Those pesky yellow dandelions popping up in city parks do not signal that groundskeepers are slacking off. They reflect an effort by the Chicago Park District to save money and go “green” by ending the use of pesticides.
Homeowners might want to take heed. Collectively, pesticides and fertilizers used to excess on private lawns are far more to blame for the contamination of local lakes and waterways.
There are about 50 million acres of turfgrass in the United States and residential lawns make up half of of that, Richard Hentschel, an extension educator in horticulture for the University of Illinois, tells us.
“We have a far bigger impact on the environment than park districts,’ he says. “It’s enormous.”
In short, environmentalists says, we tend to overdo it. Our over-reliance on lawn chemicals contributes to the poisoning of birds, fish and amphibians, not to mention the potential toxicity to humans, especially kids. Experts debate the degree of danger, but it makes good sense to err on the side of caution.
Americans have long prided themselves on manicured lawns. Dandelions drive more than a few homeowners nuts.
So it’s not surprising that the Chicago Park District started getting complaints five years ago when it began cutting back on pesticides. As dandelions sprouted en masse, Chicagoans accused officials of playing favorites, doting on some parks while letting others go to weeds.
Not so, replied the district — all parks are treated (or, rather, left untreated) equally. The aim, citywide, is to spend less money and be more environmentally enlightened. This year, close to 90 percent of the city’s parks are pesticide free.
Chicago is in good company on this. The Wilmette Park District stopped using herbicides, except on its golf course, about 20 years ago after parents raised concerns about safety, Bill Lambrecht, superintendent of parks and planning, says.
In 2011, the Park District of Highland Park adopted a chemical-free program except where invasive buckthorn plants are taking over. Skokie is transitioning to herbicide-free weed management in areas managed by the village, and Evanston is launching a pesticide-free pilot program in five parks.
It is a small but growing national trend. Seattle and Portland, Ore., do not use herbicides in public spaces. Connecticut has banned lawn pesticides at elementary and middle schools, as well as at daycare centers.
Controlling weeds without pesticides takes a bit of work. Grass is kept taller to shade weeds and mowed more often often. More aeration and overseeding are required.
In Durango, Colo., Parks and Cemetery Manager Ron Moore had to end an herbicide-free program at a sports complex because weeds ruined a field. Other parks are unsightly, he says. “It’s been a terrible pain. The fields are 25 to 40 percent weeds.”
We didn’t say this would be a walk in the park.