You are what you produce: Part 1 was published in the May 2014 issue of GCM. The setting for that column was Flint, Mich., where I led a team of Michigan State University researchers in carrying out a field study. We mowed, applied fertilizer, and made herbicide applications around abandoned homes and in neglected parks. My column described the direct results — including the numerous social benefits — of our turfgrass maintenance project in Flint.
A social benefit not measured or mentioned in that article was the main topic of a scientific study published in 2017. Richard Sadler, Ph.D., an urban geographer from MSU, looked at nine years of crime statistics in Flint, from 2005 through 2014. He compared crime statistics from neighborhoods where abandoned lots were neglected with those from neighborhoods where abandoned lots were regularly mowed and maintained.
Although it is well documented that turfgrass decreases stress, depression and hopelessness in urban settings, Sadler was the first to perform an in-depth space-time analysis concluding that maintained grass also leads to lower crime rates, including fewer assaults, burglaries and robberies. Regarding the benefits of maintained turfgrass, Sadler says, “It’s people looking out for their own neighborhoods. If you know somebody’s watching, you’re not going to go out and vandalize something. It’s the overall change in perception created by cleaning up blighted property.”
Turfgrass is probably the most abundant and misunderstood plant. For the most part, it is taken for granted, and some people actually believe turfgrass is bad for the environment.
Some negative perceptions about the presence of turfgrass in lawns, parks or on golf courses include:
- Fertilizer can cause nutrient pollution.
- Turfgrass requires use of pesticides.
- The plant uses too much water.
- Two-cycle engines produce noise and air pollution.
All the concerns listed above are legitimate if those who care for the turf are not educated in proper turfgrass maintenance. Given the opportunity, it is important that those of us who practice the art of turfgrass maintenance carry the torch for our plant to shed light on its many attributes.
For instance, proper fertilization increases turfgrass density, which reduces sediment runoff into surface bodies of water and increases soil microbial populations that filter water heading into our groundwater and drinking water. A study in Flint, Mich., showed that fertilizing a sloped lawn with 0.8 pound of nitrogen twice annually reduced sediment runoff by 50%. Furthermore, three identical fertilizer applications the following year resulted in 90% less sediment runoff compared with non-fertilized plots.
Turfgrass water management research has led directly to the use of time-domain reflectometry (TDR) to make immediate on-site measurements of volumetric moisture content. This easy-to-use technology minimizes water use by allowing experienced managers to irrigate within the confines of plant-available water. TDR has been embraced by agriculture and is being simplified for homeowner use in gardens, flower beds and lawns.
If you are what you produce, then turfgrass is not only a cosmetic enhancement, but also a plant that provides numerous social, economic and environmental benefits, plus the safest recreational playing surfaces. We should all be proud to work in an industry where our focus is on making the world a better, and, according to Sadler, safer place. Now, if we could only get everyone to appreciate what we do and compensate us for it. Key point: Educate, don’t legislate.
Thomas A. Nikolai, Ph.D., the “Doctor of Green Speed,” is the turfgrass academic specialist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., and a frequent GCSAA educator.