By Mike Jiggens
The City of Toronto’s parks, forestry and recreation department is dedicated toward delivering safe and functional parkland and providing the economical, environmental and aesthetic recreational values associated with healthy parkland. Helping to meet the city’s mandate is its integrated plant health care program that was founded in 2002 in response to new pesticide legislation Toronto was ready to adopt.
Department manager Doug Smith outlined the program he helped develop and facilitate while speaking at the first annual Nutrite sports turf seminar in Milton, Ont. in November.
He said a formal plan was needed for the city to properly look after its assets that include about 1,600 parks and about 3,000 hectares of maintained turf. Among the city’s sports turf facilities are about 700 sports fields, five golf courses, 14 lawn bowling pitches and 40 hectares of horticulture areas.
“It was a matter of also having a plan to not just take care of the assets, but how to transition away from pesticides and use whatever tools are left in the tool box and to use them properly.”
The pesticide legislation enacted in 2002 in Toronto gave way in 2009 to a province-wide cosmetic pesticide ban that negated all municipal policies pertaining to chemical control.
When developing Toronto’s integrated plant health care program, what was already in place was used as a means of developing a strategy, including industry standard integrated pest management (IPM). The previous strategy was to manage areas to prevent pests from becoming a problem, promote recovery when pests did become a problem, identify the problems, monitor problems, and incorporate thresholds to determine how many weeds and insects were acceptable and the tolerable percentage of disease. Once pests were recognized as a problem, solutions such as biological, physical, cultural, mechanical and behavioural could be adopted to reduce them. Chemical treatments were recognized as a last resort. Evaluating treatments afterwards was a component of the program.
The key, Smith said, was to manage areas to prevent organisms from becoming pests and reducing pest populations by including cultural methods.
“That really spoke to us about plant health care.”
From that, it was realized a separate discipline was needed, becoming the integrated plant health care program.
“Basically, our program is a timely delivery of our best plant health care practices.”
The city’s integrated plant health care program emerged from its strategy developed in response to the municipally imposed pesticide bylaw. The program is an active plant management strategy used to maintain turf and horticultural areas. It involves two tools – plant health care and IPM when pests do become a problem.
The emphasis, however, favours plant health care because of the limited use of pesticides that resulted from the 2009 Ontario cosmetic pesticide ban. Integrated plant health care involves management of all turf and horticultural applications.
Establishing healthy turf without pesticides
“What’s the goal of integrated plant health care? We want to establish and maintain the healthiest turf possible without use of pesticides and grown from soil with a high degree of natural fertility.”
Smith said the program’s goal is to bring every sports field and ball diamond in the city up to a standard through a prescribed program of integrated plant health care. It involves prescribing the number of times a certain practice is undertaken, when it’s done and its frequency. It is then a matter of customizing programs for each field and each asset, based on its individual requirement and its health, and to reduce the reliance of pesticides to ensure responsibility if chemical treatments become necessary.
Chemical treatments were used during the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto because it was a major international event.
Toronto’s integrated plant health care program is largely dependent upon healthy soils that are deemed the engine that drives plant health.
“Healthy soils grow healthy plants,” Smith said.
The physical, chemical and biological components of the soil require management. Physical components include soil texture, soil structure and porosity. Chemical components include cation exchange capacity and nutrient availability. Biological components include the soil’s microbiology and what it does to drive oxygen into the soil and making nutrients more available to the plant.
Also included are the specific needs of each field category as well as best mowing practices, fertility, seeding and topdressing.
The city has shifted to a longer-duration fertilizer to achieve more of a release. Two applications are consequently made on Category B fields from a previous three applications. The strategy is being looked into for adoption on Category A fields.
Smith said having good equipment that is properly maintained is key to delivering the program. Mowers must have sharp blades. Fields are cut at a height of 2½ inches except for cricket pitches that are shorn to one inch.
Fertilizer spreaders must be properly calibrated to meet prescribed application rates.
“Part of the foundation of our fertilizer program is the use of organic fertilizer,” Smith said.
In the fall, about 180 tons of organic fertilizer is put down on parks and sports fields throughout the city. A combined synthetic and organic program is adopted.
“The principle of the premise is that organics really make your synthetics work harder by the action it does in the soil.”
Smith said the organics help build the soil and make nutrients more available to the plant. About a half-pound of nitrogen is put down. Organic fertilizers are a source of both plant nutrients and organic matter.
“We think of the soil as the engine and the organic matter as the fuel.”
Organic fertilizer generates media attention
The type of organic fertilizer product used in Toronto contains 72 per cent organic matter content. The odour associated with organic fertilizer generated plenty of media attention when fall applications were made in 2017. People complained the city smelled “like a farm.”
Although the city is responsible for the maintenance of an abundance of fields, efforts are made to keep up to date with soil testing in spite of the vast number of playing facilities, Smith said.
Getting oxygen into the soil and establishing good seed to soil contact through slit seeding are among the program’s goals.
“It’s only as good as the contract or the tender you have to get materials you need, whether it’s seed or fertilizer or topdressing or whatever. And that contract is only as good as the specifications of that contract.”
Only NTEP (National Turfgrass Evaluation Program) tested seed is used by the city and only from the most recent trials. Different blends are used on different fields, depending on whether the playing surfaces are irrigated or not.
A blend of premium topdressing sand and a six-millimetre screened compost is used in topdressing. Two different blends are used – a 70-30 sand-to-compost blend and a 50-50 mix.
“What blend we use on what field will be driven by the soil test to match the amount of sand that’s already there in the field.”
For non-irrigated fields, the city leans toward the 50-50 blend for better moisture holding capability.
Irrigation is a key component of the program on irrigated fields to control the amount of water they get, including how much and when it’s done.
Another strategy the city adopts is the placement of permeable covers down the middle of some fields to create a greenhouse effect during the spring.
In spite of having well maintained equipment, the right products, specifications and contracts, the city is only as good as the people it has, Smith said, adding efforts are made to keep employees up to date through in-house training. The city’s parks employees understand the formal program of integrated plant health care, he added.
“They’re not just doing random things out there. There’s a reason for it. We train them not just how to do it or when to do it, but why to do it. Once that understanding comes about, there’s a real connection that comes about. We find the staff really connects with what they’re doing in the field. It’s not just a random free-for-all out there. There are reasons behind it.”
Department workers are always open to new innovations or different techniques, Smith said. Something tried a number of years ago was the pneumatic application of pure compost onto sports fields, a technique that achieved good seed germination. Organic fertilizer and seed could also be applied at the same time through broadcasting which helped fill aerification holes.
When applying compost in the beginning, the particle size was fine, Smith said, but added it later became too chunky. The practice was ultimately suspended due to the chunkiness in particles, but he said it is important to at least try new things.
The city also conducted a trial using its own liquid compost extract on sports fields as well as liquid kelp.
“We found it difficult to integrate it into our operation. There was too much on the plate already.”
One other issue potentially stands in the way of even the best integrated plant health care, Smith said.
“It won’t be effective if our fields are being overused and overplayed. The best plant health care you can throw at a field, if it’s being overused, is not going to take.”
It’s recognized that natural fields can withstand a limited amount of play without damage, and that’s an important point to get across to user groups, he said.
“We can’t over-permit our fields, so there is a threshold of play. We want our fields safe and playable and healthy, but that can only happen if we’re cognizant of the amount of use that’s going on them.”
A reference guide published by Sports Turf Canada recommends the number of hours on which a field can be played depending on its individual classification that ties in with its soil texture.
“Fields can only handle so much play before they start going backwards.”