Applying the Principles of Permaculture in Turfgrass Management

Posted by on Jan 12th, 2012 and filed under Featured, Green Ideas. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

As a young undergraduate at Utah State University, I remember well the day I signed up for the required course “Turfgrass Management, Principles and Practices”.

One of the chores I had growing up was to take care of the lawn on my parent’s one acre property. I soon came to dread the long hours of mowing lawn in the scalding, hot summer sun. Not to mention the back-breaking task of dragging irrigation hoses from place to place, applying pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, hauling away hundreds of pounds of grass clippings, aerating, power-raking, and trimming. No matter how well I did any of these tasks it seemed all in vain as soon as the winter snows starting falling, blanketing the landscaping and covering up all signs of the grass I’d slaved away at all summer. By the next year, I’d have to do it all over again. Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled about the subject. I thought that planting grass was a waste of time, money, resources, and a terribly unsustainable landscape practice.

Don’t get me wrong, grass has its place. When used appropriately, turfgrass can provide the landscape with a much needed unifying element. It also acts as the “carpet” of the landscape, providing a place for families and individuals to walk, run, play games, picnic, and access other areas of the landscape. Let’s not forget about the golf industry either. I’m terrible at golf, but I still like to attempt every now and then, mostly because I like the atmosphere. The golf industry is currently on a steady decline due to the troubled economy. For golf courses to survive these hard times they must learn how to cut maintenance and input costs. Clearly we are not about to stop using turfgrass in both the landscape and golf industry.  But there has to be a better, more sustainable way that requires less maintenance while being easier on the environment.

It wasn’t until many years later that I started to notice the term “permaculture” creeping into agricultural topics and discussions. Permaculture can be described as a system of agricultural practices that mimic nature, and are modeled after relationships found in the natural world. Permaculture emphasizes the need for permanent agricultural systems that are self-sustaining, eliminating or reducing the need for high input. It also promotes the use of locally produced goods which save energy, reduces fuel consumption and transportation costs. Not only does permaculture pertain to agricultural practices, but it can encompass every aspect of humanity. Architecture, engineering, energy production, art, economics, and even social systems can all benefit from the patterns and examples found in nature. Universities and colleges are now starting to offer courses specifically about permaculture applications in these specific topics, and professional permaculture consultants provide advice and designs inspired by Mother Nature. For me, the concept of self-sustaining landscapes has always been important, and I realized I had been striving for permaculture even before I discovered the official name of the idea.

By applying the principles of permaculture to turfgrass management, it is possible to grow and maintain grass that not only provides the functions expected of it in the landscape, but can be sustainable at the same time. To do this we need to look at grass plants in their natural environment; grassland ecosystems like prairies and meadows.

First, how is grass grown in nature? Is it rolled out in big sod sheets? Of course not. It’s grown from seeds of parent plants and spreads through rhizomes and stolons. Is there only one species or type of grass found growing in grasslands? Again, no. There are usually several different types of grasses growing in a grassland ecosystem. Each type of grass has different attributes relating to pest resistance, water needs, shade tolerance, and soil preference. Where one grass plant struggles to establish, the other types take over. Yet this natural process is shut down when we install sod, which creates a monoculture. Sod usually contains only one species of grass and no different varieties of that species. On the other hand, establishing a lawn from a high quality seed blend ensures that species and genetic diversity is retained.

Next, how does a grass plant get its water needs met? In nature, where a grass grows depends largely on rainfall frequencies. Water efficient, drought tolerant grasses grow in places that receive less water. By developing seed blends that contain these water efficient grass species, it is possible to grow grass that takes far less water while still maintaining a deep, lush color and feel.

Also, look at what’s happening under the soil. In a natural grassland environment, a complex system of bacteria and fungi are hard at work. Intricate networks of mycelium intertwine with grass roots, sometimes forming symbiotic relationships. These fungal partners, known as endophytes, provide the grass with a boost of vigor and increased pest resistance. There are many grass seed companies now providing endophyte enhanced turfgrass species, and scientists are experimenting with ways to infuse more grass species with these symbiotic partners. This once again mimics a naturally occurring phenomenon found in grassland ecosystems.

Permaculture can teach us how to deal with so-called “pests” in the landscape, and shows us that many times these pests are just misunderstood, harmless, or even beneficial. For instance, try peaceful coexistence when it comes to moles in your lawn. Moles are nature’s own little aerators; reducing soil compaction, improving drainage, and increasing nutrient uptake into grass roots. On top of that, mole hill soil is said to make a great loam that can be harvested and used for container plants.

Another suggested practice is mulching grass clippings instead of removing them. By allowing the grass clippings to fall back down to the soil like they do in nature, you can dramatically reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizers needed to sustain grass vigor. Anything to reduce the need of synthetic fertilizers is a step in the right direction. Synthetic fertilizers tend to end up in places they weren’t intended, such as waterways, reservoirs, and drinking supplies. Mulching grass clippings instead of bagging them is yet other way to mimic nature instead of working against her.

There are many other ideas and suggestions for how one can become a practitioner of permaculture both at home or on the golf course. Rainwater harvesting, for example, has become quite popular in recent years especially in the western states where local laws prohibiting it have been relaxed. The idea behind harvesting rainwater for irrigation purposes is only logical, and can be as simple as a few rain barrows harvesting 30 gallons per rainstorm, to large cisterns harvesting 3000 gallons at a time. Whatever the method, you can’t beat free water, especially in areas of the country that experience frequent drought. It’s a self-sustaining, environmentally friendly way of irrigation that doesn’t deplete existing water supplies.

Planting and maintaining turfgrass no longer deserves the stigma of being an irresponsible landscape practice. In fact, by applying the principles of permaculture, grass has the potential of being quite self-sustaining. Whether it’s a homeowner deciding to establish lawn from high quality seed instead of a sod monoculture, or a golf course superintendent harvesting rainwater to supplement an existing irrigation system, there are many steps we can all start to make toward permaculture within turfgrass management

By: Skylar Christensen

Nature’s Finest Seed

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