Feature Article - March 2012
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Maintenance & Operations: Turf Management

Sustainable Turf Management
An Organic Systems-Based Approach

By Tammy York

Organic Turf Sprouts

"In 2001 you saw the beginnings of taking the concepts of natural turf management and that being applied to sports turf management," said Chip Osborne, president of Osborne Organics, a company that provides natural turf consulting specializing in natural turf education and hands-on consultation. "People used to think that it wasn't possible to organically manage a sports turf field because of the unique demands and stresses on the field." As consumer demand increased, turf managers and parents began to ask about the types of products used to maintain the spaces where children play.

"The town of Marblehead, Mass., in 2001 formally enacted an organic pest management policy that prohibited the use of chemical toxic pesticides and fertilizers on all town-owned land," Osborne said. "This was the first regulation of its kind in the United States. I worked with the parks department to create a management plan to comply with the mandate from the Board of Health."

Seemingly the greatest obstacle that presents itself is the lack of education and training as to how to use organic management practices. Most of the staff grounds maintenance managers and staff have likely been trained and educated on the use of synthetic products, but have not received the same type of training for organic-based management. This training can be provided through the regional organic farming association such as the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

"The hard thing is universities do not yet offer this curriculum and it's typically not offered for training," Osborne said. "However, the demand is growing rapidly and we are working to get the education in place to meet the growing demand for information."

Hello, Holistic Humus

When a grounds department considers embarking on an organic approach, the first step is to realize that the focus of a green program is systems-based, not product-centered like a traditional synthetic chemical program. A sound organic natural field turf management program involves products, but it also begins with creating healthy soil and incorporating very specific and sound horticultural practices. Natural organic fertilizers, soil-building inputs, compost, compost teas, proper irrigation, aeration and an aggressive overseeding program are various components of a sound organic turf management program.

"It isn't quite as easy as you would like it to be. You can't just stop using chemicals and switch to organic—it won't work," said Tom Kelly, vice president of Natural Technologies Inc. based in Auburn, N.H. "You need to take an approach that is going to promote soil biology because without soil biology the turf isn't going to be able to use the nutrients."

The first step to switching to an organic natural turf management is to stop using chemicals that destroy microorganisms. Once you do this, the natural microorganisms in the soil will begin to reestablish their colonies. You can also facilitate this by introducing bacteria and fungi by way of compost tea or top-dressing the area with compost.

"The way to build a soil profile is by using laboratory-created products that contain soil-improving microorganisms," Kelly said. "By combining those with a natural source of fertilizer and other soil-improving products, you can implement an organic program." The result is humus that slowly releases nutrients to the grass roots and helps the grass survive during extreme stress such as a drought.

Another benefit of a happy humus community is that some beneficial microbes will actually protect the grass roots by attacking soil pathogens and some insects including white grubs.