Turf you can Live With

Sunday, September 15, 2002

When you consider how many millions of human beings depend on growing grains for survival, it’s amazing to think that there are more turfgrass plants on earth than any other kind. But in fact, none of the vast cultivated acreages of corn, rice, wheat, and other edible grasses begins to equal the total 
number of these purely decorative types.

Before turfgrass began to surround homes, yards were dirt, wet and sloppy when it rains; dusty, dry, and eroded at other times. Then people began to cultivate the native grasses, even spreading manure on them occasionally. When the plants went to seed, more mat grew in to cover the dirt. This classic, ‘mow what grows’ yard still has fans today, but usually the natives plants are combined with at least one lawngrass.

Turfgrass has been the subject of many rumors over the past few years, most regarding runoff water. Critics contend irrigation water is filled with pesticide and fertilizer residues that can contaminate groundwater. Such concerns have been the subject of much research, most recently at the Pennsylvania State University. In three combinations of cool season grasses, much like those in suburban yards, the runoff water collected showed no significant difference from the water as it comes from the tap in many cities. When tested, results showed that most chemicals applied to lawngrass become trapped in the lawn’s thatch and rootzone.

The findings were also significant because the research demonstrated the benefits of growing lawngrass, and especially sod, in efforts to reduce erosion and runoff. Sod did a better job than seeded lawns, even three years after planting.  The implications for using turf for its water filtering capacities are intriguing, especially in cities where urban runoff is problematic. Perhaps large green spaces can be placed so redirected water can be cleansed right under our feet.

As more turf carpets surround home nationwide, the move to grow them responsibly has grown, too. Where a bag of 8-8-8 scattered around by hand used to fertilize many lawns, better formulas exist to feed today’s grass. Modern turf fertilizers do not contribute to runoff problems; in fact, water running off a healthy lawn rates close to tap water in its quality.  

This is the unedited version of an article that appeared in Garden Almanac, a publication of GroGroup.

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