Feature Article - March 2012
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Maintenance & Operations: Turf Management

Sustainable Turf Management
An Organic Systems-Based Approach

By Tammy York

Across the United States, municipalities, colleges and universities, homeowner associations, and even homeowners are changing their methods of managing grass. The ripple of changing from synthetic chemicals for natural turf management to organic began roughly a decade ago. The cities of Marblehead and Wellesley, Mass., and Scarborough, Maine, as well as the higher education campuses of Tufts University, Dartmouth College, Oberlin College and the University of Colorado at Boulder are just a few of the examples of the governments and learning institutions that have implemented sustainable landscaping practices in the past 10 years.

Sustainable landscaping practices is a widely defined term and can include everything from selecting native plants to using rainwater detention systems. How does sustainable landscaping fit in with playing fields? Can a playing field that takes a beating most days of the week with pick-up, practice and intramural games be managed with organic practices? Why should you even consider undertaking the task of switching from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to using microbes, compost, infrequent watering and the practice of overseeding?

You may want to do it for the same reasons many other municipalities and campuses have—for the health and well-being of the people using the areas, especially young children and pregnant women. The Environmental Protection Agency notes that many of the chemicals used as pesticides have not been studied well enough to determine their effects on humans. Depending on the type of pesticide, the nervous system and endocrine system (the system of glands that produce hormones to control growth and development, metabolism, tissue and mood) can be affected or the pesticide can cause irritation to the skin or eyes. Some pesticides may be carcinogens.

Here a Pesticide, There a Pesticide

The term "pesticide" covers any substance or mixture of substances intended for the use as a plant regulator, defoliant or desiccant. In addition, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and rodenticides are all pesticides.

Pesticides are designed kill microorganisms, insects, plants and even mammals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Web site states, "By their very nature, most pesticides create some risk of harm—Pesticides can cause harm to humans, animals or the environment because they are designed to kill or otherwise adversely affect living organisms."

Pesticide use is not limited to the land that it is directly applied to—it can affect the water supply as well as the surrounding area. Pesticides move off-site from where they were applied by two methods: drift and volatilization. The pesticides can move in the air as particles or aerosols during application or if they are attached to dust. Another way is when a pesticide is volatilized, which occurs when the pesticide residue changes from a solid or liquid into a gas or vapor. This pesticide gas or vapor can travel great distances from the original application site.

Due to the fact that pesticides are designed to kill living organisms as well as the high usage rates of these chemicals, the soil profiles of many natural turf fields have been annihilated. A healthy soil profile is comprised of a community of plants, microbes, arthropods, nematodes, bacteria, protozoa, earthworms, fungi and other living organisms. The microbial community of the soil is essential for the health of the plants.