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Help Your Yard, and Yourself, With Less Pesticide and More Nature

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By Michael Gold

The pesticides, herbicides and fungicides we put on our lawns aren’t just killing insects and weeds, Filipine Hoogland explained. The vast majority of them are infiltrating our waters, harming a host of animals that support our ecosystems, including beneficial insects, frogs, fish, bats and birds and endangering our health, too.

Westchester County is the single biggest user of pesticides in New York State, consuming more than 380,000 gallons per year. That works out to about 765 gallons per square mile, according to the Cornell University Cooperative Extension.

“Insects are an important part of our ecosystem, said Hoogland, who, with Fiona Mitchell, runs Healthy Yards, a nonprofit organization that supports sustainable and regenerative landscaping in Westchester.

“Every pesticide chemical has a specific issue,” Hoogland pointed out. Neonicotinoids, for example, are dangerous for pollinators, such as bees. Neonicotinoids are absorbed by the plant and stay inside it for years, she said.

Pesticides have been proven to harm human health, according to Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Washington, D.C.

Pesticides can cause many different types of cancer, ALS and other diseases, and harm your kidneys, lungs, nervous system and other organs, the Beyond Pesticides website states.

“In the U.S., you can use something here unless it’s proved unsafe,” explained Hoogland, who is originally from the Netherlands. “In Europe you have to prove it’s safe before it’s on the market.”

“Insects are important for our ecosystem,” Hoogland added. “Insects are fed on by natural predators, from birds and bats to squirrels and skunks. Spiders eat all kinds of stuff. We depend on bugs. Also, we need to make sure our plants propagate, which stores carbon.”

Healthy Yards encourages residents to rethink their yards.

“Turf grasses are exotic. They’re hard to keep alive,” Hoogland pointed out.

“Give part of your yard back to nature. Make your yard into a habitat if you have the space for it. I am turning my lawn into a meadow.”

Hoogland, who also has two chickens and is hosting a nest for bluebirds, said the meadow will attract butterflies, birds, lightning bugs and other insects.

The other pernicious part of landscaping in Westchester is the oil used by all that equipment.

“Our landscaping practices have surpassed all our private cars in terms of emissions,” Hoogland said. “Landscape equipment is very toxic.”

Hoogland recommends purchasing an electric leaf blower if you must use one.

“We live in a woodland habitat,” she said. “It needs leaf litter. That adds nutrients to the soil.”

“I’ve been a landscaper for 20 years,” Hoogland said. “Landscapers don’t need to get certified or licensed. Electricians need a license. Landscaping requires little knowledge. These guys know more about their engines than the landscape.”

Healthy Yards provides help to landscapers to offer sustainable services. The organization recommends using electric lawnmowers and leaf blowers, chainsaws and other equipment. It also offers suggestions for lawn care that does less harm to the environment by using non-oil-based herbicides to kill weeds if you really need to get rid of them, cutting fertilizer usage, which pollutes the air and water, and provides other guidance, on everything from soil management to composting.

For homeowners, Healthy Yards recommends planting native plants, which will attract pollinators. There are many other things homeowners can do, from mulching or mowing your leaves, using electric equipment and conserving water.

“Plant wisely, to get flowers for bees and butterflies, putting in plants that provide food for larva to feed on,” Hoogland said. “Remove invasives. Provide habitats for insects.”

“Invasives cause loss of biodiversity, habitat degradation and other environmental and economic problems,” the Healthy Yards website states.

Deer obviously pose a big problem in Westchester.

“There are 100 deer per square mile in Westchester,” Hoogland said. “We can only support 10 deer per square mile.”

“They’re helping invasive plants to spread. They’re harmful to birds, which are dependent on the understory,” Hoogland said.

The understory – shrubs that grow in the woods and young trees – provide a habitat for birds for foraging and nesting, the Audubon Society states on its website.

Hoogland also works with Bedford 2030, a local nonprofit that is dedicated to reducing local greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2030 and eliminating them by 2040. Bedford 2030 and Healthy Yards work together to offer periodic plant swaps, in which residents can exchange native plants and seeds with others for planting.

For more information, visit www.healthyyards.org and www.bedford2030.org.

Pleasantville resident Michael Gold has had articles published in the New York Daily News, the Albany Times Union, The Virginian-Pilot, The Palm Beach Post and other newspapers.

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