When it comes to maintaining one of Lawrence's premier parks without the use of pesticides, Mark Hecker has tried just about everything.
Hecker, parks superintendent for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, has used one device called a "Flamer Machine" that burns weeds; mixed up batches of high-powered vinegar designed to replace pesticides such as Roundup; and researched a fancy-sounding device called the Waipuna Weed Control System, which sprays a hot foam of natural corn and coconut sugars to kill weeds.
But after a year of maintaining Watson Park - south of Sixth Street between Kentucky and Tennessee streets - without a drop of pesticides, Hecker has found that it is an old-fashioned product that works best: elbow grease.
"It is pretty labor-intensive," Hecker said. "It is obviously harder than some of the other methods that we were using."
But the one-year pilot project has proven that a major pesticide-free park is doable. Hecker and volunteers who have helped pull weeds said the park's appearance was holding up well.
"I think the park looks great," said Marie Stockett, a coordinator of the volunteer group that helps the department. "It looks as good or better than the other parks."
Unsure about expansion
That beauty will have to be left to the beholder. But Hecker said he did have concerns about expanding the program to other high-profile parks in the community.
"With just doing the one park, it hasn't been that difficult to juggle our staff around and get done what we need to do," Hecker said. "But it would be a much bigger concern if you did it systemwide."
More about the program
- 6News video: Volunteers replace pesticides at local parks
- City memo: Pesticide Free Park Status of Watson Park
- Volunteer labor replaces chemicals (08-02-05)
- Volunteers losing battle to keep park pesticide free
- Watson Park set to be pesticide free (06-07-05)
- World Online: Panorama - Buford M. Watson Jr. Park
- Study: Pesticide-free parks would heap on costs for city (05-17-05)
Hecker said to go pesticide-free at all 52 parks in the city likely would require hiring several crews of workers to operate weed trimmers and brush cutters, something Lawrence hasn't done regularly since the early 1980s when it began spraying hard-to-mow areas with Roundup twice a year.
Hecker said he hadn't developed cost estimates to do that, but he expects it would take four crews of three people each to work during the mowing season. It also likely would require the purchase of some pickup trucks to provide transportation for the crews.
Crews also would have to be hired to do hand-weeding in the approximately 200 landscaped flower bed areas that the department maintains, he said.
Stockett, though, said members of her group - the Lawrence Pesticide-Free Park Program - would like the city to keep an open mind about expanding the program.
"It can be a slow process, but we would still like to see the program continue to grow," Stockett said.
She said there likely would be more upfront costs associated with the program, but questioned whether the long-term costs would be any greater. And Stockett said the main benefits of the program went far beyond dollars and cents.
"Coming to a pesticide-free park really puts me at ease," said Stockett, who frequently takes her two young children to the park. "Before, you never knew what your children were playing in because pesticides are invisible."
Stockett estimates about 50 community members have helped city workers maintain the park. There are two ways volunteers can help, she said. About 20 people have adopted a flower bed, which requires them to check the bed for weeds every one to two weeks. Others can come to a monthly meeting at the park and participate in group work.
Gave these a shot
Hecker said many of the practices the department tried to use in place of chemicals worked only marginally. For example, the Flamer Machine - which is basically a propane torch with a long handle - burns weeds growing through sidewalk cracks, but it discolors the concrete and leaves it hot for about 15 minutes. And it has some limitations when it's used near parked cars.
Using horticultural vinegar also has been less than ideal, Hecker said. The solution burns the tops of weeds, but growth resumes after about two weeks. And Hecker said he thought the solution was more dangerous to applicators because it is fairly acidic.
The department also has stepped up its mulching program to help control weeds in flower beds. That's been effective thus far, Hecker said, but he said the extra mulch eventually will accumulate to the point that it will degrade the growing environment.