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Healthy Turf, Without Chemicals -- For New York Groundskeepers It’s, Back to School Time

By David McAllister, for Grassroots Environmental Education

Pampering turf with regular care throughout the year is the best way to reduce or eliminate the need for pest-killing chemicals . Aeration, (seen here) followed by top dressing is an effective way to send nutrients to turfgrass roots. Photo: Grassroots Environmental Education

A hundred years ago, before the advent of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, landscape gardeners in parks and on estates around New York City knew how to maintain lush lawns and gardens using only the tools mother nature provided. Using compost to enrich the soil, cutting grass high to choke out weeds and encouraging natural predators to fight pests were simple but effective techniques that were handed down from generation to generation of professional landscapers.

These days, with the growing consumer demand for natural or organic lawn care, many of these techniques are back in style, and in the suburbs of New York City, hundreds of superintendents and landscapers are signing up for classes to learn the new (or is it the old?) methods of turf management.

The roots of grass plants grow in air-filled spaces between soil particles, which explains why turf needs regular aeration. Photo: Grassroots Environmental Education

Organized by a non-profit organization and conducted in cooperation with the New York State Turf and Landscaping Association and the Nassau Suffolk Landscape Gardeners Association, the classes are designed to give landscapers the confidence that, with a little bit of study and a willingness to learn, organic lawn care is something they can do very successfully.

"Turf managers and landscapers can't afford to fail," says organic turf manager and classroom instructor Chip Osborne, who manages all of the school and municipal turf for the Town of Marblehead, Mass. "We understand that their reputations and livelihoods are on the line, so we give them the tools and understanding they need to succeed."

According to Osborne, who is one of several instructors for the Grassroots Healthy Lawn Program, many landscapers come into class expecting to learn which natural products will replace the chemical products they've been using.

A Utah grounds worker applies herbicide with a backpack unit in this view. The same type of applicator can be used to apply compost tea or soap-based insecticide. Photo: Steve Dewey, Utah State University,

"Landscapers trying a natural approach for the first time often pick up some organic fertilizer, spread it on a lawn and do nothing else," says Osborne.

"When the lawn ends up full of weeds, they conclude that organics don't work. But natural lawn care is a little more complicated than that."

In fact, the natural lawn care course begins with an in-depth look at soil biology, and the role of bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa in supporting healthy grass plants. Since every lawn can have different soil conditions, soil testing is almost always required before amendments can be added.

"Pretty much everything that affects the health of turf grass is happening under the surface of the lawn where we can't see it," says Doug Wood, one of the creators of the Grassroots Healthy Lawn program.

Beneficial microorganisms happily reproduce in a compost tea vat that adds nutrients and oxygen to the mix. The result is an effective and inexpensive fertilizer you can brew on-site. "We test the tea carefully before it goes out," tree care expert James Sottilo says. "The results are amazing." Photo: Grassroots Environmental Education

"In a chemically treated lawn, much of the natural soil biology has been destroyed.

So we talk a lot in class about ways to rebuild the soil biology and get it back to levels where it's working for us again."

One of the methods most often used to improve soil biology is to aerate and then top dress with up to a half-inch of high-quality compost.

"Compost has been one of the cornerstones of organic turf management for centuries," says Wood. "We want to get the OM (organic matter) percentage in the soil up between 5 and 8 percent, and top dressing with compost is the most effective way to do that."

One of the newest products on the natural lawn care market is compost tea.

Helicopter spraying of a glyphosate-based herbicide made headlines in New Jersey when officials announced plans to attack stands of invasive phragmites (like the plants seen here) at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Several studies have raised concerns about the health and environmental effects of glyphosate herbicides. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant Archives

Made by extracting microorganisms out of high-quality compost and then growing them in large vats containing microbial foods and aerated water, compost tea can produce extremely high numbers of beneficial microorganisms which can then be applied directly to turf, ornamentals or trees using conventional spray equipment.

"We make our own compost tea in our own state-of-the-art brewers" says James Sottilo, owner of a natural tree care company in the Hamptons and an instructor for the Grassroots Healthy Lawn Program. "We use the most biologically active compost we can find. We inoculate with food sources depending on what we're trying to accomplish, and we test the tea carefully before it goes out. The results are amazing."

Cultural practices also play a major role in the success of a natural lawn care program. Cutting turf at three inches rather than two, for instance, can have a dramatic effect on the health of grass plants.

"There are several reasons why we prefer a higher cut," Chip Osborne explains to a group of new students. "Higher grass blades shade the soil surface and prevent weed seeds from germinating. They also provide more surface for photosynthesis and help create a plant with deeper roots, which can help turf survive during drought conditions."

Other cultural practices in a natural turf management program include regular aeration, especially for lawns and fields with heavy traffic, such as athletic fields or public parks.

This pickup truck has been fitted with a portable tank and spray unit to apply compost tea. The brew contains a rich soup of beneficial microorganisms, which fertilize as well as discourage soil-dwelling pests. Photo: Grassroots Environmental Education

"Compaction is the number one enemy of turf grass," says Wood. "Turf roots actually grow in the air spaces in the soil, so when the air gets squeezed out of the soil, grass plants have no place to grow roots."

To date, the Grassroots Healthy Lawn Program has trained more than 150 professional landscapers in the techniques of natural lawn care, and many graduates have converted their fields and businesses to organics. Most of the graduates are listed on the program web site, A public education program consisting of flyers, newspaper articles and radio ads promotes the web site and encourages consumers to ask for natural lawn care services.

"Most of the demand for natural lawn care is coming from the mothers of young children," explains Wood, Associate Director of Grassroots Environmental Education, which oversees the program. "In many families, lawn chemicals are now considered a health issue, and once that happens, it's Mom's issue rather than Dad's."

"This is the future of lawn care in America," insists Wood, who is overseeing the production of a six-hour home study course on DVD, which will be released this winter. "We know the demand for natural lawn care is going to continue to grow, and we want to make sure the supply is there to meet the demand."

for more information:

When Communities Object

By Erik Skindrud, regional editor

Students at Pelham High School in New Hampshire were told not to drink campus well water when parents and school board members learned that the grub-killing pesticide Dylox had been applied to sports fields this summer. Parents and pesticides are an increasingly uneasy mix on campuses across the country. Photo: Dorothy Mohr, PhD.

Chemical treatments for grubs, bugs and weeds have a long history in turfgrass management. When your performance is measured in turf quality and appearance, it can be hard to avoid using landscape chemicals.

These days, however, grounds and park managers are hearing more objections to chemical use. Many come from a new source: moms and dads of school-age children, who often associate chemicals with health effects.

One incident occurred in August, when school board members in Pelham, N.H. responded to reports that the grub-killing chemical Dylox had been applied at Pelham High School. Alarm bells rang when a resident pointed out that a portion of the school's drinking water comes from a well only 38 feet deep.

New Hampshire state rules prohibit pesticide application in "sensitive areas, where exposure to the pesticide(s) could have an adverse effect on human health, wildlife and the environment."

Dylox had not been applied directly over the well, school officials said. But students were ordered to not drink the well water until tests showed it was safe.

The town was relieved when tests came back negative. But local water is now being tested at regular intervals. And school officials have pledged to keep the campus pesticide-free from now on.

As the accompanying article points out, healthy, well-maintained turf will resist grub infestation, reducing the need for pesticide treatment. (The same goes for most other problems.) Aeration and application of organic fertilizer are two steps that can help keep parents and grounds maintenance people the best of friends.

If grubs do become entrenched in your turf, parasitic nematodes have shown promise as a non-chemical solution to the problem.

Visit Cornell University's IPM web site to learn more:

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April 20, 2019, 3:56 pm PDT

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