Recap: Organic Land Care Symposium

The 2013 Organic Land Care Symposium was a resounding success with 100 attendees from across the city and state. Two educational sessions in the morning covered such topics as the state of the organic industry, ecological landscape management, remediating impact to urban ecosystems, no-fertilizer landscapes, turf grass management, and the importance of top-soil to the health of a landscape.

Atlanta BeltLine's Organic Land Care Symposium 2013
Keynote speaker Neil Diboll gave a history of the native plant industry and a closer look at the benefits to planting natural meadows.

Niel Diboll of Prairie Nursery, Inc. presented the keynote address over lunch: “History of the Native Plant Industry:  Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” Diboll‘s talk started with the launch of his native plant business in rural Wisconsin in 1982 and went on to offer insights into the progressively changing perception of a natural approach to landscaping. 

When Diboll got started in the 1980’s, “weed” ordinances and limitations on the height of vegetation meant that planting “non-traditional,” prairie-type lawns was actually against the law. Many landscaping ordinances have been rewritten, but there’s still more to accomplish before reaching Diboll’s dream of the day when “the neighbor who sprays toxic chemicals all over his yard will be the social outcast, and those who promote ecological balance on their property will finally be respected.”

Several factors in the late 80’s and early 90’s led to an increase in sales and acceptance of native plants and seeds. States began purchasing more for restoration and wildlife habitat projects; municipalities and parks realized that they could reduce their maintenance costs by planting native species; and homeowners and parks sought to create habitats for birds and butterflies. These are a few core reasons why the Atlanta BeltLine has also chosen to plant native grasses and wildflowers along the Eastside Trail.

Atlanta BeltLine's Organic Land Care Symposium 2013
100 conference attendees filled Day Hall at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Diboll shared the following facts with the symposium audience:

Chemical Fertilizers and Pesticides Applied to the American Lawn

  • The average lawn receives ten times as much chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides as the typical farm field, according to a Yale University graduate study.
  • Over 80 millions pounds of chemical pesticides are applied to American lawns each year according to the USEPA.
  • More than 70 million tons of chemical fertilizers are applied to American lawns per year.
  • The USEPA estimates that 40 to 60 percent of the Nitrogen fertilizer applied to lawns ends up in our surface water and groundwater.
  • Forty four percent of the Nitrogen and 28 percent of the Phosphorus applied in the Mississippi River watershed ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, greatly exacerbating the anoxic “dead zone” that preceded the BP oil spill of 2010.

Solid Waste Created by Lawns

  • The EPA also estimates that grass clippings and yard debris account for 20 to 40 percent of the landfill space consumed in America.

Health and Safety

  • Of the most commonly used lawn pesticides:
    • 13 are known to cause cancer
    • 14 can cause birth defects
    • 11 can interfere with reproduction
    • and 21 can cause damage to the nervous system. (US EPA)
  • 111,000 Americans are sickened every year due to exposure to pesticides. (US EPA)
  • Over 230,000 people are treated in the Emergency Room every year for accident related to lawn equipment.  (US EPA)

Economic Costs of Lawn

  • Americans spend over $25 billion per year on lawn care (USEPA).
  • Americans spend over $2 billion per year on lawn and garden chemicals.
  • A 4,000 square foot lawn (1/10 acre) produces an average of 1,200 pounds of grass clippings per year.  The City of Philadelphia Streets Department reported in 2005 that it costs $75 per year per household to dispose of this material.


  • The average homeowner spends 40 hours a year mowing his or her lawn – the equivalent of a week’s vacation!

Wildlife and Lawns

  • The US EPA estimates that between 60 and 70 millions birds are poisoned annually due to the application of lawn pesticides.
  • On lawns that receive regular applications of pesticides, 60 to 90 percent of the earthworms in the soil are killed.
Atlanta BeltLine's Organic Land Care Symposium 2013
Following the keynote presentation, all of the speakers came forward for a panel discussion.

Diboll’s enthusiasm captured the spirit of the Organic Land Care Symposium, which continued into the post-lunch roundtable discussion with all of the speakers. The afternoon educational session offered a choice of topics ranging from creating native prairie meadows and gardens to noble trees to compost teas and extracts.

Atlanta BeltLine's Organic Land Care Symposium 2013
Panelists during the roundtable discussion.

A special thank you goes out to all of our speakers and sponsors for making this such a successful conference. Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery also generously lent us his presentation notes to bring you much of this information. We hope that you can join us in 2014 for the fourth annual event. Please check our Organic Land Care Symposium webpage for updates.

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