Sustainability's Elusive Definition

I’ve wanted to get this post out of the way for a while.  Sustainability has a lot of different meanings to different people, and I have struggled with it for years.  When I first heard the term, I equated it with organic management.  This pushed me away as I do not feel we have the proper tools yet to produce top quality results with a fully organic management program.  Then I heard other definitions, and I realized that it means different things to different people.  I want to lay out my definition and why I believe it.  You will not find this in a textbook, and you may completely disagree with me.  Please add your comments below.  I am really interested in them.  My thoughts on this are constantly evolving.

To me, sustainability means producing a result that can be repeated again and again.  In short, the end goal is “sustainable”.  So let’s look at landscape management.  A sustainable landscape with this definition would be able to be maintained this way for years and years repeatedly.  This cannot be done with a 100% pesticide program and synthetic fertilizers.  You will always have to change your program and you will typically find that new pests start to attack your plants.  You also have to worry about resistance issues and product failure. 

Sustainability also has an economic/business requirement to it.  If you are using ridiculously expensive products, can you continue to use them in the future?  If you need more staff just to complete your sustainability initiatives, can you justify these if asked?  I have been able to find time for these initiatives though making my department as efficient as possible.   If you want to start a composting program with your current staff level, you will need to eliminate hours of work somewhere else.  There are only so many working hours in a week.  Time cannot be made, it can be saved.  Look for many future posts on this topic. 

As far as pesticides, I use them in my program.  Without new organic options, I do not see this changing for some time.  However, I have learned to rely on preventive products.  We use virtually no post products.  Any products that are used are after weeks of IPM monitoring and scouting.  These are well timed, at low rates, and are extremely effective since we have little to no resistance on the property.  Product selection also plays a large role here.  I look for newer products that have a low rate of active ingredient.  For example, lately we have started using Civitas WeedFree.  The rate of 2,4-D is less than a tenth of other traditional products and we get good control.  Remember though, we use pre-emergent products so I do not typically have many weeds to control. 

It may sound weird to have a “sustainable” program that is based on pesticides.  I do not claim to have an organic program.  We have test areas that are, and the results are not there yet for me.  I have been able to reduce our dependency on pesticides greatly though.  Over the past 5 years, we have reduced our pesticide usage by over half.  And I was not spraying that much beforehand.  The typical homeowner 7 application program uses more products that I ever have, and I will put our results up against anyone’s. 

We have been able to cut our fertilizer usage by half through a solid cultural program and the use of Holganix.  Look it up, you may find a good fit for you.  When you have deep roots and solid, dense turf, weeds do not tend to be a problem. 

The slow transition approach has worked for me.  I am confident that it can work for you as well.  Go back to basics and force yourself to justify every application.  Saying that you have always used it is not an answer.  Here are some sample questions to help you on your path to a more sustainable agronomic program.  Is the pre-emerge product you use the best available?  Does it target the weeds that you have problems with?  What soil temps should you apply it at for best control?  What are your soil temps today?  How deep are the roots of your turf?  Can you help them grow deeper?

Spend an hour going through your program with those questions and add some that work for you.  Sustainability does not have to mean the elimination of products.  It can be the proper use of them that eliminates the use of other inputs.  Find ways to use your staff and budget dollars more sustainable.  The resources are there.  You can be more environmentally conscious while saving money.  We’ve done it and so can you.