“You kids get off my lawn!” — a catch phrase stereotyping elderly homeowners as cranky — may be good advice if the lawn in question, as with so many American lawns, is regularly treated with chemical weed and pest killers.
“The ‘perfect lawn mentality’ encourages overuse of herbicides to the detriment of children’s health and the health of the environment,” said Kamyar Enshayan, director of the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education.
To reduce children’s exposure to herbicides and to protect water quality, the center is launching a public education campaign, Good Neighbor Iowa, intended to “totally turn upside down the cultural construct that there is something dirty and unsightly about diversity of plants in a lawn,” Enshayan said.
Though Americans have been indoctrinated to dread dandelions, clover and violets in their lawns, those so-called weeds can be part of an attractive lawn and certainly provide a healthier environment for children to play and for pollinator insects to live, he said.
“We have somehow gotten it into our heads that we’ll be thought of as not good neighbors, not good Americans if we are not spraying our lawns,” he said.
With an Earth Day kickoff event at 10 a.m. Saturday at Seerley Park in Cedar Falls, the Good Neighbor Iowa campaign invited the leadership of school districts, park officials and child care centers to be Good Neighbors and commit to stop spraying lawns.
Many such entities across the state are leading the way, said Enshayan, who cited Iowa City for its leadership in the effort.
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Parks and Recreation Director Juli Seydell Johnson said the city formalized its policy last fall to minimize herbicide use throughout the 1,800 acres of managed parks and natural areas.
The policy’s main objective, she said, is to protect human health and the environment.
“Turf areas and open green spaces are not routinely sprayed to control undesirable vegetation,” she said.
To reduce the need for chemical use, the department relies on mechanical techniques such as hand weeding, mowing, trimming, over-seeding and mulching, and on prairie, perennial and other landscape design techniques, she said.
Herbicides are used, she said, only to control noxious and dangerous plants such as poison ivy and to combat invasive species.
In such cases, the department takes care to protect park users, temporarily closing active chemical use areas, if necessary, she said.
The Iowa City Community School District also has sharply reduced its herbicide use under an integrated pest management program, coordinated by Assistant Facilities Director Dave McKenzie.
The district manages 189 acres of turf grass without herbicide, relying on aeration, over-seeding and fertilization to manage weeds, McKenzie said.
“It’s not a perfect golf course turf. You’re probably going to see a few dandelions. But it’s a safe place for kids to play,” he said.
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McKenzie said the district still applies herbicide once a year along fence lines and around building foundations where manual weed management would be too expensive.
Cedar Rapids Parks Director Daniel Gibbins said his department does everything it can to minimize the use of herbicide.
That effort, he said, includes the thousand-acre plan in which the city and other local entities have committed to convert underused public property, mostly turf grass, into perennial habitat for pollinating insects.
Gibbins said the bulk of herbicide used by the city is directed toward golf courses and a few signature parks.
“We need to change our mind-set,” he said. “Clover and dandelions are not bad things. Bees and butterflies need them.”
Speakers at Saturday’s event, including a park director and a family physician, discussed the harmful effects of pesticide exposure on children, and participants can pick up a “pesticide-free” lawn sign.