SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange Environmental Commission won a $5,000 grant to test organic field maintenance at Floods Hill, a playing field heavily used by many community groups. The grant is from the StonyFIELDS #PlayFree initiative, a program from the organic farming company Stonyfield Organic, which is working with communities across the country to stop the use of pesticides on playing fields. In addition to the grant, South Orange will receive advice from turf consultants to help convert playing fields to organic maintenance. The village is one of 15 municipalities in the country to be awarded the grant, and the only town in New Jersey.
“Unfortunately, every year a chemical cocktail of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are used on a majority of these fields and parks in order to make the grass greener and free of weeds,” a Feb. 29 press release from Stonyfield read. “We don’t think anyone should be exposed to these chemicals, so that’s why we started a campaign to support communities who are working to transition their playing fields to organic landscaping practices.”
Representatives from Stonyfield, which is based in New Hampshire, did not return a request for comment by press time on March 10.
According to George Finlay, a member of the South Orange Green Team, the grant money and consulting services will go a long way in helping to convert the village’s playing fields to organic maintenance. He described the procedure that a maintenance crew will follow to begin the process.
“We are off and running early this year, due to the early spring,” Finlay said in an email to the News-Record on March 6. “On March 12, unless it rains, we will be spreading calcitic limestone to sweeten the soil up to the pH level preferred by grass; organic fertilizer to boost the nutrients in the soil; and a blend of tall fescue grass seed resistant to traffic, drought and brown patch, a fungus disease endemic to tall fescue. We are mixing beneficial fungi with the grass seed.”
He said the fungi travel deep into the soil and mix with grass roots to then trade minerals.
“It is a mix of four species of endomycorrhizal fungi that thrive by trading minerals they mine from down deep in the soil where the grass roots cannot penetrate,” Finlay said. “They entangle with the grass roots and trade those minerals for essential sugars that the grass makes in its leaves from sunlight and carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.”
Jeff Carlson, the manager of the organically maintained Vineyard Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard, told Finlay and the Green Team about the grant opportunity.
“The extra $5,000 cash and access to organic turf experts will be very helpful,” Finlay said.
Floods Hill isn’t the only field in South Orange that town officials want to change to organic maintenance. The village, along with Maplewood, has been looking to regrow grass on its playing fields with fewer chemicals for several years. South Orange Trustee Walter Clarke, who is the liaison to the Environmental Commission, said this particular site was chosen for several reasons.
“After discussing it with Peter Travers, the recreation director, we specifically chose Floods Hill to test because it is so heavily used in different ways and by many different groups of people,” Clarke said in an email to the News-Record on March 6. “It is a sports field, event venue for outdoor summer movies and concerts, impromptu sledding in the winter, as well as leisure open park space for kite flying, Frisbee, picnicking, dog walking, etc. We figured if we can make the chemical-free process work there we can make it work on any of our open spaces.”
According to Clarke, the Environmental Commission realizes the burden shouldered by the Recreation Department to maintain the heavily used fields, resulting in the department’s inability to keep the grass looking like a golf course. Floods Hill is being used as a test case in terms of the organic maintenance as well as the budget.
“The goals are to maintain the grass at an equivalent level, without man-made pesticides and herbicides, so it is better for the environment, and to do it within the existing budget. If both those goals can be met then we have a sustainable practice that can be applied everywhere else. If not, then we go back to the drawing board,” Clarke said. “Whatever the result, I’m proud that these groups are willing to work together collaboratively with trust to try to achieve shared goals. It’s a tribute to the open-mindedness of our Recreation Department leadership as well as the creativity of our Environmental Commission.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic