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To understand Grassroots Environmental Education of Port Washington try to imagine a very talented juggler with 10 balls in the air instead of the usual three. Some of the balls (or programs) are the Grassroots Healthy Lawn Program (GHLP), The ChildSafe School, Environmental Education programs in the schools, Breast Cancer Prevention education, the Dodge Farm program that provides vegetables to a local food distribution center and the Port Washington Farmers' Market.

This fall, Long Island's counties, Nassau and Suffolk, will join Westchester in promoting and supporting the Grassroots Healthy Lawn Program. This program is an ambitious effort to change the forces of supply and demand for lawn care in a region of the country where homeowner's use of aesthetic pesticides is three times more than the average U.S. farmer. Especially in densely populated suburban areas, this release of chemical pesticides into the environment significantly impacts our air and water quality, and ultimately, our health. Chemicals contained in pesticide products are associated with adverse health effects in humans, including several types of cancer, neurological and developmental problems, reproductive harm and birth defects.

One part of the GHLP is professional training. The first of several training seminars will take place on Wednesday, Nov. 15 at Planting Fields Arboretum. It is titled "How to develop and maintain lush, healthy playing fields without chemical pesticides." This one-day intensive workshop is exclusively for institutional facility directors and DPW managers. Nationally recognized natural turf expert Chip Osborne will discuss site evaluation, soil testing, fertilization and other soil amendments, cultural practices, natural pest control and the practical aspects of managing non-chemical sports turf. Another training session, which will be two days in January, is called "Growing your Business the Natural Way." This award-winning two-day course for professional landscapers and turf managers will be conducted in association with the Nassau-Suffolk Landscape Gardeners Association and will cover every aspect of natural lawn care, from site evaluation through pest management. It will be taught by turf expert Chip Osborne and horticulturalist and compost tea expert James Sottilo.

Patti Wood, founder and executive director of Grassroots, says "We now have more organic landscapers in Westchester County than in any other county in the US. If our 200 or so landscapers have an average of 250 clients each, that's about 50,000 lawns that were not treated with pesticides this season, which translates into cleaner water and safer places for families to live. These numbers are exciting! On Long Island, there are many more landscapers and properties to maintain. We are hoping to make an even bigger impact here."

Landscapers who have successfully completed the training will be listed on the GHLP website. In addition to the 16-hour seminars in organic turf management for professionals, Grassroots educates the public through hundreds of outreach programs at school PTA meetings, libraries, community centers and town boards. "We work thousands of hours each year on this program" said Wood, "and it's very exciting to see real change taking place. We have lots of examples now... in schools, in neighborhoods and town parks." The program also involves working with retailers to encourage them to carry non-toxic alternative products for lawn care. GHLP costs taxpayers nothing. Individuals and foundations provide funding.

Grassroots produced a video, Growing Your Business the Natural Way, to encourage landscapers to add an organic component to their existing businesses. Featured on the video are two Port Washington landscapers, Pat Lamberti of Bayles Garden Center and Mike Bonivitacola, who both endorse using organic techniques for turf growing. The Bayles Garden Center is also one of a handful of landscape companies on Long Island to have a compost tea brewing system, where they custom brew "tea" for use on turf, shrubs and trees. This is the "cutting edge" of natural lawn care. Grassroots also produces several handouts available to the public, one of which is the Green Lawn Card, a convenient and compact source for step-by-step organic lawn care and basic information on pesticides. Whole Foods Market partnered with Grassroots to distribute these cards in their stores all over the northeast. (The information on the card will be in next week's paper.)

One of the main missions of Grassroots is to protect the health of children who are particularly at risk from toxic environmental exposures. Wood explains that children are more vulnerable because of their smaller size and the fact that they are still developing. Their typical hand-to-mouth behavior and playing close to the ground further increases this vulnerability. Researchers have found that early exposures to environmental toxins appear more likely to produce chronic disease than similar exposures encountered later in life.

Grassroots, started 10 years ago, actually grew out of another local organization Patti and her husband Doug started called PORTCAP, Port Citizens for Alternatives to Pesticides, which began in 1991. Patti Wood's experience as the Nutrition Chairperson at the local school where her two daughters attended was the starting point. She was working with children in their organic garden when a school employee responsible for the grounds approached with a chemical weed killer. She knew then that "kids and poisons don't mix," so she began to advocate for policies to protect children from pesticides and other toxic exposures.

In a letter from New York State, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer congratulated Grassroots on their award for the Grassroots Healthy Lawn Program in Westchester County. He commented on Grassroots: "Whether it is reducing dangerous diesel idling of school buses, educating citizens about the risks of pesticides and phosphorus fertilizers or working tirelessly to get non-toxic cleaning products in our schools, you have been a force for change and extremely effective."


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