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How Turfgrass Benefits Us and Our Planet

Turfgrass Warriors,
There are many positive aspects of growing quality turfgrass.  Not just the aesthetics or bragging rights….although that can be fun.  Many of those positive aspects are related to the environment.  Some aspects are even more directly related to our quality of life and our health.
Our Congress has a rather low approval rating.  The US Congress approval rating hasn’t been above 20% in several years.  The approval rating was at an all time low of 9% in November of 2013.  Starting out 2014, it is now about 13%.  But, congress has managed to get something right.  A recent farm bill noted, “Tree plantings and groundcovers, such as low-growing, dense perennial turfgrass sod in urban areas and communities, can aid in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, mitigating the ‘heat-island effect’ and reducing energy consumption, thus contributing to efforts to reduce global warming trends.”  Hooah!
Now, just a few words on the “heat Island effect”.  The US EPA describes this effect as: built up areas that are hotter than nearby rural areas, sometimes referred to as “heat islands”.  The annual mean air temperature of a city with 1 million people or more can be 1.8 to 5.4 Degrees F warmer than its surroundings.  In the evening, the difference can be as high as 22 Degrees F.  Heat islands can affect communities by increasing summertime peak energy demand, like air conditioning costs; air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions (more on this later), heat-related illnesses, mortality, and water quality.
Many communities are taking action to reduce urban heat islands using four main strategies: 1) increasing tree and vegetative cover, 2) installing green roofs (also called "rooftop gardens" or "eco-roofs"), 3) installing cool—mainly reflective—roofs, and 4) using cool pavements.  Turfgrass clearly fits into strategy 1.  Turfgrass maybe even fits into strategy 2 as well.  But, do me a favor, before you start laying sod on the roof of your house; please consult a structural engineer.
Troops, your turfgrass can conduct many missions. Turfgrass helps purify the air we breathe, plays a major role in carbon dioxide/oxygen conversion and helps control soil erosion.  Your turf can aid in water purification and water conservation.  Turf can also increase soil fertility and control temperature.
One of my favorite American figures in US history, President Theodore Roosevelt, once said, “Grass is what saves and holds the water that keeps life good and going....  It keeps the falling rain from flushing away.  Blades of grass take water from the air and transpire it into the ground.  That works the other way around too.  Because grass blades help put water back into the air so that rain can fall again.”  What a guy.  He’d have my vote.
Imagine a world without turfgrass.  Ever have a picnic on asphalt?  Try to teach your child to walk on gravel?  I’ve played rugby on some lousy fields.  Imagine playing rugby in a dust bowl?  I played once on artificial turf.  Bad idea.  I’m going to run through the benefits of turfgrass and provide you with some very interesting data.  Next time someone hazes you about your lawn, tell them some of this information.
Oxygen Generation – The “greenhouse effect” is related to climate change.  The greenhouse effect is a process by which thermal radiation from our planetary surface is absorbed by atmospheric “greenhouse gases”, and is re-radiated in all directions.  Since part of this re-radiation is back towards the surface and the lower atmosphere, it results in an elevation of the average surface temperature above what it would be in the absence of the greenhouse gases.  The primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone.  Greenhouse gases greatly affect the temperature of the Earth; without them, the Earth's surface would average about 59 Degrees F below the present average of 57 Degrees F.  So, the theory is, the Earth’s temperatures will rise as these gases increase.  The results are melting ice caps, rising seas, marine species extinction, loss of potable water availability, poor food security, shifts in food production areas and changing weather patterns. 
The second and third order effects could be unfavorable changes in human health, displacement of certain people, with critical changes to infrastructure and territorial integrity.  Not to mention the availability of suitable water and proper farmland becoming a national security risk and perhaps the source of future conflicts.
A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released on March 31, 2014, says the effects of climate change are already occurring on all continents and across the oceans. 
Turfgrass Warriors, our turfgrass can be on the forefront of this war against climate change.  Our turfgrass needs carbon dioxide to survive.  It replaces carbon dioxide with oxygen.  Turfgrass is such an efficient carbon dioxide converter that a 50 foot by 50 foot plot of turf can meet the oxygen needs for a family of four.  The air is cleansed by the process of Photosynthesis.  This process produces compounds used for plant growth while releasing oxygen into the atmosphere.  All the trees and turf along our country’s interstate system produce enough oxygen to support 22 million people.
Air Purification – In a thick lawn, there are at least 6 turfgrass plants in each square inch, 850 in a square foot and about 8 million in an average lawn of 10,000 square feet.  A single grass plant can have 387miles of roots, so, an average size lawn can have some 3 billion miles of roots.  With this extensive and intertwined root system, turfgrass is estimated to trap 12 million tons of dust and dirt from the air annually.  Smoke can also be trapped.  An acre of turf can absorb hundreds of pounds of sulfur dioxide during a year and can reduce ozone, hydrogen fluoride and perolacetyl nitrate.  Perolacetyl nitrate is some real bad stuff in smog.  It is more stable than ozone and can dissolve more readily in water than ozone.  It can also be transported in the atmosphere a real long distance.  Our turf can filter all of these things.
Erosion Control – Up to 90% of the total weight of turfgrass is in its roots.  The root system I described earlier can also reduce erosion and control harmful runoff.  Studies have shown that turfgrass reduces runoff 10 times better than other crops or groundcovers.  A given turfgrass area can reduce nitrogen runoff 190 times better and phosphorous runoff 54 times better than those other crops or groundcovers.
Temperature Modification – All plants play a role in climate control.  But, our turfgrass is the best.  Each blade of grass is like a mini evaporative cooler.  An acre of turfgrass, in the summer, will lose about 2,400 gallons of water through transpiration and evaporation which can dissipate approximately 50% of the accumulated solar heat for the same area.  Studies at Texas A&M have demonstrated that turfgrass will reduce surface temperatures by 30 to 40 Degrees F in comparison to bare soil; and by 50 to 70 Degrees F in comparison to synthetic turf.  The front lawns of just 8 average houses can provide the cooling effect of about 70 tons of air conditioning.
Water Conservation and Purification – Our turfgrass can purify water entering underground aquifers because of that root mass I mentioned earlier.  And, soil microbes that like turfgrass also act as a filter to capture and break down many pollutants.  Healthy turf locks in nitrogen and phosphorous and prevents these elements from leaching into the ground water.  Leaching and runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous (along with runoff of soil sediment) mess with sub aquatic vegetation (SAV) in the Chesapeake Bay and therefore, mess with my Blue Crabs and Oysters.  I like my Blue Crabs and Oysters.  I like to eat them.  I do not want them to go away.  Got it?
Soil Fertility – See my blog post about soil.  Soil is composed of sand, silt and clay.  Our turfgrass roots grow in between and among these soil particles or aggregates of these soil particles.  Turf exchanges nutrients with the soil and absorbs water from the soil.  All of this improves soil consistency.  Some of the best soils in the world are where grasslands used to be.
I’ve told you to leave your grass clippings.  Well, another reason for that is grass clippings are 90% water by weight.  When they are left on the lawn they dehydrate quickly.  They are also high in protein and are rapidly decomposed by bacteria and fungi.  Grass clippings contain about 4% nitrogen, 2%potassium and 0.5% phosphorous.  As I’ve been saying – grass clippings can equal up to 3 applications of fertilizer – WITH NO ADDITONAL COST OR WORK!  Make sure the clippings are chewed up fairly small – get a mulching mower or a mulching attachment to your mower.  It is environmentally responsible!
All of the helpers we have in soil ecology; bacteria, fungi, actinomyces and protozoa, make the turfgrass root zone their home.  More than 930 billion of these little guys can live in a single pound of root zone.  The carbon dioxide removed from the air by your turfgrass feeds these guys.  The results are soils with much more humus.  Remember my blog post on soil?  Soil horizon O? (Oscar; not zero.) Okay, so it means soils with more organic matter.  Here’s another thought – 100 pounds of dead organisms (like listed above) equates to a 10-5-2 fertilizer being applied.
Quality of Life – A beautiful lawn is in our DNA.  Anthropologists have discovered evidence of a large savanna grassland in Africa where some of our prehistoric ancestors came from.  Archeologists suggest that the Chinese had lawns more than 5,000 years ago.  Even the Mayans and the Aztecs cultivated lawns.
A recent Gallup poll reported that 62% of Americans believed an investment in lawns (and landscaping) was as good as or equal to other home improvements.  The investment recovery rate is 100 to 200 percent for landscaping as opposed to 40 to 70 percent for a deck or patio.  Many home buyers who were polled believed proper and well maintained landscaping adds 15% to a home’s value.
In studies conducted by the University of Michigan, access to a nearby natural area (like a lawn) was related to an increased sense of satisfaction and general well being.  People who actively use their lawns have higher life satisfaction and lower stress levels.  Recovery rates for patients increase when their rooms overlook a nice landscaped area.  Where there is a nice lawn and landscape, there is less child mortality, less suicide and less energy consumption.
Safe sports are becoming more and more of a concern.  I can tell you, grass cushions a player’s fall better than artificial turf.  Grass will also “give” when an athlete needs his or her cleats to slip so as to not tear or rip any ligaments in a leg.  Have you ever had a “turf burn” from artificial turf?  OUCH!
When a dozen raw eggs are dropped from a height of 11 feet onto a substantial, 2 inch thick, turf playing field, none broke.  When the eggs were dropped from the same distance on to an artificial turf or on an all weather running track, all of them broke.
Artificial turf also requires replacement every 8 to 10 years.
I already talked about grass and its cooling capability.  Artificial turf may reach temperatures of 158 Degrees F when healthy turf, at the same location, would be around 88 Degrees F.
Trees, shrubs and grass can reduce undesirable noise by 20 to 30 percent.
Rodents, snakes, skunks and other small critters are less likely to inhabit a mowed turf area, which keeps them away from your house.
A well maintained lawn can act as a fire-fighting buffer and will not sustain fire like woody vegetation may.
And, finally, turfgrass can reduce glare and light reflection around the home.
I think that about “covers” this topic. (No pun intended.)  What has been under our noses, or under our feet, all these years actually has some very good benefits.  It benefits us and our planet.

3 Comments to How Turfgrass Benefits Us and Our Planet:

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Jake on Monday, April 07, 2014 8:38 PM
Very interesting; it sounds like a great lawn is the answer to life, liberty, and happiness. But isn't the grass always greener on the other side of the fence? Haha, anyway, very informative article. I had never heard of that term, "heat island." That is crazy.
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improvement of stp on Tuesday, May 27, 2014 1:29 AM
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