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Cities Look to Reduce Pesticides and Save Water

What once was a ‘pie in the sky´ notion is now becoming a reality for some towns in Canada and the United States. Towns are concerned about toxic chemicals used to maintain green lawns and their relationship to some medical problems seen in children. One American town has found a way to put rainwater back into the aquifers rather than draining into a nearby creek.

In Salem, Oregon, a community development of 180 homes will have ‘green streets.´ Instead of slick pavement to push rainwater away from the road and into the gutters, the streets will be made of porous asphalt, allowing ninety percent of the water to sink into the soil beneath. Alongside the road will be ‘bioswales,´ large areas planted with grasses, bushes and mosses that absorb water and filter contaminants such as oil from cars. To eliminate unnecessary pavement these green streets will be narrower than normal streets. As a relatively new process, Salem will only allow them on private land, not on public roadways. The state of Oregon typically allows 50 projects a year (mainly sidewalks or parking lots) using porous materials. It´s a start in putting rainwater back into the ground rather than taking pollutants into creeks, streams, and rivers.

A dermatologist in a small, semi-rural Quebec town of 5,000 suspected that toxins in lawn chemicals might be causing the problems for which she was treating her patients. She began asking questions about pesticide hazards (including herbicides and fertilizers). The mayor at that time also wondered what would happen if lawn-care trucks overturned near the water wells supplying the city. In 1991 an ordinance was written to ban all unnecessary pesticide applications. Two lawn maintenance companies, challenging the community´s right to impose regulations stricter than those of the provincial government, took the city to court. Public health advocacy groups, medical associations, and environmental organizations joined with labor groups to amass overwhelming evidence of the dangers of pesticide exposure. The case eventually went to the Canadian Supreme Court. In 2001 the Court upheld the town´s ordinance.

Canadian testimony also played a key role in the Connecticut state legislature. A bill passed in 2005 banning the use of pesticides in Connecticut on pre- and primary school grounds. Over a three year period, pesticide use on the grammar schools´ athletic fields will be phased out as well. One of the most persuasive documents creating legislature support for this bill came from the Ontario College of Family Physicians linking pesticide exposure and cancer in children.

Some landscape maintenance companies have switched from using pesticides to ‘going organic.´ One maintenance contractor sees the ban on pesticides as an opportunity. He offers his clients either organic or chemical treatments of their yards. When he shows them a two-acre lawn without a weed in sight, eighty percent of them choose the organic method. Organic lawn care costs more initially and takes three-five years of rebuilding the soil, replenishing it with a suitable population of microorganisms, beneficial fungi and bacteria. Once established, organic lawn maintenance expense drops way below the cost of chemical care. However, be very careful to check a company´s organic claim. Some pesticides are considered ‘organic´ by chemists, while some organic fertilizers are derived from sewage sludge containing heavy metals.

We stopped using pesticides many years ago in our Bay Area garden. I began using natural fertilizers like bone meal, cottonseed meal, kelp meal and compost for mulching. It took two to three years—then the balance between good bugs and bad bugs tilted toward the good!

In my current garden I do use a pre-emergent herbicide lightly on my soil walks and stairs, which helps cut down on my spring weeding. However, I don´t use insecticides or non-organic fertilizers and, after eight years, I barely notice any insect damage to my plants.

I have some leaf damage from earwigs. Since I´m too lazy to roll up newspapers and place bundles around the yard (only to have to pick them up in the morning and stick them in plastic bags), the earwigs can chomp here and there as they please. Years ago I used to knock down spider webs. Now I let them be and they do a nice job of catching some of the not-so-good buggies. The lizard and toad populations seem to be growing too, so they help rid the garden of unwanted pests. I feel good knowing that the natural order of prey and predator is working in my yard.

Master Gardeners promote Integrated Pest Management. IPM is a system where one uses the least invasive method to get rid of unwanted pests and only move up the ladder to stronger solutions as needed.

See you in the garden.

Reminder: Master Gardener public demonstrations are scheduled on Saturdays at 10:00 at the Cassina High Dome, 251 S. Barretta St., Sonora. 9/16 – Composting, 9/23 – “Papering” Your Garden for Weed Control, 9/30 – Bamboo Arts and Crafts, 10/7 – Composting.

Master Gardener Carolee James welcomes the small creatures in her garden, although the numerous little frogs living in the ‘nooks and crannies´ of her garden always take her by surprise while the multitude of lizards, basking on the retaining walls, keeps one of her four-legged companion on the alert!!