Managing City Parks without Synthetic Pesticides or Fertilizers

By Bolivar, Derek; Hiple, Alexandra | Parks & Recreation, March 2019 | Go to article overview

Managing City Parks without Synthetic Pesticides or Fertilizers


Bolivar, Derek, Hiple, Alexandra, Parks & Recreation


While not yet widespread, organic land management is gaining traction around the country as more is learned about the downsides of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. While not without challenges, organic practices are cropping up around the country and there's a lot to be learned from the people and parks at the forefront of this movement.

Integrated Pest Management vs. Organic Land Management

So, what is an organic park? These parks are managed under one of two approaches: integrated pest management (IPM) or organic land management (OLM). Both aim to steward the land in a low-impact way that is more in line with natural ecosystem processes, and reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, though to varying degrees.

The focus of IPM is just that: pests. The less strict of the two organic approaches, it allows for use of traditional chemical treatments when necessary. IPM is essentially an approach to scaling back on synthetics and relies on routine inspection, monitoring and reporting to identify a threshold for pest populations. If that threshold is crossed, synthetic pesticides may be applied to limit the amount of damage. The same goes for weeds. To prevent unwanted plants from spreading, land managers develop thresholds that are specific to the site based on an understanding of native species and tailored to streamline labor and herbicide applications.

In contrast, OLM programs do not use any synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Along with the close monitoring and knowledge of the local ecosystem required in IPM, OLM approaches may also utilize organic fertilizers and means of removing pests and weeds. Organic fertilizers are nutrient-rich, natural substances derived from animal and vegetable matter, such as manure, peat or chicken lit ter, which are rich with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These are slower-acting than conventional fertilizers since they take longer for the plants to break down, but practitioners of organic horticulture have developed some methods to improve this response time, such as compost tea. In this process, natural fertilizers are mixed with microbes to help break them down, and then steeped in water, just like tea. The tea is ultimately applied in spot treatments or by spraying the liquid on the desired area. Compost tea has helped the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston - a system of parks managed entirely through OLM - reduce its fertilizer applications by 50 percent, according to Horticulture Foreman Anthony Ruggiero.

The most common method of organic weed management is "mechanical" - removal by hand. While tedious and time-consuming, this is the most effective way to remove unwanted plants and control growth. Other methods include spot spraying with steam or boiling vinegar, and using grazing animals, such as goats, on a large weed infestation. Both steam and vinegar have their downfalls: vinegar produces inconsistent results that vary by weed species, while steam machines can cost more than $20,000, which makes them a far less desirable method of weed management. And, although it's fun to imagine a herd of goats roaming around cities devouring weeds, this often isn't feasible for many reasons. For now, it mostly comes down to good old people power.

The Downside of Synthetic Fertilizers

At the heart of all organic management approaches is the concept of "right plant, right place." Ruggiero advises: "If a plant is not successful in its current environment, don't waste time and resources trying to make it work. Organics is about getting the right species with proper soil management for that given environment to ensure plant or turf success." Choosing species that will thrive where planted is the key to an organic approach that works.

While quick-acting and effective, there are many cons to conventional approaches that use synthetic materials. Synthetic fertilizers are made from petroleum or salt byproducts. The compounds used in these fertilizers are water soluble and break down easily in soil, so they quickly provide nutrients to plants, often within 48 hours. …

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