Barefoot in Central Park?


By Anya McCann

You never think your house will burn down, and there is no imminent threat to it. But most of us buy homeowners insurance.  I insure my belongings and suppose I am very unlikely to use it…but just in case?

What makes most sense to me is to be as safe as you can if it is reasonable and not too taxing. This is why I believe in the “precautionary principle” to risk management, and using the “least toxic” methods of integrated pest management. If it is possible to maintain my yard without using pesticides, even if it takes me a little extra weeding, why not do so?

Even if one argues that the pesticides on the market must be safe for humans since the government has approved it for sale, I’m not going to drink it, or let my cat roll in it, or let my children play tag on it. Why take a chance?

Even if “when used correctly” it might be tolerable to have it applied around places highly populated with humans and animals, why would I want pesticides around?

The City of Davis currently manages 1,616 acres of land that may be subject to pesticide application. This acreage is divided into six major management areas including 1) parks, greenbelts, and streetscapes (487 acres), 2) open space (519 acres), 3) transportation system (20 acres), 4) stormwater system (100 acres), 5) wastewater system (489 acres) and 6) sewers.

Do you enjoy Davis’ lovely Central Park? Did you know that it is completely organically maintained by the City? I love to have my bare feet in the grass while listening to the band at a Wednesday Farmers Market. It makes me feel safer to know that no neurotoxic pesticides were used there – at all.

I write this as a private citizen, but I am a member of the Natural Resources Commission’s Hazardous Substances Sub-committee, which is working toward having the City of Davis’ landscape management for City-owned public spaces be managed by the “least toxic principle” under the supervision of staff that is well qualified in organic landscape maintenance.  To that end we have submitted a draft of suggestions for updating the IPM policy. An IPM landscape program should be based on prevention, monitoring, and control of unwanted plant growth in a manner that eliminates or drastically reduces the use of pesticides. The goal is to minimize the toxicity of and exposure to chemicals.

It is good for human children and adults, pets, wildlife, and our pollinators, which have been suffering from mass die-offs.

On April 6, the City will hold a public forum to learn about the service levels at public locations and facilities in Davis. Staff want feedback from community members about the service levels in landscape on City property such as parks, greenbelts, around playgrounds, dog parks, medians, and areas around the waste treatment plant and overflow wetlands. We are lucky to have on staff Martin Guerena, who is not only certified in pesticide application (techniques and safety), but also has years of experience as an organic farmer. He has many specific techniques for controlling unwanted plant growth without using toxic chemicals. He will be showing before/during/after photos of Davis locations on which he has used these alternate methods.

One part for which the City really feedback from residents is this “during” phase. Real plants (as opposed to those on manicured golf courses) grow and die and some return to life again the next year. This is the circle of life. In Davis many people appreciate the beauty and benefits of native plants and drought tolerant landscape. We are fortunate that in California, these plants look good during most of the year, but there are periods in which they die back so they can reseed or renew. They look ragged for a while and brown, rather than green.

The City is worried that our residents do not understand this cycle and its tradeoffs and will start complaining that things look unkempt and rough around the edges—not like a Beverly Hills lawn. But I think more highly of our population and like to give us more credit.  Some staff are worried that we will think they are not doing their jobs well if they try this out throughout the City. They need our support.

IPM does not necessarily get rid of all unwanted growth but suppresses it below an acceptable level.  I want to share with you, it takes a little while to transition things over to organic management. But it is possible. And it is, in my opinion, worth the wait. From what I have experienced, the amount of labor needed to use these practices is a little higher in the beginning and after 1-2 years is reduced.

Take solarization as an example. One puts a sheet of plastic over an area of unwanted growth (weeds, grass) for a period of time letting the heat of the sun bake the plants and roots until they are beyond dead. After removing the dead material, the soil can be amended and then mulch is put on top. In the end it looks nice and after picking the weeds as they pop up periodically for a year or two, the area needs very little maintenance.

There are many additional “tools in the toolbox” for weed control that are accepted by the USDA National Organic Program. They include hand removal, mechanized/motorized control, flaming, smothering, grazing, and acceptable herbicides.

Think about whether you would rather buy the insurance for a healthier community and healthier environment to live in and tell the City what you want.  Drop by the forum April 6th at the Davis Senior Center from 7 – 9pm (646 A Street).


About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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5 thoughts on “Barefoot in Central Park?”

  1. Roberta Millstein

    Thank you for this, Anya.  You make the case very well – a little bit of extra work for extra precaution.  Too often substances like pesticides have been deemed safe as long as exposure is under certain levels, only to have those “safe” levels drop with further research.  There is already evidence out there for the harmfulness of glyposate.  Why risk it?  I’m sure Davisites are sophisticated enough to recognize that plants have a life cycle or that there might be an occasional visitor (I don’t want to say “weed”) from time to time.  Anyone who tries to grow stuff on their property realizes that there are times of the year when it doesn’t look as good as others.  Kind of the way that many of us look in the morning.  🙂

  2. Don Shor

    I appreciate this article, but I wish to discuss a misconception that is being put forth in the process of trying to get the city to change weed management policies.

    “Organic” does not mean pesticide-free.

    The city staff has reduced the use of glyphosate in managing weeds primarily by shifting to the use of an organic herbicide called Scythe. Scythe is pelargonic acid and other fatty acids. It works by stripping the protective layer from the leaf of the weed, causing it to “burn down” and killing the top. Some weeds are killed by one application, but most aren’t. Perennial weeds just resprout, so they  have to be resprayed repeatedly until the root system dies out (if it does ever; some weeds don’t).

    Glyphosate is systemic, moving into and throughout the plant, killing most weeds with one to two applications. Only glyphosate will kill certain hard-to-kill perennial weeds.

    The combination of glyphosate and Scythe makes the glyphosate more effective.

     Here’s the problem. Pesticide labels use precautionary statements and signal words to convey the hazard of the product. The least hazardous materials have the signal word Caution. Those at the next level of hazard have the signal word Warning. The most hazardous materials have the signal word Danger, and are usually restricted.

     Scythe, the organic herbicide, has the signal word Warning. Specifically the label has these precautionary statements:“Causes Substantial But Temporary Eye Injury • Causes Skin Irritation • Harmful If Inhaled • Harmful If Absorbed Through The Skin

     There are various formulations of RoundUp, as well as many glyphosate products on the market by other manufacturers. Most have the signal word Caution. Assuming they are using something like RoundUp ProMax, it has these precautionary statements:

    Avoid contact with eyes or clothing. Avoid breathing vapor or spray mist.”

     The organic material is more directly hazardous to the applicator, is actually slightly more hazardous to the public while it is still drying on the weeds, and requires more frequent application – and thus creates more frequent hazard – than RoundUp.  

    The city’s present weed management strategy does not pose a risk to the public. The change to greater use of organic herbicides would not make the public safer. It would be essentially a philosophical decision and should not be couched in terms of public safety.

    I agree that we can tolerate weeds in our parks. I am also very supportive of the proposed role of citizen groups to help with practices that are more labor-intensive that might reduce the use of any weed killers. I can’t think of a better community-building exercise than having folks who live near parks taking care of their parks. And we have a great example of how that works right there in Central Park, with the Central Park Gardens on the site that was once proposed for a shopping center development.

    Citizens can take care of parks.  And the IPM coordinator for the city deserves commendation for suggesting alternative remedies. We just need to discuss these issues realistically and accurately.

    1. Anya McCann

      Organic does not mean non-toxic. It is toxic to something–it kills weeds. And yes there are “organically” approved sprays. My preference, however, would be to not use either but to use the other methods available. I am not a fan of glyphosate.

      This month in the San Francisco Chronicle: “A judge says California is legally authorized to label the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, the nation’s most widely used herbicide, as a potential cause of cancer.”  

      From the NY Times:   “The reputation of Roundup, whose active ingredient is the world’s most widely used weed killer, took a hit on Tuesday when a federal court unsealed documents raising questions about its safety and the research practices of its manufacturer, the chemical giant Monsanto.”

      1. Don Shor

        Judges aren’t scientists.
        Several important international regulatory bodies have studied glyphosate, and all concluded the herbicide is not a carcinogen, including:
        – Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency, (April 13, 2015)
        – EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee (October 1, 2015)
        – European Food Safety Authority (November 12, 2015)
        – German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to the European Chemicals Agency, (May 2016)
        – New Zealand Environmental Protection Authority, (August 2016)
        – FAO (2016)
        – European Chemical Agency (ECHA), (March 2017)

        Any assertion that glyphosate causes cancer is simply not borne out by evidence reviewed by regulatory scientists.

  3. Ron

    Don:  “I appreciate this article, but I wish to discuss a misconception that is being put forth in the process of trying to get the city to change weed management policies.”

    For a moment, I thought your statement might refer to a different topic.  🙂

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