The legendary Dr. Jim Beard died in 2018, and it is not an overstatement to say he was a pioneer in turfgrass research. He authored hundreds of journal articles on all sorts of turfgrass issues, from flooding to thatch control to root growth.
Another facet of Beard’s research was his ability to summarize the work of others, providing a concise picture of where turfgrass was regarding a particular topic or theme. His 1994 paper “The role of turfgrasses in environmental protection and their benefits to humans” does exactly that, demonstrating all the ways that turfgrass helps society.
Dr. Beard and his co-author, Dr. Robert L. Green, separated their review into three distinct areas of turfgrass use: functional, recreational and aesthetic. They then provided examples of the refereed research that clearly demonstrated the value of turfgrass for each of these areas.
The functional area centered on the proven benefits of turfgrass as an inexpensive and durable ground cover. Turfgrasses reduce soil erosion, dissipate heat, and lessen noise and glare. Because of their high shoot density and root mass, perennial turf systems can have less surface-water runoff than many crops (0.6 mm/hectare/4 weeks for turf compared with 6.7 mm/hectare/4 weeks in an agricultural system).
The ability of turfgrasses to reduce heat around buildings has been proven: Maximum August canopy temperature in green, growing bermudagrass was 87.8 F (31 C), far cooler than the 158 F (70 C) measured in a dry synthetic turf. Correctly designed golf courses also offer excellent habitat for wildlife. Of the total area on a golf course, almost twice (1.7 times) as much is used for natural habitats — such as roughs, woodlands and water — as is used for greens, tees and fairways.
The underground parts of turfgrass also contribute enormously to the functional benefits of turf. Under turfgrass systems, microbial populations are high, and they contribute carbon to the system. One study found microbial biomass carbon at 1,070 pounds carbon/acre (1,200 kilograms/hectare) compared with 624 pounds carbon/acre (700 kilograms/hectare) for arable production land.
Turfgrass makes large contributions to soil organic matter and microbial biomass because it has a high turnover of roots and other plant tissues. Root turnover rate is usually defined as the number of times root biomass is replaced each year. In a lawn, root turnover rate was estimated to be about 42%. Total root system biomass of Kentucky bluegrass has been estimated at 9,800 to 14,360 pounds carbon/acre (11,000 to 16,100 kilograms/hectare).
From cricket and croquet to polo and rugby, the list of recreational surfaces that rely on turfgrass is lengthy. Research has long demonstrated the utility of turfgrass for reducing the hardness of sports fields, and turf provides low-cost cushioning when compared with poorly turfed or non-turfed soils. A secondary benefit is the community pride that comes from high-quality sports fields and parks. Finally, spectators come to watch athletic events played on turfgrass, and the entertainment and economic benefits from such recreation can be substantial.
Urban areas are considered sterile and unwelcoming without parks and green turfed areas. The aesthetic benefits of turfgrass contribute to our quality of life, as research has documented. For example, an outdoor view from a hospital room contributed to a more rapid recovery for patients. Employees had a lower level of perceived job stress if their place of business had a turfed landscape surrounding it. In a quality-of-life survey, 95% of all respondents most wanted green grass and trees around them. Thus, research demonstrates that, in addition to being attractive, turf offers therapeutic benefits.
Overall, turf’s role in protecting our environment and enhancing our quality of life is supported by scientific studies. Turfgrasses help remediate disturbed soils, and they stabilize soils against erosion. They serve as firebreaks, help with flood control, and provide a specialized niche for microbial biomass. Basically, turfgrass enhances our lives in diverse and numerous ways, and it contributes greatly to our general well-being.
Source: Beard, J.B., and R.L. Green. 1994. The role of turfgrasses in environmental protection and their benefits to humans. Journal of Environmental Quality 23:452-460.
Beth Guertal, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., and the 2019 president of the Crop Science Society of America. She is a 20-year member of GCSAA.