Natural Lawn Care: Growing Weed-Free Without Pesticides

Dandelion headband

“People should not be afraid of dandelions,” says Rachel Rosenberg. (PHOTO SUPPLIED)

Park Forest, IL–(ENEWSPF)–April 19, 2010. Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Chicago premiere screening at Columbia College of the documentary movie A Chemical Reaction. The movie documents one of the most powerful and effective community environmental initiatives in the history of North America when Canadian dermatologist, Dr. June Irwin, noticed a connection between her patients’ health conditions and their exposure to chemical pesticides and herbicides. A panel discussion was held following the movie screening.

One of the panelists was Rachel Lerner Rosenberg, Executive Director of Safer Pest Control Project. When Rachel discussed her background, I was struck by the fact that she was an art history major. So exactly what drives someone to go from a career in arts administration to become an environmental activist?

Her interest in pesticide reduction actually began when her husband told her not to use pesticides on their lawn. Weeds were eliminated at the Rosenberg home the old fashioned way – hand picked. Rachel began educating herself on the potential adverse impact pesticides have not only on the environment, but human health as well.

When Rachel had her first child, she was worried that even though chemical pesticides were not used at her home, the chemical drift coming from her neighbor’s homes could potentially impact the health of her children.

The Rosenberg’s became interested in natural lawn care and eventually started an organic lawn care company, Sunflower Natural Lawn Care, one of the first organic lawn care companies in the Chicago area. Sunflower Natural Lawn Care provided an alternative to traditional chemical lawn care and soon many of their North Shore clients saw that they could still have the “all American, weed free lawn” without the use of harmful chemicals.

Rachel observed other lawn care providers doing their jobs who she often noticed were doing the care incorrectly. She found herself spending a great deal of time educating homeowners on how to properly care for their lawns who in turn educated their lawn care providers. As Rachel pointed out to her clients, natural lawn care is mostly about following best practices for watering, mowing, seeding, and fertilizing. To achieve optimum results, all steps need to be properly followed.

It soon became apparent to Rachel that there were a lot of pieces missing in the natural lawn care puzzle that she couldn’t fix alone. There needed to be products available for homeowners to buy at local stores, lawn care providers needed to know how to do natural lawn care, and, most critically, the national dialogue needed to change before organic lawn care companies could be truly successful. Impacting 100 households wasn’t enough for Rachel – she wanted to have a much bigger influence.

Her role as Executive Director at Safer Pest Control Project was the perfect fit for her because it combined her expertise in managing a nonprofit organization with her personal passion for reducing pesticide use.

The mission of Safer Pest Control Project (SPCP) is to reduce the health risks and environmental impacts of pesticides and promote safer alternatives, with a primary focus in Illinois. SPCP does its work through education, advocacy and providing expertise on pesticide use reduction.

SPCP’s programs address both the public health risks and environmental impacts of pesticides in a variety of settings. SPCP engages and empowers the communities they serve through a variety of strategies that include outreach, advocacy, coalition building, technical assistance, and model programs and policies. Current program areas are: schools and childcare facilities, public and low-income housing, and yards and parks.

Over the past 2 years, SPCP has begun working with municipalities to develop policies and practices that reduce pesticide use. They began with a pilot project in Evanston, Lisle and Orland Park that will test methods to develop municipal policies and practices that reduce pesticides used in public spaces and on public lands. The pilot project builds on SPCP’s past work with the City of Chicago to write new contract language that incorporates best practices from Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plans of other cities, and that reflects the City’s environmental goals. The contract, which covers pest control services for 400 city buildings, previously required regular pesticide applications.

SPCP’s 2010 goals and priorities include:

  • Protecting the water supply by creating natural lawn care demonstration gardens in the Chicago area, continuing to develop strategies to reduce pesticide use by municipalities, and training lawn care professionals to use natural methods.
  • Educating school grounds managers about requirements for natural lawn care on school grounds that protect children from pesticide exposure.
  • Continuing effective training programs and expanding outreach by developing an online training module for school and childcare staff that will deliver information on demand.
  • Creating a comprehensive outreach campaign to prevent the spread of bed bugs in Chicago and elsewhere. Continuing to train maintenance personnel to effectively prevent or eradicate bed bug infestations.

Research has shown that asthma attacks can be triggered by pests and pesticides. Since asthma is a very serious problem in Chicago, SPCP’s work has impacted hundreds of thousands of people with asthma and asthma-related conditions in Illinois every year.

Many commercial manufacturers of chemical pesticides claim that it is not the products that are harmful to individuals and/or the environment per se but rather the improper use of these products that causes the harm. Rachel believes that this theory is not valid since pesticides are poisons designed to kill living things. Since humans, just like weeds and bugs, are living things, how does the pesticide differentiate itself from the living things they are intended to kill and the innocent bystanders? Logically it is not difficult to argue that the use of chemical pesticides is going to have an effect on human health. As Rachel points out, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not a seal of approval for safety. It is against federal law to say that a pesticide is safe. The EPA, in fact, merely measures levels of risk. So essentially anytime you use pesticides, which encompass herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and rodenticides, you are agreeing to the fact that you can abide by a certain level of risk. Rachel believes that any risk is not only unacceptable, but unnecessary.

Rachel Rosenburg

Rachel Rosenberg. (PHOTO SUPPLIED)

Rachel explained that the problem only intensifies when the pesticides are applied incorrectly or unnecessarily. From her experience, many homeowners make simple mistakes when mixing pesticides, and it is also very common to over-apply pesticides. In addition, she notes that “over 99% of our watersheds have more than one pesticide in them, and that comes directly from run-off from agriculture or homeowner’s use of pesticides.” “People don’t know how to properly dispose of any excess they might have and often just pour it down a storm drain,” says Rachel, which only adds to the problem.

As Rachel points out, since pesticides are ‘invisible’ it is hard to track the amount of exposure you are getting each day. Though new laws require notification for many types of outdoor applications, sadly most people are not aware of the law, so there is often low compliance.  And even if you stay off the grass after a chemical treatment, walking on the lawn afterwards allows you to track residue into your home from the bottom of your shoes or the paws of your pets, for example, thus bringing the problem inside your home as well.

One of the arguments many make about using natural products is that they are more costly. However, according to Rachel this is no longer the case. Organic and/or natural products are now found in all major stores. While prices have gone down and the selection of natural products has increased dramatically, consumers need to keep in mind that the costs associated with producing inorganic and chemical products have increased dramatically due to high energy costs.

SPCP believes that it is important for local communities to set the example in reducing the amount of chemical pesticides used in community property, parks and schools. As Rachel points out, each citizen can make a huge difference in educating their neighbors or government officials on natural lawn care, IPM and other pesticide reduction issues. “All it takes is one person to ask the powers that be ‘why are you spraying the lawns where children play’ to start the dialogue,” says Rachel. “People should not be afraid of dandelions and remember that a healthy park is a natural park.”

You can download many fact sheets about proper lawn care and pesticides at the Safer Pest Control Project website, http://www.spcpweb.org/.

NOTE: The Park Forest Environment Commission is currently making arrangements for a local screening of the documentary A Chemical Reaction. Look for information about dates and locations in Enews Park Forest as soon as arrangements have been finalized. You can also find information about upcoming screenings of the movie taking place beyond Park Forest at: http://pfzmedia.com.