Organic lawn-care methods slowly taking root in S.C.

HILTON HEAD -- The "greening" of American lawns is about much more than color.

Much like the food industry and its booming sales of organically grown products, the lawn-care business is heading -- albeit slowly -- in the same direction.

Across the country, more and more homeowners are opting to forego the use of synthetic chemicals and artificial fertilizers to green their lawns as concerns grow about the effects they have on people's health and the environment.

In South Carolina, however, the movement has been slow to catch on, despite increasing pressure by encroaching development on the natural environment.

That's particularly true for southern Beaufort County, where large swaths of natural habitat are cleared to make way for new lawns, housing and commercial construction.

Still, only a handful of southern Beaufort County's myriad lawn-care and landscaping companies offer organic lawn-care services. And those that do say they have very few, if any, customers who request it.

Wanda Frazier with TruGreen, an Okatie lawn-care company, said that while the company offers an organic fertilization and insect and disease control program, no customers are using it.

"We definitely feel it's something that is growing in popularity, but people here simply aren't requesting it yet," she said.

Grass-roots efforts in Northeastern and Western states have blossomed into widespread interest in lawn-care methods that use natural fertilizers made from animal and plant products. Those efforts are just now trickling down to the Southeast.

By using organic products, including fertilizers made of kelp, fish parts, animal waste and other naturally occurring materials, proponents of organic lawn care say they're causing less harm to the environment and keeping lawns safe for humans and pets.

Local lawn-care companies and state horticulturists say local customers either aren't aware of organic treatments, don't want to pay higher prices for those services or aren't sold on their effectiveness.

On average, organic methods cost 25 percent to 30 percent more than traditional methods, said Bert McCarty, a turf-grass scientist with Clemson University.

Aside from diehard environmentalists and early adapters, homeowners find little incentive to switch from proven traditional products to more expensive organic products that may or may not work as well, he said.

"It's been a slow-go because you can't just wave a magic wand and replace methods that have worked for years with something that's just as consistent," McCarty said. Finding organic lawn-care products that are consistently effective is "a treasure hunt."

Nevertheless, he said that interest in organic methods is on the rise, and it's only a matter of time before their use becomes widespread.

"The interest is definitely there. It's just that the industry hasn't been able to meet the current standards people have for their lawns," McCarty said.

Uncertainty about the effectiveness of organic products hasn't deterred Harold Barrett, who plans to expand his Columbia organic lawn-care company to Hilton Head Island by next spring.

Barrett, 52, sold his lucrative Augusta, Ga., landscaping business to start Organic Lawnz earlier this year. So far, he has about 50 customers -- far fewer than the 420 he had in Augusta.