The search for green alternatives

Safe Lawns in Door County promotes sustainable, organic pest control

Apr. 20, 2013
Dandelions are commonly removed with the herbicide 2,4-D, developed during World War II and used during the Vietnam War as an ingredient in Agent Orange. A group called Safe Lawns in Door County wants to stop the use of chemical herbicides due to the potential toxicity to pets, children, fish and aquatic life.
Dandelions are commonly removed with the herbicide 2,4-D, developed during World War II and used during the Vietnam War as an ingredient in Agent Orange. A group called Safe Lawns in Door County wants to stop the use of chemical herbicides due to the potential toxicity to pets, children, fish and aquatic life.
In about three weeks, dandelions will begin cropping up, prompting the spraying of herbicides, Door County Extension Agriculture Agent Dean Volenberg said. But the best time to prevent them is in the fall when they are not visible. / Photos by Tina M. Gohr/Door County Advocate

Lawn tips from

• Obtain a soil test—Never spend money on any fertilizer or soil amendment without first consulting the results of a soil test. It costs about $15 and can be obtained in Door County through the University of Wisconsin-Extension office. For information call (920) 746-2260.
• Grow the right grass—The most common lawn grasses in North America, Kentucky bluegrass and Bermudagrass, also need the most water and fertilizer to grow well. Other species such as perennial ryegrass, fescue and buffalo grass may be better.
• Water in the morning—Morning watering is always recommended so that the surface of the lawn dries off during the day. Water deeply and infrequently so the roots of the grass learn to grow down into the soil to get the water they need.
• Think of your soil as alive—“Dirt” is what tracks into the house. The material that grows on the lawn, the soil, is alive with organisms large and small. Nurturing that life through proper use of natural materials will lead to a successful natural lawn.
• Mow properly — Don’t bag grass clippings. Recycling grass clippings by leaving them on the lawn will provide approximately half of the lawn’s fertilizer needs for the season. Keep mower blades sharp. Lawns should be mowed no lower than 2.5 inches, even higher in the summer.
• Avoid synthetic materials —Fertilizers manufactured in a laboratory often burn lawn grasses and soils. Fertilizers and soil amendments should come from materials that were once living plants or animals or mined minerals such as lime or sulfur. Chickity Doo Doo, Purple Cow organic compost, Milorganite made in Milwaukee from municipal waste, or fish waste from Dramm in Algoma are all Wisconsin organic products.
• Add compost—Nature’s most magical soil additive, compost, contains all sorts of beneficial microorganisms that add life to the soil. These organisms will interact with the organic fertilizers to provide the green lawn many of us covet. Compost in liquid form, known as compost tea or extract, should be used in combination with dry compost because the liquid form is available to the soil and grass more quickly. This is especially important during the years of transition from a synthetic system.
• See weeds as symptoms of an underlying problem—Weeds usually appear on lawns only when something is wrong with the soil. Even if weeds are killed, they will return unless the problem is fixed within the soil.
• See insects as messengers—A rush of new grass growth caused by synthetic fertilizers will often attract insects. Predatory insects are rarely a problem in a natural system that is in balance.
• Fill in bare spots regularly—Nature hates a vacuum. If something is yanked out, reseed or plant something new. All plants produce seed to reproduce themselves. In a lawn system, grass is not allowed to reproduce and even the healthiest plants get tired. Over seeding in spring or fall, introduces robust young plants that will fill in bare areas and compete aggressively against weeds.

Natural lawn care expert and author Paul Tukey will be the keynote speaker for the Safe Lawns in Door County initiative sponsored by Door Property Owners Inc. and six other environmental organizations at 7 p.m. Friday at Crossroads at Big Creek. / Submitted
Paul Tukey, left, an advocate of natural lawn care and founder of SafeLawns, stands with Sandy Syberg, the founder of Purple Cow Organics of Middleton in front of the organically maintained Capitol lawn in Madison. / Submitted
Golf courses can be both lush and organic, according to Paul Tukey, who worked with Rob Schultz, seen here at his Meadows at Six Mile Creek golf course in Waunakee. / Submitted


Rarely is a petition to city officials received so warmly.

A group called Safe Lawns in Door County presented a petition with 214 signatures to the Sturgeon Bay City Council on Tuesday asking the city to stop using chemical pesticides, herbicide and fertilizers on public parks, schools and land. Sitting just a few feet away from petitioner Kathy McCabe, was the city’s park and recreation director, Bob Bordeau. The two had never met.

Bordeau, who also runs the city’s farmers market each summer, seemed stunned by the petition. Besides his job at the parks department, Bordeau also runs his own fruit and vegetable stand and frowns on the use of herbicides.

“We don’t spray in any of the city parks,” Bordeau said after the meeting. “We do spray the ball field two times a year. But in the parks, nothing is used except for some amendments in the flower beds. Roundup (a best-selling chemical herbicide) is used on Egg Harbor Road ... For safety reasons we need to use it there.”

McCabe, who is relatively new to Door County, was delighted to learn the city was not using chemicals on the park lawns and wondered why Sturgeon Bay didn’t promote itself more for its green practices. Bordeau chatted with Safe Lawns members and accepted the group’s invitation to hear a speaker the group is bringing in next week to discuss alternatives to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on athletic fields and public places.

The speaker is Paul Tukey, whose talk “The truth about cats, dogs, kids and lawn chemicals” is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at Crossroads at Big Creek, 2041 Michigan St., Sturgeon Bay. It was Tukey’s role in the film “A Chemical Reaction,” shown last June at Crossroads, that spurred the founding of Safe Lawns in Door County. The documentary shows how a small town in Canada became the first in North America to ban synthetic lawn and garden, weed and insect killers.

Tukey is a 52-year-old former journalist from Falmouth, Maine, who later launched his own landscape business and now lives in Rhode Island. In 1994 he developed acute chemical sensitivity from products he applied to lawns. The next year he started an environmental media company that morphed into a television show on the Home and Garden Television Network (HGTV). In 2006, Tukey began the SafeLawns Foundation and authored “The Organic Lawn Care Manual.” He has since written other books and plans to chat and sign autographs after his talk.

Crossroads has taken the lead in the “safe lawns” movement in Door County, adopting a formal policy last spring. Their board unanimously agreed not to apply fertilizers or pesticides to lawns or gathering places on its grounds. The group defined pesticides as materials used to control pests, including weeds, insects, and disease. The policy requires organic practices and the use of products approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).

If human health threats, such as poison ivy or wild parsnip, encroach into lawn areas, the board must approve the temporary use of pesticides and it must be posted for the public.

Safe Lawns in Door County was formed under the umbrella of Door Property Owners but is a coalition of organizations and individuals concerned about the health and well-being of the environment, people and pets. Its main focus is to educate individuals and municipalities to stop using lawn pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

The website offers tips and videos on how to transition to non-toxic lawn care. But the group is also looking for real change from decision makers in each community to require safe lawns in all public spaces, beginning with parks and sports fields.

Occasional use

Those decision makers aren’t always cognizant of what the actual practice currently are. After Tuesday’s meeting, Alderman Joe Stutting, who is also Sturgeon Bay superintendent of schools, said yard maintenance is up to school district Facilities Director Russ Cross.

Cross said herbicides and fertilizer are not used on every lawn every year, but chemicals are used on varsity soccer and track fields.

“We do post when we spray for 72 hours,” Cross said.

Cross already practices many of the policies encouraged by the SafeLawns Foundation. But when he started in 2004, he said, some of the changes were due to demands from the public.

“They wanted more thick grass and asked me to improve it,” he said.”We had the soil tested, and the grass is cut to about 3 inches. We overseed to eradicate bare spots. We only have about 60 days in summer to get the practice fields back in shape so they can have a good surface.”

“We apply nitrogen to the lawn, but no phosphates. We use safety practices — the people who apply herbicides are licensed and certified to do that,” he said. “We are aware of the controversy over herbicides, but there are differences of opinion. I am always open to more green and natural ways to do things, but they have to be effective. We are budget-driven, too.”

Cross said he, too, plans to be at Friday’s presentation to hear Tukey.

'Not made up'

The claims that herbicides and chemical applications to lawns and public places are harmful to pets and humans and potentially groundwater are based on science and are not false claims, said Dr. Peter Sigmann, a retired internist who lives in Door County.

Sigmann is president of The Wild Ones, an organization that promotes natural landscaping practices and native plants. Sigmann said he has seen evidence in his own practice as a doctor and believes local cancer survivors when they question the unnecessary use of chemicals in public places.

“These agents are not safe, medically speaking,” he said. “This is not made up. There are things happening right here in Door County with childhood cancers and a much higher incidence of breast cancer.”

There is an endocrine disruption when many of these chemicals get on the skin of people and pets, he said. The endocrine system releases hormones into the bloodstream, and interfering with the system can cause cancer.

Many who have suffered from health issues are taking this issue very seriously and want local governments, schools, golf courses and individuals to think about what they may be exposing others to, Sigmann said.

“The public ought to be spared pesticides,” he said. “There are other alternatives.”

Door County Agriculture Agent Dean Volenberg also said the use of herbicides such as 2,4-D, commonly used to kill dandelions and broadleaf weeds, can be very damaging.

“All of them are endocrine disruptures,” Volenberg said. There is a close link to them and breast cancer in women.”

Volenberg said often people do not follow the label or wear protective equipment but use these chemicals wearing shorts and no gloves, putting their health at risk. But arguing whether it’s organic or not is missing the point, he said.

“Just because it’s organic, it’s still meant to control or kill something,” he said.

For more information, go to and click on “safe lawns.”

Contact Ramelle

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