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.

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.

Selecting the Right Grass

Some varieties of turf grass might look appealing but are a pain to keep looking that way. Typically the varieties selected are chosen for purely cosmetic reasons. In selecting grasses for your field, check with the experts at your Cooperative Extension Agency for suggestions on grasses that are suited for the local climate, soil and usage demands. In temperate zones, common combinations are fine-bladed tall fescue and perennial rye grass. A side benefit of many of the tall fescue species is that they release chemicals into the soil that eliminate or curb the growth of crabgrass and purslane.


After you aerate you should always overseed with high-quality certified seed that contains zero weed seeds. "It helps to fill in the bare spots and prevents weed seeds from having a chance of sprouting," Kelly said. "Turf grass can get old, and it's always a good idea to reinvigorate it with new seeds. By covering the bare spots and providing new grass, you help shade the earth, which in turn helps prevent weed seeds from sprouting."

Some varieties of perennial ryegrass, turf-type tall fescues, and fine fescues offer seeds that contain beneficial symbiotic fungi, which are microscope fungi that live between the cell walls of a plant. These seeds are labeled as endophyte-enhanced. These fungi actually produce chemicals that are toxic to insects such as sod webworms, chinch bugs and billbugs.

To find out more about your potential turfgrass selections, review species specific information on The National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) Web site. The turf grass is evaluated on quality, genetic color, winter color, spring greenup, leaf texture, density, living ground cover, disease or insect damage, drought tolerance, frost tolerance, winter kill, traffic tolerance, thatch accumulation, seedheads, poa anna invasion, mowing quality and steminess.

Letting the Air In

Aeration is essential for keeping organic natural turf fields healthy. Aeration reduces the compaction of the soil, which in turn helps prevent crabgrass and other weeds from growing. The more the field is used, the more it will need to be aerated. Sports fields that receive a high level of use might be aerated quarterly, whereas open playing fields might just need aeration once a year or even every other year. Aeration can be done with a core aerator on a walk-behind or a tractor.

Crabgrass and broadleaf plants prefer to grow in heavily compacted soil. The end goal of aeration is to have an environment suitable for only turf grass.

A mulching mower should reduce the clippings to small enough pieces to decompose, and regular aeration also helps to reduce thatch. If thatch does occur, the thatch can be removed with dethatching rakes.

Drink Up

"Turf managers can create more problems by overwatering or not watering at all," Kelly said. "You are better off if you water infrequently and deeply. The best time of day to water is in the morning for an hour or two per zone. You should water every three to four days. Do not water every day."

Fields that are watered lightly and frequently have a shallower root base and are likely to sustain damage with stress. Watering infrequently and deeply promotes the grass roots to extend further into the soil. The water from deep and infrequent irrigation should get at least 4 to 6 inches of the soil wet.

Mowing 101

Always mow the grass at the highest setting of the mower blade, which is typically 3 to 4 inches. Longer grass blades shade the soil, which in turn prevents weed seeds from germinating, keeps the soil temperature cooler, and reduces water loss. In mowing (or any kind of plant trimming), never remove more than a third of the plant.

Use a mulching lawn mower to retain the clippings. As the mulched clippings decompose, they will return moisture and nutrients. The nitrogen from the decomposing clippings is important to the health of the soil profile.

Add a little variety in your mowing path by mowing at right angles on alternate mows. This helps promote the development of upright shoot growth as well as keeps the grass at the same height throughout.

Organic turf management started slowly but is gaining ground with more communities, cities and campuses, as well as residential consumers opting for less synthetic chemicals in their environments for the health of their children, themselves and the environment.

"Don't mow during the heat of the day, it will stress the grass. Mowing in the morning or afternoon is best. If it is over 85 degrees, do not mow," Kelly said. "The turf is already under stress from the heat, and mowing stresses the turf even more. It will go dormant, allowing sunlight to reach the ground and crabgrass seeds to germinate."

Always mow the grass with a sharp mower blade. Sharper mower blades produce a clean cut versus dull mower blades, which shred the grass and further stress it. Shredded grass loses water and is susceptible to insects and diseases.


Conventional fertilizers are water soluble urea-based. These synthetic water soluble fertilizers release nitrogen on contact with soil moisture. The nitrogen begins to be released within 48 hours and has a maximum of seven to 10 days after application. The nitrogen is gone within four to six weeks after application. "In the fertilizer model, because nitrogen is being released at the seven to 10 day point, that is faster than grass can use it," Osborne said. "That nitrogen contributes to runoff and groundwater contamination. It is estimated that 35 percent of the nitrogen makes a positive impact on the grass and that 65 percent leaves the soil environment."

Organic fertilizers gain their nitrogen from seaweed, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, fish emulsions, corn byproducts, compost made from plant material, composted poultry and cattle manure, or composted sewage sludge. The nitrogen derived from these sources is water insoluble and is absorbed into the microbial community. Since natural organic fertilizer is water insoluble, it does not leach the nutrients and the nitrogen is delivered to the grass plant through the biomass. The full 100 percent of that fertilizer makes a positive impact on the grass.

Compost has been shown to have other benefits besides releasing moisture and nutrients into the soil. For example, composted chicken manure and composted turkey manure have both been shown to decrease crabgrass, molds, summer and brown patch, and dollar spot.

Organic Turf Management in Practice

In the Yards for Kids program, a community health education program which aims to significantly reduce the use of one pesticides in Iowa, the city of Cedar Falls has reduced pesticide usage over the last three years. The reduction plan has saved nearly $18,000 and 300 gallons of weed killers. This effort spread to Cedar Falls community schools, Cedar Falls and Waterloo parks, and Covenant Medical Center, which also took the lead in following the reduction plan to reduce the amount of weed killer used to create healthier parks and public spaces. This effort has further gained ground with more than 21 businesses and churches participating in the Cedar Falls and Waterloo Metro area alone.

At Tufts University the on-campus pilot project involves more than two acres of campus, including an area around the residence halls, children's playground, a field used for informal sports by both college students and a community youth soccer league, and a varsity baseball diamond. Areas were selected based on the variety of demands on the turf. Areas that receive a high amount of use such as the varsity baseball diamond also have a higher need for intense turf management. Each area is being proactively maintained to ensure good turf quality without the use of herbicides or other pesticides.

The Town of Wellesley, Mass., has prohibited the use and application of toxic chemical pesticides on all Natural Resources Commission lands which includes school lands. It goes on to stipulate proactive management to understand, prevent and control potential pest problems. Control measures must be in keeping with, but not limited to, those products on the preferred list of Northeast Organic Farmers' Association's Standards for Organic Land Care, and/or the Organic Materials Review Institute of Eugene, Oregon.

Organic turf management started slowly but is gaining ground with more communities, cities and campuses, as well as residential consumers opting for less synthetic chemicals in their environments for the health of their children, themselves and the environment.

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