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New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station ocpe@njaes.rutgers.edu
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
102 Ryders Lane 732-932-9271
New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8519 Fax: 732-932-1187

“Pesticide-Free Zones” Don’t Maintain Themselves


A New Rutgers Course Teaches Organic Sports Fields & Turf Management

February 16,2010 ~ 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.”

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 Thursday, February 25. 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.

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.

“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 February 25 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.

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, which must follow a 2002 law requiring them to first use
non-chemical methods in controlling problems such as weeds and pests. Only if the non-
toxic approaches don’t work can schools then use pesticides.

“There’s definitely room for improvement because 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. Park, who is one of the instructors along with Jim
Murphy, a Rutgers extension specialist in turfgrass management, said the February 25
course was developed in response to a demand for information from a non-biased 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:


Dave Breeding
NJAES Office of Continuing Professional Education
732-932-9271
breeding@njaes.rutgers.edu
www.cpe.rutgers.edu/athleticfield