May 28, 2002
Green Pencil:
Pesticide bans and lawn care

By Rob Witherspoon, Director, Guelph Turfgrass Institute and Environmental Research Centre

In the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision, there are significant challenges facing municipalities considering the ban of “cosmetic” use of pesticides on private property. The first is clearly defining what “cosmetic” use entails. Is the complete loss of large areas of turf from a severe grub infestation only cosmetic? Is the potential for erosion and soil loss this scenario presents a valid argument that pesticide use to control grubs is a case of environmental protection?

     We are already seeing the fairly rapid movement of new pests in response to climatic change. If pesticide bans are enacted, will a municipality be able to respond quickly to a rapid and serious pest infestation? Will sufficient equipment and trained personnel be available to respond to effectively protect the landscape and prevent sudden and expensive property damage?

     Policing a pesticide ban will prove challenging to most municipalities. Will homeowners who oppose the ban be tempted to apply pesticides under the cover of darkness? Will local authorities invest in the resources needed to sample and test unusually healthy lawns for pesticide residues in order to charge homeowners?

     These are serious questions to be considered before municipalities enact bans of pesticide use for cosmetic purposes.

     Another troubling aspect of the issue is the underlying tone of some of the debate around lawns and lawn care. Lawns are often described as unnatural. We hear calls to return to “natural” landscapes composed of nothing but native plants grown from local seed sources. Native plant material can be attractive and provide a number of environmental benefits. But to say that our urban environments are natural environments, or even that they should be recreated as natural environments, denies the fact that people interact with their landscape and, in fact, take pride and pleasure in maintaining their property. Your property should reflect your perceptions and values along with those of your community.

     So what can lawn care companies do in the face of a municipal pesticide bans? The main focus should be on responsible pesticide use. Many companies are already moving from calendar applications towards more pest biology based applications and spot treatment. There may also be opportunities for diversification into a wider range of landscape services and perhaps even some interesting niche opportunities both within and beyond the lawn and landscape business. Should lawn care operators reinvent themselves as urban ecologists? If pesticide bans become widespread more research investigating the management of landscapes under low or no pesticide use will be required. Plant breeding, biotechnology, biological pest controls and better cultural systems have the potential to deliver healthy, maintained landscapes. New, lower toxicity targeted pesticides combined with a concerted education campaign may help restore the battered public image of pesticides.

     Opportunities exist to harness the landscape for on-site treatment and utilization of effluent water and solid organic wastes. We could learn more as to how landscapes can be designed and maintained to alleviate many of the water and air concerns in urban environments. These potential advances all require significant research activity — research that should start now if we hope to harvest results in the near future.

     There is still a long way to go until public research funding and regulatory systems can deal with these changes. Industry can drive research that will provide the information needed to adapt to changing public perceptions of the urban environment. Industry and public support will help direct limited public funds into this area.

     What would I do if I ran a lawn care company in the current environment? I would certainly stay on top of my profession through continuous training and upgrading. In particular, I would focus on pest identification, communication skills and media relations. I would work to communicate more effectively with my clients and local policy makers. If I didn’t already have an IPM focussed property management program, I would have plans to initiate one. I would also look into alternative programs like the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary program for residential and commercial properties and consider providing a service managing properties based on these guidelines.

     Information is available from many sources. Industry associations like Landscape Ontario are being very proactive with regards to this issue. Get involved with the federal Healthy Lawns initiative. The Crop Protection Institute is also organizing an industry conference for this September that includes sessions on industry change and risk communications. The worst thing you can do is dig your heels in and stand still. The old saying that the only constant is change certainly applies here. Be open to new ideas and opportunities.

     This commentary was originally published in the Guelph Turfgrass Institute’s advisory bulletin The GTI Advisor. Published every two weeks in the growing season, it is available for free in e-mail or print format. To subscribe send an e-mail to or call (519) 767-5009.