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"Pesticide-Free Zones" Don't Maintain Themselves

A New Rutgers Course Teaches Organic Sports Fields & Turf Management

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February 2010 ~ By Greg Saitz

If you spot a red ladybug sign at your local park or playground, there’s something you won’t find at the site no matter how hard you look – pesticides.

Throughout New Jersey, the signs that read “pesticide free zone” are becoming more common as towns and counties scrap toxic chemicals and turn to an organic approach to maintaining open spaces such as sports fields and parks.

In the past several years, more than 30 New Jersey towns, as well as Burlington and Cape May counties, have designated these pesticide free areas in response to residents’ concerns about the effect such chemicals have on children and the environment, said Jane Nogaki, program coordinator for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, which encourages towns to pass such resolutions.

“They recognize that in New Jersey we face extraordinary burdens of toxic chemicals… and by going pesticide free they are taking one step to reduce unnecessary exposure to chemical pesticides,” Nogaki said. “The public is very supportive of this kind of sustainability effort (and) there is no down side, only healthier kids and cleaner drinking water.”

Photo of Jim Murphy talking to Organic Turf class students during a break.

Jim Murphy speaks to students in the Organic Turf class.
(Photo by Rebecca Rathmill

It’s because of this increased interest in limiting pesticide use that the Rutgers NJAES Office of Continuing Professional Education is holding a new course on organic options for turf and sports fields on Friday, March 12. The class will introduce students to the methods available and how to begin an organic program on their field, in their park or on their school property. “This is really intended as a primer course for those who want this type of information,” instructor Jim Murphy, a Rutgers extension specialist in turfgrass management, explained.

And it’s not just municipalities and schools that are moving toward organic maintenance of sports fields and other open spaces. In Manhattan, crews who maintain Central Park are employing more natural methods where possible to keep places like the Great Lawn, well, great.

After the restoration of the Great Lawn in the late 90s, the non-profit Central Park Conservancy began looking at ways to reduce pesticide use and seek out alternative means of achieving the same result, said Russell Fredericks, chief of operations for the Conservancy, which maintains and manages Central Park under contract with the City of New York.

Photo of Russell Fredericks, Chief of Operations of the Central Park Conservancy.

Russell Fredericks, Rutgers Alumnus and Chief of Operations, Central Park Conservancy
(Photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy)

“We feel strongly we want to reduce and minimize the use of pesticides,” said Fredericks, a 1991 Rutgers University graduate. “We use pesticides when necessary but we have a variety of lawns where we strictly go with as many organic products as possible.” The Conservancy practices Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, and uses a combination of strategies and techniques to limit pest damage and maintain the Park’s healthy ecosystem. Fredericks will share these strategies with attendees of the March 12 program at Rutgers.

For example, instead of using harsh chemicals to prevent weeds and crabgrass from sprouting, crews in the park will apply natural corn gluten. For weeds that already have come up, a clove oil-based product will be used instead of a synthetic pesticide such as Roundup. And there’s always hand weeding, which is used in combination with natural deterrents.

“Organic products require a little more work in terms of visiting the sites you’re trying to treat,” Fredericks said. And, he added, “A lot of these organic products are more expensive, but we are committed to using them.”

But maintaining parks and sports fields – Central Park has 26 softball diamonds and six soccer fields – involves more than just finding alternatives to pesticides.

“There’s a perception that organic means we’re not going to do anything,” said Brad Park, a sports turf research and education coordinator at the Rutgers Center for Turfgrass Science.
sports fields instructor brad park

Rutgers instructor and researcher, Brad Park
(Photo by Dave Breeding

In reality, there are many cultural practices that need to be followed from fertilizing to mowing for an organic program to be successful, Park and others said. Grass shouldn’t be cut too short, soil needs to be tested so correct fertilization methods can be used and fields need regular aerification to relieve soil compaction. The Conservancy uses a simple-yet-effective four-prong approach to organic lawn maintenance – aeration, overseeding, top dressing, and dethatching.  Aeration creates tiny holes on the lawn’s surface, which are receptive to the additional seeds (“overseeding”) and compost layers that follow. A final dethatching process – where dead stems beneath the lawn’s grasses are removed – creates an optimum growing climate for Central Park’s famous lawns.

Despite the Conservancy’s success, finding information or training in New Jersey on organic options has been difficult, said Nogaki from the environmental group. She said that is plainly evident at schools, where chemicals are still frequently used despite a 2002 law allowing use of chemicals only after first trying non-chemical methods to control weeds and pests.

“There’s definitely room for improvement. Most schools are relying on chemical herbicides for weed control and crabgrass control because they don’t know what the alternatives are,” Nogaki said. “If they’re not familiar with the alternatives, they don’t even know what to try.”

She was excited to hear that Rutgers will offer a half-day course on managing sports fields organically and reducing pesticides. Jim Murphy said he pushed to get a course on organic turf management put together with Park because “there’s a growing need as well as an interest.”

“We’re getting more and more requests for this kind of information,” Murphy said. “In talking to people about how to do this and what to do, it’s clear there’s a lot of confusion.”

sports fields instructor jim murphy

Rutgers Extension Specialist, Jim Murphy
(Photo by Bruce Clarke

Park noted that there is also a demand for information from an unbiased source. “We’re not here to sell you on pesticides,” he said. “We’re not here to sell you on an organic program.” Instead, the half-day class, which is part of Rutgers’ Athletic Fields Management series, will give attendees an overview of the organic options available so they can make informed decisions about how, when and where to reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. There are already a number of municipal and school employees registered to attend.  

For more information about the program, please contact:

Joe Canzano
NJAES Office of Continuing Professional Education 

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