Southern Connecticut State University welcomed its students back to the
third day of classes last week with a campus full of pesticide application
signs. Suzanne was there Wednesday afternoon to begin an art education
course. She was very disturbed by the students who, oblivious to the
signs, were sitting on the grass.
Research has shown that modeling is critical to effective education. We
learn by example. Why would a school have pesticides sprayed over much of
its campus just as students return? Why don't students notice the signs
declaring that pesticides have been used? Why don't they care whether they
sit on toxic substances?
The next day, I stopped at SCSU on my way by. Most of the signs were gone,
but I did find one and it had the applicator's phone number. According to
state law, the signs need to be left up for only 24 hours and they don't
have to say which pesticides were applied.
When I talked to the landscaper, I learned that the university had
consulted with him about the grassy areas on campus, most of which had
become crabgrass. An underground sprinkler system regularly irrigated
them. The landscaper recommended killing whatever was growing there by
using a combination of two chemicals: Scythe(tm), and the nearly
ever-present Roundup(tm), followed by sowing seeds of more desirable
grasses into slits in the treated areas. He said he would recommend a
follow-up of four or five fertilizer applications per year.
As usual, these answers only created more questions.
First, why was the lawn so filled with crabgrass? This coarse annual weed
spreads to cover any exposed soil. It protects the earth and controls
erosion. However, it can't compete against a healthy stand of grass.
It's very easy to grow a lawn full of crabgrass. Just mow it very short.
This allows light to get down close to the soil, encouraging ever-present
crabgrass seeds to germinate. Then, keep the grass so short that
low-growing crabgrass gets plenty of light. When I stopped by SCSU this
week, besides large brown areas where the herbicides had been used, I saw
some untreated areas which had just been mowed. The grass was cut to under
2 inches high, favoring not only crabgrass, but also many of the broadleaf
weeds which drive lawn fanatics crazy.
So, here's a problem which is exacerbated (if not caused by) the
university's over-zealous mowers. They create not only a weedy lawn, which
requires expensive and toxic treatments, they cause lots of air and noise
pollution with their machines, as well.
Remember that this is all being done at an educational institution, with
our tax dollars, and with my wife's and son's tuition money. Dan, who's a
full-time student, says there are pesticide signs up every couple of months
and that the grounds crew mows even where there is no grass, creating
clouds of dust.
Do you suppose the university will really fertilize the lawn four or five
times annually? Many private organizations and government agencies are
very concerned about the effects of nitrogen and phosphorus from
fertilizers on Long Island Sound. It's symptomatic of the lack of
intelligence in our system that the DEP works to keep nitrogen out of the
Sound, UCONN helps farmers reduce nitrogen use, while the State University
spreads lots of expensive, energy-intensive, nitrogen fertilizer onto the
grass in order to compensate for its bad mowing habits.
Intelligent voices from many quarters recommend fewer and smaller lawns.
There are so many more interesting and useful things to grow. Of course,
lawn chemical manufacturers, machine makers and landscapers encourage more
lawns precisely because they are high maintenance and bring more business
to their companies.
Many people grow acceptable lawns using just three steps: adding limestone
to bring the soil pH to near neutral; sowing a good grass seed mixture in
the fall (including some white Dutch clover to provide free nitrogen); and
then mowing the grass to 3 or 4 inches high and letting the clippings fall
to nourish the soil as they decompose. On really abused soil, spreading
compost may also be necessary.
It's bad enough that the ignorant and destructive habit of maintaining
large lawns is so institutionalized in our society. It seems much worse
that an educational institution with programs in Environmental Science and
Education should do it so badly.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)1998, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in southern Connecticut and producing "Living on the
Earth" radio programs). Their collection of essays Living on the Earth:
Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future is available from Bill
Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14 postpaid. These essays first
appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted
weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since November 1995 are
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