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Follow the Leader: How to Talk to Your Neighbors About Pesticides

I’d like to thank the folks at Wisconsin Public Radio, who had us on the air yesterday to talk about the release of our film, A Chemical Reaction. The response from their audience made Tuesday, Aug. 11, the busiest day of the summer for SafeLawns.org (it generated more “hits” than my appearance on Good Morning America back in July).

One of the great questions I received concerned how to talk to a neighbor who stubbornly refuses to cease applications of pesticides. If your neighbors are spraying or spreading pesticides — designed to kill target insects, weeds and fungal diseases — you need to know that these products rarely land where intended. A study by Dr. David Pimentel at Cornell University found that as little as one-tenth of one percent of applied pesticides ever reach their target pest. That means most of the product is winding up in the wrong destination and maybe even on your yard, in your home, on your skin or in your lungs.

Communication is key to keeping these potential poisons at arm’s length. Here are my suggestions for talking about this delicate subject.

1) Offer to share your knowledge about pesticides with neighbors in non-threatening, friendly terms. Angry approaches rarely work, but chatty banter can get people’s attention.

2) Collect web sites and magazine articles that can be photocopied and disseminated among friends and family. Some of the best on-line sources are www.BeyondPesticides.org, www.chem-tox.com, www.panna.org, www.ehhi.org and (of course) www.safelawns.org.

3) Organize a local seminar and recruit an expert to speak. Invite local garden clubs, watershed alliances, civic organizations and church groups to attend. Offer to buy your neighbor dinner on the way.

4) Give your neighbor a book about the dangers of pesticides. One of the best new releases on the market is Pesticides: A Toxic Time Bomb in Our Midst by Marvin J. Levine and released by Praeger Publishers in March of 2007.

5) Lead by example. If you grow a beautiful lawn and landscape without using chemicals, your neighbor will willingly follow your example.

6) Find common ground. If your neighbor has children, then you can focus your conversation on the risks associated with pesticides around children. If your neighbor has a dog or a cat, show them studies that associate the health risks of pets around pesticides. Pesticides also affect fishermen, hunters, bird watchers, or the water supply. If you get to know your neighbor, you can usually find a way to bring the conversation back to pesticides.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1023
  • Paul Holowko

    Neighbors who hire a lawn service usually are not aware that they are doing. Educating them by websites and books only goes so far. (Usually not far enough) Usually the neighbor’s perspective is they are buying a green grass carpet from “some” company.

    My lawn and plants are stressed by chemicals from the neighbors. You can actually see the change in visual plant distress decreasing as you move closer to the center of my yard. I always kiss goodbye the compost I lay down but the edge of the yard.

    My climate is relatively dry; so chemicals don’t wash and mix as much as in the East Coast or Mid West.

    Using organic methods to take care of your fertilizer needs is contagious. I’ve been doing that all my life. When I moved into the house that I have now, it was all sterilized by chemicals by the previous owner. Four years later, it is just beginning to sustain life. People see me making compost along the side yard and spreading this black crap on the lawn and garden. I ask for their yard waists and they bring it over. (This is a indirect method to get people to participate in organics) Or their yard people put it into a can I leave along the side of the house. At that time they are amazed how I can get rid of so much stuff. Where does it go? I give a wheel barrel or two back for them to try it in their yard. Immediately, they always comeback and say it doesn’t help. One month later, they come back and say it’s better than fertilizer. Their plants are taking off. However, not all neighbors are willing to try this. A lot of people don’t want to be bothered with grass, plants and chemicals. Until chemicals directly compromise their lifestyle, you will get nothing out of these people.

    About following through with legal proceedings with your neighbors or the chemical company is a nuisance. It trivializes the whole problem by squabbling in courts. It’s like using bad words in a scolding. Scolding is way more effective if proper language is used instead. Besides, there is no one intelligent enough at TruGreen to hold a conversation or offer anything constructive. ChemLawn, Leisure Lawn, Terminix and the rest of them are the same way. I have noticed people who are in the chemical business change over the years. I think the chemicals eventually affect them; and not for the good.

    In conclusion, by making visual lifestyle choices towards permaculture, people may listen. These changes need to be pushed under people’s radar. In the past four years I have taught and shown people who now do this stuff. I have three neighbors who give me their yard waist and have gone mostly organic themselves. The old lady who lives next to me has buried three husbands in her backyard over the years, so she has gone organic by default. (First husband committed suicide, the other two died by “natural” causes.)

    Paul Holowko from Gardening Rhythms in San Jose

  • maggi

    i’ve thought of putting a small sign in my yard, saying this yard uses natural products that do not pollute the environment. i live one block from the intercoastal waterway and our storm sewers have a sign on them to not dump waste, etc. everything in the yard runs into these sewers into the bay. the competition runs high in my neighborhood as far as nice yards go. so i suspect only a few would bite or wake up to a sign. but also maybe one of those clear boxes attached on the sign with data sheets neighbors can take out that promoted natural products or data on what chemicals do to our environment and ourselves would maybe impinge upon them-or make them feel extremely guilty. trying to promote not only is it bad, but also that we are doing a good thing by protecting our area we live in.

    • Paul Tukey

      This is a great idea. A non-threatening way to get the word out.

    • http://www.gardeningrhythms.com Paul Holowko

      One thing I have done to get people’s attention and to forgetting about chemicals is to put a chicken tractor on my front lawn. I normally put 3 or 4 hens in for about a half a day. Throughout the day I move them to different spots. They eat grubs, bugs and grass. They also poop. Good stuff!!! It turns out that the neighbors stop by and ask questions (they start out by asking, “Is it legal to have hens in the city?” The answer is yes, but up to 6 hens, no roosters (too much noise)) Then they ask, “Why are they in an open air box with two attached wheels in the middle of the yard.” After talking with them for a while, they want to borrow the chickens and tractor for their own lawn. If they don’t put chemicals down, I’ll let them borrow the chickens and tractor. It’s growing. We have three new neighbors not using chemicals and switched to using compost, and two new chicken people. My chickens are getting fat! Does anyone want some eggs? The street will never be the same again! http://www.gardeningrhythms.com

  • http://www.waukeshacounty.gov/recycling Meribeth Sullivan

    Our county recycling office provides and promotes “Green Garden Parties” for our Waukesha County, WI residents. Combining my Master Gardener, Composter and professional background on hazardous waste, this model is based on one started in Canada. I provide home/neighborhood parties (similar to Tupperware), with discussion & handouts on natural/organic approaches to lawn care, among other things. There is no fee and no buying/selling…except for sound cultural approaches to lawncare, a host gift and a prize drawing! They are quite an enjoyable, friendly way to disseminate information. I’d be glad to share this model with others who may want to do similar promotions. http://tinyurl.com/kvq6hv

  • http://www.gardeningrhythms.com Paul Holowko

    One thing I have done to get people’s attention and to forgetting about chemicals is to put a chicken tractor on my front lawn. I normally put 3 or 4 hens in for about a half a day. Throughout the day I move them to different spots. They eat grubs, bugs and grass. They also poop. Good stuff!!! It turns out that the neighbors stop by and ask questions (they start out by asking, “Is it legal to have hens in the city?” The answer is yes, but up to 6 hens, no roosters (too much noise)) Then they ask, “Why are they in an open air box with two attached wheels in the middle of the yard.” After talking with them for a while, they want to borrow the chickens and tractor for their own lawn. If they don’t put chemicals down, I’ll let them borrow the chickens and tractor. It’s growing. We have three new neighbors not using chemicals and switched to using compost, and two new chicken people. My chickens are getting fat! Does anyone want some eggs? The street will never be the same again!

  • Paul Tukey

    Awesome story!

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