Column: What does it take for yards, fields to go organic?

By Sarah Little
Wicked Local Wellesley

Posted Jun 04, 2010 @ 02:37 PM
Wellesley —
What does it take for yards and fields to go organic?
New York just passed a law banning chemical pesticides from all school lawns and turf in the state of New York, signed-off by their governor last week. For those who concern themselves with kids’ health, this act is significant, even a tipping point. The science supporting such policy has existed for years, driving Massachusetts in 2000 to pass a law restricting pesticides at schools, and Wellesley’s School Committee in 2002 to ban pesticides from school grounds. The New York law applies to a whopping 10,000 schools, and might turn some heads.

“This raises awareness of the important issue of turf pesticides and their potential harmful effects on children to a whole new level,” says Patti Wood, Executive Director of Grassroots Environmental Education, and the author of the ChildSafe School Program that advocates for the elimination of aesthetic pesticides at schools nationwide. “Our Governor and legislators have used the power of their offices to put New York State firmly out front in the battle to remove toxins from our environment and protect our most vulnerable citizens.”

Massachusetts’ own law, called “An Act Protecting Children and their Families from Harmful Pesticides,” passed the Legislature unanimously ten years ago. This law contains an important defining statement: “pesticides contain toxic substances, many of which may have a detrimental effect on human health and the environment and, in particular, have developmental effects on children.” Our state law prohibits the aesthetic use of pesticides or any pesticide classified as a likely or probable carcinogen on all public and private school grounds.

Wellesley has taken this one step further, and prohibits any use of synthetic pesticide on school grounds, except in the event of a health emergency. Wellesley’s policy also covers land managed by the Natural Resources Commission, including all parkland, several playing fields, and Morses Pond. Unfortunately, Elm Bank in Wellesley is home to a large multi-field soccer complex used by hundreds of Wellesley children that remains under intensive chemical management.
The comparative cost of natural vs. chemical turf management might be a sticking point, but in fact shows a clear win for natural (also called organic) methods. A study by Grassroots with Marblehead native Chip Osborne, a nationally recognized natural turf expert, discovered a net cost savings of 25 percent after five years due to lower materials cost after initial organic turf establishment. Osborne has managed all of Marblehead’s parks and athletic fields organically for the past eight years, and regularly shows these beautiful fields to interested groundskeepers from other towns. It is no coincidence that the Town of Wellesley worked with Osborne last year to review the condition of the town’s athletic fields and provide natural turf management recommendations. Our school playing fields and parkland provide our kids with functional, safe and ecologically sound playing spaces free of environmental toxins.

What about your own yard? What does it take to “go organic?” The transition itself is simple and cheap enough: Cancel your synthetic fertilizer and pesticide applications. Thousands of biological, chemical and physical elements above and below ground make up the particular ecosystem called your yard. These players will do most of the nutrient recycling, water conservation, and pest control for you, if you let them. Use of synthetic chemicals can suppress these natural processes. An example of this is white clover.

Once considered an attractive and necessary component of healthy turf, clover helps to deliver the essential nutrient nitrogen to enrich the growth of grass. Clover does this without dominating grass because it is easily managed with mowing: mow at 2 inches to favor clover, 3 inches to favor grass. It also stays greener during drought, so makes the lawn look better for longer without water. Plus, white clover has no serious pests. The advent of herbicides made it possible to selectively eliminate all non-grass plants, and clover, though not a weed, suffered collateral damage. Ultimately, it fell out of fashion, became classified as a weed and turned into an annoyance. Ecosystem-minded land managers, though, realize that clover helps turf and reduces a lawn’s water and nitrogen needs. This simple plant can save the organic homeowner hundreds of dollars each year in material and labor costs, conserve water, and reduce nitrogen contamination of nearby streams, ponds and Boston Harbor.

Organic methods begin with a site analysis and a soil test to find out who and what you’ve got in your soil. Then they match up deficiencies with applications of soil amendments, aeration, mowing techniques and other cultural practices to support healthy turf and plants.

Ecosystem-based landscaping works well, saves money, and its benefits extend beyond your property. Your yard is physically, not just metaphorically, connected to you and billions of other living creatures. This ecosystem can either contribute to or detract from your health, your neighbor’s health, and your local, regional and global environment. What you do with your property matters.

A fun place to start learning about sustainable organic landscaping is at, well, actually, Harvard University. The Facilities Maintenance Operations group, for the last three years, has been transitioning the 16-acre Harvard Yard to fully organic management. Harvard’s head groundskeeper, Wayne Carbone, recently explained the techniques they used to spruce up the Yard in preparation for this year’s commencement. “We applied a compost tea rich in beneficial bacteria that have the ability to take up nitrogen and hold it in the soil. Then we applied a light dressing of organic fertilizer.” He described how the existing soil protozoa eat the nitrogen-bloated bacteria and slowly release it in a form that is easily absorbed by the grass roots. “The combination of active soil microbiology and a small amount of fertilizer greens up the grass without creating nitrogen pollution.” When asked about costs, Carbone said: “Our budget was not increased.” Harvard has kindly provided online reports, instructions and a detailed Getting Started primer for all students of organic lawns and landscapes.

If a Harvard education sounds too daunting, and you would rather just pay someone else to understand and manage your yard’s ecosystem, you can find a suitable landscaper at the non-profit website: Here are listed over a hundred trained and accredited organic landscapers who serve Wellesley. A cautionary note: be wary of landscapers who offer organic then switch you to chemicals as soon as an insect or weed problem occurs. To ensure organic, check references, and do not sign a contract that lists synthetic pesticides as options for the landscaper to use. The organic land care website, which I write for, also maintains current resources for homeowners such as lawn care articles, workshops, product lists, and an online question forum.

Every yard makes a difference, so enjoy the outdoors and learn new stuff.

Sarah Little, Ph.D., a Montvale Road resident, is a geophysicist, environmental scientist and former Wellesley Pesticide Awareness Coordinator.