In a sea of gold and green, hundreds upon hundreds of dandelions spot the lawn surrounding Seaholm.
These yellow-flowered plants, their petals soon to be replaced by seeds, stand strong between blades of grass due to the Birmingham district’s landscaping policy. Across Birmingham schools, according to Assistant Manager of Operations for BPS, Matthew Hess, the administration avoids using both herbicides and insecticides.
Still, there are exceptions to every rule.
“We use a very limited amount [of weed killers] in some sports turf areas,” Hess said. “[We use insecticides] only in very specific situations where there may be a level of activity that we cannot control by any other means.”
According to Michigan Sierra Club Representative, Italia Millan, Birmingham schools is doing the right thing by using these chemicals sparingly. However, she said, they should take it further by cutting pesticide use all together.
“People have to understand that weeds are not that bad, at least they don’t cause horrible diseases like the pesticides,” Millan said. “It’s just a mentality thing; people just think weeds are ugly.”
Pesticides can have a multitude of effects on both the environment and people, according to Italia, depending on the brand on the amount people are exposed to. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that certain brands of pesticides are poisonous to humans.
According an environmental group known as Beyond Pesticides, there is known evidence that pesticide exposure, even at low levels, can adversely affect a child’s neurological, respiratory, immune, and endocrine system. Pesticides like pyrethrins and pyrethroids, organophosphates and carbamates, are also known to cause or aggravate asthma symptoms.
MSU Extension Horticulture Educator, Robert Bricault said, however, that pesticide use can be needed.
“Insecticides, fungicides, herbicides all fall under the category of pesticides. Insecticides could be needed,” Bricault said. “We have some problems with a beetle called the European Chafer and its grub stage can really wipe out a lawn if it’s not watched carefully.”
Bricault said herbicide use can also be okay, if applied in moderation.
“Now herbicides, that’s hard to know,” Bricault said. “We would hope people use herbicides at the most useful time, which is in spring when the weeds are small or in the fall when the weeds are moving stuff down into their roots, which makes it easier to kill them. We would hope people would spot treat so that they’re not using as much pesticides.”
When it comes to fertilizing, both Bricault and Millan agree: fertilizer can be a necessity for lawns, but should only be applied after individuals or businesses know what’s missing from their soil. They can know this by testing their soil for nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen with a kit available through MSU Extension.
If people are ignorant of what their soil needs, or fertilize too much, the excess nutrients in the fertilizer could run off into local water systems and cause an abundance of algea growth. This is known as Cultural Eutrophication.
“[Algea] takes oxygen from the lakes and it can affect the fish that live there because they need oxygen too,” Millan said.
According to Hess, Birmingham Public Schools follow this philosophy and fertilizes, at the most, twice a year.
However, chemicals aren’t the only landscaping tools that can have adverse effects on the environment.
According to Hess, the general lawns on Birmingham District school property are cut down to three inches and mowed weekly by a contracted service called United Landscape.
Bricault said these three inches are the optimal height for grass.
“One of the better ways to keep weeds out of the lawn is to mow high, we see a lot of lawns where people mow very short and it stresses the lawn out,” Bricault said. “Mowing high, upwards of three inches, helps to shade out many of the weeds. It controls them without herbicides, which is pretty cool.”
Bricault suggests mowing every seven to 10 days, depending on the weather, or taking off one-third of the grass at a time.
“You have a thicker lawn just by mowing higher,” Bricault said. “It’s best to try and mow so you’re taking off one-third of the grass at a time, but unfortunately it might rain for three or four days and it’ll be much higher than that, but you don’t have much of a choice.”
Millian agrees with Bricault on the optimal length for grass, however her reasons slightly differ. She said, keeping the grass high and mowing less often is better for the environment, as not as many pollutants are emitted into the atmosphere.
Pollutants from lawn mowers are the same as from cars, including carbon monoxide, violate organic compounds, and nitrogen oxides said peoplepoweredmachines.com.
According to the EPA, all of these pollutants can cause any reactions from chest pain to heart disease to adverse respiratory effects, when people are exposed.
For Hess and BPS schools, the main driver of landscaping policy is community health.
“We could use those products. We choose not to. The spectrum of students, staff, community, etc, that use our facilities is so broad that any products we choose to use – could have an undesirable effect on someone,” Hess said. “The secondary reason is the environmental impact of these products on our community and area. It’s not worth messing that up further for [the future generation]. If we can make it better before we go, all the better.”