An innovative new project is discovering environmentally friendly ways to keep the campus weed-free. And saving a lot of landscapers from breathing in toxic pesticides or getting bad backs.

“This is the control,” explains fourth-year Life Science undergrad Amrit Singh Sidhu, using a wooden ruler to point to the highest bunch of weeds in the photo, a forest of prickly weeds growing in a patch of undeveloped ground off West Mall. “And this is 100% mixture, after 35 days.” Now he’s pointing at a photo of a piece of barren earth, blissfully free of weeds of any kind.

We’ve all heard the expression “Campus as a Living Lab,” but according to Dr. Santokh Singh, Senior Instructor in the department of Botany, the weed control project his students are presenting is one of the first examples of applied research on campus since the UBC Sustainability Initiative was announced on January 27, 2010 by UBC president Stephen Toope.

Like the many Social, Ecological, Economic, Development Studies (SEEDS) projects now taking place on campus, the program is a unique partnership between faculty (Dr. Singh and his team), staff (Landscaping, which is part of Building Operations) and Campus Sustainability, which oversees SEEDS.

It all began with a request from Lou Maznik, Superintendent, Municipal Services for Building Operations at UBC, explains Brenda Sawada, Manager of the SEEDS program. “He said to me, ‘Brenda, we are having a lot of trouble in our gardens because we aren’t using pesticides at all, my guys are getting bad backs from bending down all the time, we get lots of injuries and time off work. And the gardens aren’t looking great.’”

Maznik thought they needed to use a spray in addition to manual weeding. But Landscaping hasn’t used traditional products like Roundup for years because they are so toxic. Instead, they were using two kinds of commercially-available organic pesticides but weren’t sure how much to spray, or where on the plants.

“So I went to Dr. Singh and explained the problem,” says Sawada. “‘Can you investigate?’ These are pernicious weeds, really difficult to handle if they were in our gardens: Morning Glory, Horsetail, Canadian Thistle.”

So Dr. Singh and a technician, Jarnail Mehroke, worked with Sidhu to test the two environmentally friendly products. Landscaping helped by identifying seven sites on campus where tests could be conducted and providing signs. Sidhu tested the two products in different doses and combinations, as well as just spraying specific parts of the plants, notably the bases. After two terms, he presented the results of the first phase to Building Operations last December, and then handed on the second phase to another Biology undergrad, Takin Kheirandish.

Like all SEEDS projects, it’s a win-win-win scenario. “The students get real hands-on experience and they do it for academic credit,” says Sawada. “Staff get the answers and recommendations they need. And since no one has done this work before, the faculty may hopefully end up writing a paper on the results.”

Sidhu and Kheirandish presented the initial results at UBC in March, and Singh will also present them at the Plant Canada conference in Halifax in July. If the lab can replicate the tests successfully, he will then publish a paper on the project. In the meantime, a detailed report will be available on the UBC SEEDS website.

The results have wide-ranging applications well beyond UBC’s Vancouver campus.

“These are powerful chemicals,” says Singh, pointing to a row of wilted weeds in small boxes, part of the lab part of the tests. “They may be organic and sustainable, but they are still toxic, and not cheap. So we have already learned a lot about how best to use these environmentally friendly chemicals, and how they actually work. And there is much more to learn.”

Lab work may continue for years, but the results of this SEEDS project are already shaping how Landscaping improves the physical campus, saving them money, time and injuries. Not to mention, pushing UBC’s sustainability goals by allowing the university to use less toxic materials on campus, while truly turning it into a living lab.

“Last year, the results with mixtures of organic pesticides were very promising,” says Maznik. “We should have an idea in the next few months of just how effective the mixture will be on a larger scale. The really interesting piece will be to see if this year’s study can find and validate an optimal mixture that will produce long-lasting results similar to a chemical product. Hopefully they can take it to the next level.”

Photo Credit: velkr0 under Attribution Creative Commons License