In balance

Features - Sustainability

Pesticides and fertilizer play an important role in an increasingly green world, and it’s up to the green industry to protect them.

March 14, 2011
Mark Grunkemeyer

thinkstock.comAccording to the Meriam-Webster dictionary, a pesticide is “any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest. A pesticide may be a chemical substance, biological agent, antimicrobial, disinfectant, or device used against any pest. Pests include insects, plant pathogens, weeds, and microbes that destroy property, spread disease, or cause a nuisance.”

Fertilizer quite simply is plant food. All living organisms, including human beings, require food and water to sustain growth and compete for life. A properly fed and irrigated lawn and landscape can compete with disease and insect pests and will not require repeated applications of pesticides. There are many studies that have looked at a “balanced diet” for your plants and a simple soil test can determine exactly what your fertility needs are. There are also many cultural practices such as proper mowing, aerating, pruning, and mulching that can help support a healthy ecosystem.

So without getting too technical, let’s try to determine the role of pesticides and fertilizer in a greener world. But first we need to make a list of benefits.

Experts much smarter than me have determined that carbon dioxide emissions are not good for the environment and the United States is a very large consumer of fossil fuels. All green plants have the ability to absorb carbon dioxide, sequester the carbon back into the soil and release clean oxygen out into the atmosphere all day long. It’s an amazing little process that we cannot take for granted.

The goal for lawn and landscape professionals is to manage the ecosystem so the desirable plants store more carbon than we use to maintain them. A carbon-neutral green space is difficult to measure when we have to determine cost vs. functionality.

One natural athletic field that is used extensively throughout the year is extremely more functional than the front lawn of your local business park and both require the same amount of maintenance. The landscape at the local arboretum is toured by thousands of visitors annually, but the same landscape at very upscale residence may only be seen by a handful of people. You get the picture; quality green spaces serve a valued role to modern man.

Over the past 50 years, we have become a society that places a very high value on clean, neat, well-kept green spaces where we live, work and play. Growing and maintaining landscapes here in the United States is a multi-billion dollar business and studies have proven that a nicely landscaped home is worth up to 15 percent more than one that is not cared for. Manufacturers, growers, distributors and retailers are on the supply side. Service companies large and small, schools, churches and athletic field managers are all providing employment within an industry that grows every year. It is estimated that for every 300 acres of green space we maintain here in the United States, there is an economic impact to our economy of $40,000 to $50,000 annually. I would argue that number is low, but public right of ways, airports and many other low-maintenance turfgrass-only areas were included in that study.

Soils are the foundation to all plants and may be the most valuable resource we manage. Soil degradation and loss of valuable topsoil due to erosion can be catastrophic. Healthy turfgrass prevents this kind of erosion, but this benefit is sometimes overlooked because it is not a visible part of a healthy landscape.

Soil consists of four main components; air, minerals, water and organic material, and if they aren’t functioning properly, neither will the plants in your landscape. Desert sands have no water, organic material or minerals and therefore do not support plant life. The landscapes that we install and maintain, the grasses and ground covers that we care for, all play an important role in stabilizing the very soils that support our ecosystem.

Many customers don’t consider how plants are affecting the soil. Bare soil is prone to high levels of erosion, weed infestation, water loss and eventually desertification.

Plants act as a blanket over the earth to keep the soil in place and provide protection from weathering. Soil protection through proper plant selection and good fertility and sound cultural practices are the goal of every landscaper and lawn care professional.

Now we come to the meat of the message. The three benefits listed above can be measured by the scientific world, but the aesthetic pleasures we derive from our green spaces cannot. Inputs such as fuel, fertilizers, water and human man-hours can be calculated, but the value we place on the cosmetic benefits cannot be discounted.
Pesticides and fertilizers have been preserving and protecting plants here in the United States for over 70 years. The evolution of these products has been remarkable and the efficiencies in how they are delivered are something lawn and landscape professionals take seriously. The perfect balance between functionality, costs, aesthetics and how our actions are affecting the environment reminds me that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder.

The question then becomes, can we sustain the needs of today’s population without diminishing the ability of future populations to meet their needs? In short, can we work with our environment to use its resources for our benefit, and then return back to the environment the same form of nourishment? I contend that, as an industry, we have a unique challenge and opportunity to make sure our inputs do not exceed the outputs of our ecosystem.

Fertilizer applications should be based on soil makeup, plant species, and recent soil samples. Organizations that install water smart plants, practice Integrated Pest Management and consistently follow quality cultural practices will be able to balance costs vs. benefits and create eco-friendly landscapes. These same companies will satisfy and retain clients and continue to gain market share.

In today’s green environment, plant food (fertilizer) and plant care medicines (pesticides) play a very important role. The landscape professional’s and lawn care operator’s job is to preserve and protect today’s environment with every tool at their disposal.

These tools, when used as intended and applied in the proper way, are invaluable and will make a beneficial contribution to our environment.

There are only 35 of the 50 states that have pre-emptive laws in place to protect professional access to fertilizer and pesticide products necessary to meet clients’ needs in a way that preserves environmental safety. Continued education of clients, PLANET certification, and responsible action by owners and managers, will keep the great green industry in balance with nature and sustainable for years to come.

Mark Grunkemeyer is president of Buckeye Ecocare, a lawn care, tree shrub care and pest control provider in Dayton, Ohio.