Kids, pets, and pollinators play it safe at Grand Rapids’ organic parks

The Cities of Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids are nixing toxic, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in favor of green lawncare practices at some of their parks. Grand Rapids is implementing organic methods at Heartside, Highland, Ted Rasberry Field, and Kensington parks. In place of chemicals that cause cancer, asthma, and bee colony collapse, these parks will boast turfs grown with organically composted, aerated soils that create a healthy medium for grass to grow without synthetic chemicals. The initiative represents a collaboration between the two cities and Midwest Grows Green (MGG), Earthworks Turf, the Sierra Club Greater Grand Rapids, Stonyfield Organic, and IPM Institute of North America. (IPM stands for integrated pest management.)

“Grand Rapids Parks’ citizen-led and adopted strategic master plan is framed around our distinct environment, ecology, and the proper care and stewardship of the City’s valued public open space,” says David Marquardt, director of the City of Grand Rapids Department of Parks & Recreation. “This grant opportunity allows us to take an important step toward more proper care and stewardship of our environment and values public parks and open spaces.”

At all four parks, MGG developed the detailed natural lawn care management plan and EarthWorks Turf created the soil fertility plan. Both organizations joined the City of Grand Rapids to explain the plan during a September 20 tour of Heartside Park and an Organic Parks Lunch & Learn.

Representing IPM Institute of North America on the initiatives, community outreach specialist Ryan Anderson likens growing a healthy lawn to having a healthy body. The key is diet and exercise. Like humans, grass needs nutrients. Providing these nutrients via organic compost eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizer and, over the course of three to five years, restores soil microbiology to the point that the soil can support a healthy lawn with fewer nutrient additives.

Aerating the soil gives it a good work-out. Mowing is another component of establishing an organic lawn. Grass should never be mown shorter than three inches high. In an organically managed lawn, mowing too short inhibits root growth, making it easier for weeds to sprout up.

As the parks’ organic lawns begin to thrive, Anderson hopes they will serve as examples to the area’s homeowners.

“Homeowners apply three times more synthetic chemicals per acre than farmers,” he says. “These products cause significant risk to three groups we value — children, pets, and pollinators,” he says. “Some of these products, 2,4D in Scotts lawn care products and glyphosates in Roundup are linked to a number of different cancers, asthma, and birth defects. We can avoid or eliminate that risk.”

Lawn chemicals kill pollinators in two ways: directly by poisoning and indirectly by killing plants like clover and dandelions that provide food for these essential insects. Pesticides used for mosquito and grub control kill our bee friends and other beneficial insects, as well.

Anderson admits that initially an organic lawn care program might cost more than using a toxic chemical approach. However, those costs tend to level off once the soil is returned to its natural health.

“If we follow this strategy, we build that deeply rooted turf grass system,” he says. “In the long run, you are building an ecosystem that will serve itself.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor

Photos courtesy IPM Institute

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