Modeling Destructive Behavior

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, September 11, 1998

Southern Connecticut State University welcomed its students back to the third day of classes last week with a campus full of pesticide application signs. Suzanne was there Wednesday afternoon to begin an art education course. She was very disturbed by the students who, oblivious to the signs, were sitting on the grass.

Research has shown that modeling is critical to effective education. We learn by example. Why would a school have pesticides sprayed over much of its campus just as students return? Why don't students notice the signs declaring that pesticides have been used? Why don't they care whether they sit on toxic substances?

The next day, I stopped at SCSU on my way by. Most of the signs were gone, but I did find one and it had the applicator's phone number. According to state law, the signs need to be left up for only 24 hours, and they don't have to say which pesticides were applied.

When I talked to the landscaper, I learned that the university had consulted with him about the grassy areas on campus, most of which had become crabgrass. An underground sprinkler system regularly irrigated them. The landscaper recommended killing whatever was growing there by using a combination of two chemicals: Scythe(tm), and the nearly ever-present RoundupTM, followed by sowing seeds of more desirable grasses into slits in the treated areas. He said he would recommend a follow-up of four or five fertilizer applications per year.

As usual, these answers only created more questions.

First, why was the lawn so filled with crabgrass? This coarse annual weed spreads to cover any exposed soil. It protects the earth and controls erosion. However, it can't compete against a healthy stand of grass.

It's very easy to grow a lawn full of crabgrass. Just mow it very short. This allows light to get down close to the soil, encouraging ever-present crabgrass seeds to germinate. Then, keep the grass so short that low-growing crabgrass gets plenty of light. When I stopped by SCSU this week, besides large brown areas where the herbicides had been used, I saw some untreated areas which had just been mowed. The grass was cut to under two inches high, favoring not only crabgrass, but also many of the broadleaf weeds which drive lawn fanatics crazy.

So, here's a problem which is exacerbated (if not caused by) the university's over-zealous mowers. They create not only a weedy lawn, which requires expensive and toxic treatments, they cause lots of air and noise pollution with their machines, as well.

Remember that this is all being done at an educational institution, with our tax dollars, and with my wife's and son's tuition money. Dan, who's a full-time student, says there are pesticide signs up every couple of months and that the grounds crew mows even where there is no grass, creating clouds of dust.

Do you suppose the university will really fertilize the lawn four or five times annually? Many private organizations and government agencies are very concerned about the effects of nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers on Long Island Sound. It's symptomatic of the lack of intelligence in our system that the DEP works to keep nitrogen out of the Sound, UCONN helps farmers reduce nitrogen use, while the State University spreads lots of expensive, energy-intensive, nitrogen fertilizer onto the grass in order to compensate for its bad mowing habits.

Intelligent voices from many quarters recommend fewer and smaller lawns. There are so many more interesting and useful things to grow. Of course, lawn chemical manufacturers, machine makers and landscapers encourage more lawns, precisely because they are high maintenance and bring more business to their companies.

Many people grow acceptable lawns using just three steps: adding limestone to bring the soil pH to near neutral; sowing a good grass seed mixture in the fall (including some white Dutch clover to provide free nitrogen); and then mowing the grass to three or four inches high and letting the clippings fall to nourish the soil as they decompose. On really abused soil, spreading compost may also be necessary.

It's bad enough that the ignorant and destructive habit of maintaining large lawns is so institutionalized in our society. It seems much worse that an educational institution with programs in Environmental Science and Education should do it so badly.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.