Sustainability

What is sustainable turfgrass?

Turfgrass is also known as “natural grass.” It’s a natural, root-bearing plant. Artificial turf is made of nylon or polypropylene fibers. Natural turfgrass can be managed in sustainable ways, but artificial turf cannot. Natural turfgrasses also provide environmental benefits that artificial turfs cannot.

A quality turfgrass can cover land surface and tolerate either foot or vehicle traffic. It also will tolerate mowing. In the world, there are only about 50 grass species that fit this definition.

graphic of home and grass with various text explaining environmental lawn benefits
Some of the many environmental benefits of turfgrass “natural grass.” Retrieved from www.thelawninstitute.org.

Sustainable turfgrass areas are managed using best management practices developed from sustainable agronomic and environmental initiatives. These systems promote long-term, healthy, natural grass ecosystems. Multiple organizations, such as The Lawn Institute, Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), and United States Golf Association have made great progress in the last decade supporting and educating for awareness and sustainable management practices for natural grass areas in home lawns, athletic fields, and golf courses.

Turfgrass provides many beneficial ecosystem services. Turf provides habitat for wildlife and soil life. The process of photosynthesis occurring in each blade makes oxygen (like all plants). The roots store carbon in the soil and hold water and soil. This reduces runoff of sediment and chemicals. Land covered by turfgrass is also cooler than sidewalks, helping reduce urban heat islands. The blades of grass buffer noises. And, what would our sports fields and greenspaces be without excellent turfgrass for recreation and relaxing?

Sustainable turfgrass systems apply the concept of the “right plant in the right place.” This means you should plant the “right” grass species for your location and site needs. That starts with choosing a grass species that will grow and recover from environmental stresses based on its location and use. Choosing correctly then means you can use fewer “inputs” – things like water, fertilizer, and pesticides.

research plots in field of various turfgrass species with trees, road, power lines and sky in background
Research at Purdue University to measure and understand the amount of mowing required of multiple turfgrass species, including low-input turfgrass species. Credit: Ross Braun

Another sustainable approach is to use low-input turfgrass species. Fine fescues are a group of five species or subspecies comprised of strong creeping red fescue, slender creeping red fescue, Chewings fescue, hard fescue, and sheep fescue. Buffalograss and zoysiagrass also can be managed with reduced maintenance inputs but still provide similar functional and aesthetic properties as other turfgrass species.

Feeding turfgrass plants with fertilizing should also follow the “right rate and right time of the year.” This will improve overall plant health, quality, and long-term success of your turfgrass area. Most turfgrass areas in lawns in nonarid climates seldom need irrigation during the year. Rainfall supplies in these areas are enough water to keep the grass alive. If there is an extended drought period, however, additional irrigation may be required.

Other tips to help promote more sustainable turfgrass include increasing the mowing height of your grass. A higher mowing height of cut will: a) provide deeper root growth, b) improve the density of your grass, c) help resist weed infestation; d) better tolerate drought stress, and e) require less mowing over time. It’s also good practice to leave the clippings on the grass surface. This returns nutrients to the soil to continue to feed the plants.

three people conducting sod production research in field of turfgrass with dozens of small sections of sod rolled up from ground
Sod production research and development of comprehensive education resources for sod farm businesses led by Purdue University in collaboration with University of Minnesota supports plant science for a better world by providing more information on diversification, expansion, and adoption of low-input, sustainable turfgrass sod species by sod producers and buyers. Credit: Ross Braun

There are turfgrass scientists around the country at Land-Grant Institutions who perform turfgrass science research. They provide science-based information specific to your state and its climate to help you better manage turfgrass in a more sustainable manner. The goal is to have healthy turfgrass with less inputs of water, fertilizer, mowing, and pesticides. These turfgrass scientists conduct research on low-input turfgrasses and more sustainable management practices to further the advancement of our knowledge and understanding for sustainable management practices for natural grass areas.

Local extension educators can provide information that is specific to your region. Your nearest land-grant institution with a turfgrass science program can also help you in choosing the type of turfgrass that thrives in your region, which is dependent on climate.

Other lawncare tips can be found in this Sustainable, Secure Food Blog.

Answered by Ross Braun, Kansas State University

About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.

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