Last summer, as South Florida descended into the hothouse season that makes it a growing haven for all things green, the city of South Miami quietly switched to organic landscaping.
It isn’t the most drastic change made by the small suburb of well-manicured lawns and leafy streets in its quest to become the greenest city on the planet. Last year the city became the first in the state to require solar panels on new homes and has long banned mosquito-spraying for marsh mosquitoes. But according to its mayor, the change was by far the simplest, and one that could be easily replicated by governments and residents across the state.
“Herbicides are sort of the unrecognized peril,” Mayor Phil Stoddard said. “I was horrified they were using all kinds of stuff that I would not want my child exposed to.”
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As the nation’s winter breadbasket with a year-round growing season, Florida ranks among the biggest consumers of fertilizer and herbicides in the nation, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. During the winter, fertilizer keeps lawns lush. In summer, herbicides step in to combat the stampede of weeds. But they have also become a point of contention. Nitrogen in fertilizer can trigger toxic algae blooms, while phosphorus can wreak havoc on Everglades marshes and bays that thrive with very low amounts of nutrients. And numerous studies have blamed chemical herbicides for harming people and wildlife.
Many counties in the state, including those along the Indian River Lagoon and in Central Florida where freshwater bubbles up from underground springs, have a summer blackout on fertilizer use, although it remains a huge problem. Hundreds of tons of phosphorus still flow yearly into Lake Okeechobee, the eighth largest lake in the U.S., largely because limiting use of fertilizers is self-policed under a policy of best-management practices or BMPs.
“Along the Indian River Lagoon, cities have fertilizer regulations, but who enforces that?” asked Audubon Florida’s Okeechobee Science Director Paul Gray. “They just talk to homeowner’s groups. There’s no one following people around to make sure no one’s over-fertilizing.”
The focus has also largely remained on the perils of over-fertilizing, with few local governments pushing for organic alternatives. The city of Fort Lauderdale includes a warning about the dangers to fish, insects and animals up the food chain, but leaves it open to homeowners to choose. Others, including the city of Miami’s ordinance and North Miami Beach’s rules, call for water-saving plants but make no mention of organics.
“All of us are part of the problem and we can be neat or slovenly,” Gray said.
In South Miami, Stoddard, who distributed non-toxic mosquito traps to weary residents after Hurricane Irma, hopes to lead by example. A neurobiologist who studies behavioral ecology, Stoddard has long advocated against environmental chemical use. He led an effort to ban mosquito-spraying, except for disease-carrying Aedes aegypti, in the city and has fought Florida Power & Light to allow homeowners to install solar panels, which he has on his own home.
After reading about research on atrizine, which is banned in Europe and has been the subject of a decades-long dispute over its health impacts, Stoddard said he started looking at the products being used on South Miami’s parks and open spaces.
“Every time you look at one of these herbicides, you find there’s something going on,” he said.
His wife’s family owns a farm, he said, and at his suggestion, they switched to organic products. The change was so effortless, he asked his staff to do the same for the city. Without fanfare or any public dispute, he said they asked contractors applying for the city’s landscaping business to simply use organic fertilizer and herbicides, without increasing costs.
They got a half dozen bids ranging from about $269,000 to $67,000 for a three-year contract and settled on Hialeah-based SFM Services, which started its business 40 years ago providing janitors to the Orange Bowl.
“It just turned out to be that easy,” Stoddard said. “We just did it and so far, so good.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich