Why Canada Banned Weed-And-Feed Lawn Care Products
Kelly Burke is a professional turf manager for a manicured corporate campus in New England. He is accredited in organic land care and is a licensed pesticide applicator. He formerly managed the turfgrass as a golf course superintendent and has held several senior management positions at private country clubs overseeing high maintenance lawns.
Monty Rakusen / Getty Images
In a simple, common-sense ruling, Health Canada decided in 2010 to no longer allow the coupling of pesticides and fertilizers in combination products. In other words, they can no longer be sold as one combined product, commonly known as "weed-and-feed." This ruling was consistent with a general trend among Canada's provinces and municipalities to discourage the use of all cosmetic herbicides, offering what constitutes a virtual a federal stamp of approval of the trend.
Ontario Leads the Way
Among those provincial precursors of the federal ban is Ontario's strict ban on cosmetic herbicides in 2009. As reported by the Toronto Star: "The Ontario ban goes far beyond what other provincial and state governments have done limiting the use of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides. The vast majority are abiding by the rules, and [an Ontario Environment Ministry] study of 10 urban streams shows an 80 percent drop in the three most common chemicals found in pesticides."
That said, the paper also reported that opposition to the Ontario ban is strong and that some consumers manage to buy weed-and-feed products in the United States and get them through Canadian Customs on their return.
The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, which has reported a rise in children being affected by toxic chemicals, lauded Ontario's ban as: "The best in North America—in terms of health protection. It takes about 250 toxic products off the market so that children, in particular, are not exposed to them."
Understanding Weed-and-Feed Products
To understand both the provincial ban and the newer 2010 federal move, it’s essential to better understand the product. A weed-and-feed product is a combined herbicide and fertilizer in one product that is intended to kill weeds and feed the grass at the same time. However, the proper timing of fertilizer applications (starting early in the season) generally does not coincide with the ideal timing for killing weeds (usually later in the season after they have appeared). Also, broadleaf weed killers like the powerful 2,4-D end up being applied, or “broadcast,” to the entire lawn, even to areas where it’s unnecessary. Fertilizers and herbicides are two very different products, and combining them makes little sense.
Who Does the Federal Ban Affect?
The 2010 federal ban covers all “fine turf,” which applies to all residential, commercial, and recreational turf, such as golf courses, which up to that point were usually exempt from pesticide laws. It does not apply to agricultural uses of fertilizer-pesticide combination products (turf farms) or products that have a single active material that has both fertilizer and pesticidal properties.
The federal ban avoids the political lightning rod of enumerating the specific health risks, instead offering the reasoning that weed-and-feed products "do not support the goals of best practices for pest management in turf."
The Crux of the Ban
On the timing issue, federal regulation has this to say:
"Pesticides should only be used when and where there is a need. Broadcast applications of pesticides over the whole area are warranted only for severe pest infestations that are widespread. As pest infestations are typically patchy, spot applications of pesticides to those areas are most often sufficient to ensure adequate control in turf.
To be effective, fertilizers and pesticides must each be applied at the appropriate timings, which typically do not coincide. Fertilizers are most often applied in spring or early summer, and/or in late summer or fall.
These products are unsuitable as a delivery mechanism because they support the broadcast application of the pesticide when this might not be warranted. Ultimately, fertilizer and pesticide applications should be based on need. Fertilizer should only be used if the turf will benefit from additional nutrients, and pesticides should only be used as a broadcast treatment if the pest densities are sufficiently high across the area to be treated. Targeted, well-timed liquid formulations of pesticides minimize pesticide use on the lawn and turf sites."
In Canada, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) regulates pesticides under the Pest Control Products Act, including those intended for lawn and turf uses. Fertilizer-pesticide combination products are regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency under the Fertilizers Act.
Reasons to Avoid Weed-and-Feed
Commentators both in Canada and the U.S. have called the weed-and-feed solution a perfect example of lawn care companies marketing a bad product. With the lure of convenience and the assurance of clever marketing, consumers are misled into using weed-and-feed products, which is not the best practice for efficient lawn care.
It should be noted, though, that most of the individual ingredients in both lawn fertilizers and most weed herbicides are both still available legally in Canada. Homeowners can still apply the same chemical solutions, but by prohibiting weed-and-feed products, Canadian law encourages homeowners to apply them when they are most effective—spring and early summer for fertilizers, later in the summer for weed herbicides. However, a number of herbicidal chemicals are no longer legally available at all in Canada.
The U.S. is somewhat more relaxed in the list of chemicals allowed in commercial herbicides. Critics argue that this is evidence of the undue influence exercised by the American chemical industry on government agencies such as the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. Not only are U.S. products allowed to use chemicals that other nations have deemed dangerous, but these chemicals can be included in products that do not provide for efficient use of those chemicals. Supporters and chemical industry advocates argue that restrictions on chemicals not yet to be proven health issues would be an undue exercise of government regulation.
The 2, 4-D Controversy
Principal among the herbicidal chemicals outlawed in Canada, Australia, and other nations, but which are still routinely used in the lawn-care products produced and sold in the U.S. is 2, 4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid).
- The World Health Agency's International Agency for Research on Cancer has deemed 2, 4-D to be a "possible carcinogen," and some generic 2, 4-D products have been shown to be contaminated with small amounts of dioxin, a known and very serious carcinogen. And some early studies suggest that industry workers involved in the manufacture of 2, 4D are at risk for abnormally shaped sperm and thus fertility problems.
It remains to be seen if 2, 4-D, like DDT and glyphosate before them, will prove to be a serious health concern, but thus far, the U.S. EPA has no restrictions on its use. The agency does, however, caution that safety depends on following precise product-use instructions.
While 2, 4-D is still allowed in the United States, homeowners who feel that the benefits outweigh the possible dangers can, at least, voluntarily minimize environmental risks. The most responsible use of these chemicals is by spot-treating weeds when they appear, rather than by broadly spreading chemicals like 2, 4-D at the wrong time in unnecessary weed-and-feed products.
Weed and feed just feeds the weeds
Mark in Stafford writes: “Every year I typically ‘wake up’ my lawn with a dose of weed and feed followed by another dose eight weeks later.
“But this year, because of the warm temps, I already have lots of dandelions and other weeds in my lawn.”
Don’t blame the warm weather, Mark. You have lots of dandelions and other weeds because you are relying on unreliable — and really unhealthy — chemicals instead of caring for your lawn correctly. The only thing those herbicides are killing are frogs, toads, earthworms and you.
Air: The long-term cure for dandelions
Dandelions are a sign of compacted soil, the long-term remedy for which is a “core aeration.” This is achieved by using a big noisy machine that pulls plugs out of the turf, allowing your grass roots more room to breathe. (And yes, plugs must be pulled; poking holes in the turf just … well, it just pokes holes in the turf.)
But don’t aerate now. Although it has great long-term benefits, core aeration stresses the lawn in the short term — and you do not want to stress a cool-season lawn with summer heat coming on fast. Although some people will try and sell you on the idea of doing it now, cool-season lawns of bluegrass and fescue should only be aerated in the early fall.
Hound Dog for the short term
But what about right now?
You can get rid of the most prominent of those dandelions with a simple mechanical device that pulls them out of the ground while you stand up (and it doesn’t leave nasty dead browned-out dandelions in the turf, as herbicides do). You just position the “puller” over the unwanted plant, step on a plunger and a small metal cage surrounds the dandelion and pops it up and out, root and all.
(And yes, because they are removing chunks of stuff, these devices do perform a little bit of gentle aeration as well. But it’s perfectly safe — much less stress than a big machine.)
The Hound Dog brand is probably the best known of these devices; it’s been around for many years. And a quick internet search will reveal dozens of similar devices under different names.
Be sharp; cut sharp!
Mark in Stafford double-doses his lawn with weed and feed and still has lots of weeds. So of course he asks: “Can I put down weed killer and a pre-emergent crab grass mix at the same time? Can you offer any advice?”
Yes I can, Mark — beginning with the advice to step away from your Spreader of Death, because you’re looking to drop your money on a sucker bet. The more toxins you toss on your turf, the more tattered it turns. The only way to reduce the number of weeds in your turf is to care for the grass correctly.
Step one: Get a new blade for your mower or get the old blade sharpened. A dull mower blade rips the blades of grass apart instead of cutting them cleanly. Those ripped-apart blades can’t store water and slowly die. Without healthy grass to hold the spot, weeds will inevitably move in. But when grass is cut cleanly, weeds don’t have a spot to seize.
Diet & exercise for a healthy lawn
Sorry, four-steppers, but the only way to truly control weeds is to care for your turf correctly. Yes: It’s boring, but it’s also shockingly effective — and inexpensive.
Now, back to Mark the Serial Weed and Feeder: No more food!
The cheap chemical salts in commercial “weed-and-feed” products are like fast food and fatty snacks; the unnaturally fast growth they cause is weak and easily overrun by weeds. And if Mark has already fed his lawn twice this season, he has almost certainly met or exceeded the legal limit for feeding lawns in Virginia (and Maryland). And it’s not just “the law”; it’s a common-sense attempt to try and save the beloved Chesapeake Bay from death by fertilizer.
Instead of buying more bags of fake pee (the main ingredient in many commercial lawn foods), sharpen your blade and raise the cutting height on your lawn mower so that the lawn is a solid 3 inches high after you cut it. Yes — after. Wait until the lawn reaches 4 inches high to mow, take off an inch with a sharp blade and the weeds will quickly diminish.
Yes, guys: Height does matter
Chalk it up to climate change or another weird winter, but there do seem to be a lot more dandelions around this year — especially in lawns that appear to be cut way too short.
News flash, guys: The blades of grass that make up a lawn are (gasp!) plants, and plants have needs that you cannot fulfill from a spreader or sprayer.
The biggest “cultural” need of turf grass (meaning something you can control, unlike the amount of sunlight) is height. Cut your grass lower than 3 inches, and it suddenly doesn’t have enough greenery to process sunlight effectively.
The grass goes into shock, draining any resources stored in its roots in a desperate attempt to grow some height back as fast as possible.
That’s right: The lower you cut, the more you’ll have to mow, because you’re forcing the grass to grow as fast as possible.
Cut at a height of 3 inches and the grass will grow as slowly as possible, now devoting its newfound extra energy to the root growth that crowds out weeds.
The dirty little secret of lawn care is that the only real cure for weeds is cultural, not chemical.