Experts help schools meet new state pesticide mandates



When the Child Safe Playing Fields Act came into effect for K-12 schools and day care centers in 2010-11, New York\’s 700 school districts had to find alternatives to using pesticides on their grass, playgrounds and playing fields.

Cornell experts from the Department of Horticulture and the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program (NYS IPM) have stepped in to educate them about the new regulations and offer advice about how to meet the mandates.

Through workshops, webinars and printed materials, IPM specialists reached groundskeepers, school officials and board members in hundreds of schools across the state.

Their tips? Overseed, irrigate and mow as high as the grass (and use) will allow to keep grass healthy and dense. Aerate the soil often, and consider adding compost — research shows it can help suppress plant diseases. Know your soil\’s pH levels and adjust turf accordingly. Learn some basic biology, such as the life cycle of grass, which can inform when it\’s most likely to need attention.

\”The basics of good turfgrass and field management are more important than ever,\” said Jennifer Grant, Ph.D. \’00, assistant director of the NYS IPM program. \”You should be able to keep a dense stand of healthy turfgrass if you overseed heavily, have water when needed and are able to rotate play to alternate fields as needed.\”

People may also have to get used to seeing weeds popping up on playing fields, warns assistant professor of horticulture Jenny Kao-Kniffin, as the new legislation also bans synthetic herbicides, including the popular Roundup.

But not all weeds are created equal. For instance, in other parts of the world clover is intentionally seeded into the turf to create a mixed playing field, as it fixes nitrogen and improves soil fertility, she said.

\”We are going to see a lot of weeds everywhere,\” Kao-Kniffin said. \”We may simply need to adjust our perceptions of what an acceptable sports playing field looks like.\”

Some districts have already curtailed their pesticide use, and the impact of the legislation will likely vary among schools, Grant said.

Kao-Kniffin anticipates high schools with competitive sports programs will see the biggest impacts as they try to keep their heavily used playing fields in top shape, and some may turn to artificial turf as a result.

Grant said her biggest challenge has been reaching school officials and board members, whose understanding of the new law is crucial; they are the ones with the authority to fund the cultural practices and additional labor that help meet the mandates and to issue emergency exemptions.

Grant encourages schools to engage their communities as they develop new turf management plans, and consult with school boards in advance to decide which problems might constitute an \”emergency\” requiring special pesticide or herbicide application, such as a serious grub infestation, which could loosen grass in playing fields and cause footing problems and safety concerns for student athletes.

The legislation, she said, has provided a good opportunity for educators and groundskeepers to discuss needs and encourage alternative practices to improve the overall environmental health of the schools, including indoor air quality.

The same outreach strategies will be used to prepare landscapers and other turf specialists for another new law in effect Jan. 1, 2012, which limits the amount of phosphorous fertilizer that can be applied in New York.