steeping compost tea does. Once brewed, it should be applied as quickly as possible to take advantage of that biology.

Dylan sets the compost tea bag in place and fires up the hydroponic oxygen pump. He'll apply about three gallons of compost tea to his lawn.

Dylan sets the compost tea bag in place and fires up the oxygen pump. He’ll apply about three gallons of compost tea to his lawn.

In my experiment, I applied about three gallons of compost tea to our one-eighth-acre of grass, which is actually more than recommended. About a month later, I have not noticed any particular uptick or decline in our lawn’s growth or health, which is not surprising for one application. But the brewing was definitely an education. I used a 30-gallon trash bin to brew my tea, along with a store-bought 400-micron teabag, oxygen pump, and homemade aeration grate for the bottom of the bin. I dispensed the tea with a one-gallon hand sprayer.

In February 2009, Harvard put out a report on the project, detailing successes from the organic lawn care system, such as increased root depth and less required watering. A few months later, 25 acres of Harvard’s campus was converted to organic practices. With a 45K investment in composting facilities, compost tea brewers, and associated equipment the cost of the new maintenance plan is about the same as their conventional system.

The take-away for folks with lawns is this: It has never been a better time to start an organic lawn care regimen. Compost tea has become a bit of a waving flag in the past few years, but it really appears to be the synergy of compost topdressing, aeration, reseeding, organic pelletized fertilizer, compost tea, and careful management that allowed Harvard Yard to go green.

We’re Not Ready for Roundup Ready II

Farmers put the first Roundup Ready seeds in the ground in 1996. Genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate, the herbicide in Monsanto’s Roundup, the seeds — soybeans, then corn and now alfalfa, cotton, sugarbeets, and other crops — grew despite applications of Roundup, which killed everything else around them.

Fast forward to today, and the once-doomed weeds are beginning to turn up their collective noses at Roundup — and live! What’s a chemical company to do?

RoundupCreate a superweed killer, that’s what! Dow Chemical’s Enlist Duo is a mix of glyphosate and 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange, a herbicide widely used in the Vietnam War and linked to hormone and reproductive disruptions, kidney and liver damage, and cancer.

Genetically modified (GM) crops would need to be further tinkered with, of course, so they can withstand doses of 2,4-D. (The only way to avoid GM foods is to read labels carefully — and choose organic foods, which are usually GM-free.)

The good news: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to approve Enlist Duo, and the agency is accepting public comments through Monday, June 30. Weigh in here.

The most commonly used herbicide in the U.S., glyphosate has been showing up in breast milk, urine, and drinking water supplies. Scientific studies have linked exposure to birth defects and cancers.

Its widespread use is also killing milkweed, causing “significant ongoing harm” to monarch butterflies, says the Natural Resources Defense Council. The group has petitioned the EPA to review glyphosate and limit its use.

Enlist Duo is harmful and unsustainable, and it’s not the way forward. That’s the message I gave EPA. For two more days, you can add your message here


New Study Links Gas-powered Mowers to Breast Cancer

There it was in black and white. A new study, perhaps the first of its kind, listed potential breast carcinogens, and near the top of the list were chemicals found in exhaust from gas-powered lawn equipment.

The peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that “gasoline and chemicals formed by combustion (e.g., benzene and butadiene) are among the largest sources of mammary carcinogens in the environment,” and that exposure to these chemicals comes from “vehicles, lawn equipment, tobacco smoke, and charred or burned food.”


Dear friend and breast cancer survivor, Susan, savors a Lake Michigan sunset.

That environmental factors play a large role in causing cancer is not in dispute. In Molecular Biology of the Cell (2002), referenced on the National Institutes of Health website, it is estimated that “80-90% of cancers should be avoidable, or at least postponable,” if certain environmental factors are avoided.

Indeed, the authors of the breast cancer study offer steps women can take to reduce their exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. One such step is to “use electric rather gas-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and weed whackers.” (Though as pointed out in an earlier post, the pollution avoided is personal only; charging your electric equipment with kilowatts from coal still pollutes.)

To the two key reasons to use Solar Mowing — to reduce air and noise pollution — you can add a third: to protect your breasts and the breasts of the women you love.


A Path Runs Through It —— and We Get to Mow It

Meadow. So soothing a word, it should be listed as a synonym for soothing. And while I’ve written in an earlier post that lawns are the meadows in our everyday landscapes, even I know they aren’t real meadows — those self-sustaining habitats jumping with insects, birds, and butterflies, where tall feathery grasses and colorful flowers dance in the wind.

The meadow sits along Jones Bridge Road at Woodend, Audubon Naturalist Society's Woodend Sanctuary. The deer exclosure is on the left.

The meadow, along Jones Bridge Road at Audubon Naturalist Society’s Woodend Sanctuary, was starting to green up when the path was first cut on April 27. Part of the deer exclosure is on the left.

The difference is clear when every ten days or so, we visit a real — albeit baby — meadow at Woodend, the Audubon Naturalist Society’s (ANS) 40-acre Sanctuary in Chevy Chase, MD, to mow the path meandering through it.

“Years ago, before the extreme pressure of deer and invasive plants, our meadows were chock full of a wide variety of plants and the birds, butterflies, and other insects that relied on them for food and shelter,” says Lisa Alexander, ANS’s executive director. “Today, as we work to increase the variety of native plant species in the meadow, we eagerly hope for the return of bird and insect diversity, too.”

When ANS decided to restore this meadow, they sought advice from Larry Weaner, a landscape architect who specializes in native plants, and Dr. Jennifer Murrow, a wildife biologist at the University of Maryland, because meadow-making is more than pulling up some weeds and throwing down some seed.

By our second cut on May 6, the meadow grasses on either side of the path were long and lush.

By our second mowing on May 6, the meadow grasses on either side of the path were long and lush.

“It was decided to use a mini bulldozer to lightly scrape off the top layer of soil and eliminate the dense root mats of invasive plants,” said Alexander. “We’re eager to see if anything sprouts from the seed bank below the layer we scraped off.”

In addition, volunteers, overseen by ANS’s Sanctuary Committee, planted more than 1,600 quart-size pots of grasses and flowers and more than 1,750 plugs (small, young plants). The group also erected a large temporary exclosure in a corner of the meadow, which will show how a meadow grows without deer browsing on it.

“A great deal of effort was devoted to finding plants not only native to our region but also grown from seed collected in our region,” said Marney Bruce, a volunteer on the Sanctuary Committee.

The funds for the project are from an anonymous donor; the soil is in the hands of dozens of (mostly) volunteers.

ANS chose Solar Mowing to mow the path because our machines are lightweight, quiet, and most important, non-polluting, and we are more than willing to help prevent the spread of weeds by wiping down the blade and underside of the mower and picking debris out of the wheel treads before we mow. (That I worked at ANS for eight years as Communications Director also may have had something to do with it. :))

What a treat to have a small part in this wonderful stewardship project. Watch for future posts on ANS’s meadow-making.