By Mike Jiggens
TURFGRASS is a plant many outside the industry take for granted. They
perceive it as an ornamental ground cover or recognize its recreational
attributes, but few seem aware of the plant’s functional qualities.
Speaking in January at the annual conference of the Ontario Golf Superintendents Association in Niagara Falls, Dr. Thomas Nikolai of Michigan State University shared the results of some studies which show how properly maintained turfgrass can make a profound and positive socio-economic impact.
He related a story about a university study conducted in Flint, Mich. which began in 2009. The once prosperous city had been home to a thriving General Motors plant, but the 1973 oil crisis and subsequent collapse of the U.S. automotive industry led to massive urban decay in the city which saw its population dwindle from a peak of about 200,000 to its current 98,000. Coinciding with its rate of urban decay during the latter part of the 20th century and into the new millennium was a spike in the city’s crime rate which ranks it among the top five crime centres in the United States with populations of at least 50,000.
As a result of Flint’s state of urban decay, about 6,000 homes were abandoned. The lawns of these properties were being mowed about once a year.
This prompted a Michigan State University-led study three years ago to gather data on the social, economic and environmental impact on turfgrass in an urban society.
“It was perfect for us,” Nikolai said.
The study called for designated areas to be mowed weekly, fertilized and provided weed control, and then determine what impact that had on the community. The $150,000 study was funded by Scotts.
Three neighbourhoods were targeted for the study. Before any maintenance work began, those participating in the study attended a number of community functions and interacted with local residents to inform them about what was happening and earn their trust.
John Deere provided 12 push mowers to people in the community so that they could mow the lawns of abandoned properties. Nikolai said the community involvement was helpful in sparing his team from doing all of the work.
In the spring of 2010, community members cleared the targeted areas before they were able to mow. Scotts also donated seed which was later put down.
The tall, unkempt grass had become a haven for insects and rodents and created a safety concern at street corners by limiting visibility. It also forced pedestrians to have to walk in the street, adding another liability problem.
Nikolai said one home in a targeted neighbourhood had a reputation as being a drug house, but, once debris had been cleared and the lawn mowed, it was abandoned and remained vacant. Gangs who had formerly used the property moved on because of its newly-increased visibility.
People in the area eventually became friendlier and began cleaning up other lots, he said.
“At first I was scared to death when someone would approach me,” Nikolai said, referring to the still high crime rate in the city.
He said the study proved that the simple act of maintaining healthy turfgrass led to increased social interaction among neighbourhood residents, resulting in an improved community spirit.
Safety was stepped up, and people began purchasing some of the vacant lots, providing an economic benefit to the area.
In June of 2010, a runoff study was conducted at a sloped property in Flint. Strips going up and down the slope were 10 feet wide, and the length of the slope was about 60 feet. The area was fertilized, and a second application was made in November.
Catch cans were placed in the ground to see how much sediment would be picked up after two applications. In the spring of 2011, data was collected from both fertilized and unfertilized areas. A better green colour was realized in the areas which were fertilized.
Seven catch cans were pulled from the ground at the base of the slope in early June. Scotts Turf Builder had been applied by spreader at the recommended rate of .8 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Where fertilized, 17 grams of sediment was pulled out compared to 35 grams in unfertilized areas. Not only was there minimal fertilizer use, but more than a 50 per cent reduction in sediment was realized.
A nutrient sample test was conducted to determine what was contained in the sediment, showing no statistical difference between the fertilizer vs. no-fertilizer plots. There was actually less phosphorus present in the plots that were fertilized, Nikolai said.
“The reason you have less in the long run where you fertilize is because you have more grass growing, so it’s taking nutrients up.”
Phosphorus gets into surface water by adhering to clay particles.
In 2011, three fertilizer applications were made (June 15, Aug. 10 and Nov. 2) using the same rates. Plans are to continue with the runoff study again this spring, and year-to-year comparisons will be made.
Nikolai said residents of the targeted Flint neighbourhoods were afraid to talk with one another before the study began. Since the study got underway, people have begun to interact with one another in those neighbourhoods, and the amount of garbage generated has been significantly reduced.
He said the crime rate in Flint hasn’t decreased—“not yet”—nor has there been any decrease in the number of foreclosures. Some homes in the city can be purchased for less than $8,000.
Ongoing research at Michigan State University is being done to determine how water can better be saved. A study involves applying water at evapotranspiration (ET) levels, applied at 30, 60 and 90 per cent ET.
“It’s a huge potential for water savings,” Nikolai said, citing 30 per cent as one-third the amount of 90 per cent ET.
In 2010, there was no significant difference in microbial populations among the three plots (30, 60 and 90 per cent ET). By 2011, however, there was statistically less in the 90 per cent plot.
“This tells me that if I’m watering too much, I have less microbial activity,” Nikolai said. “If I have less microbial activity, there are fewer microbes breaking down. This tells me that irrigating at 90 per cent ET on these particular plots in this particular region of the world is way too much water.”
The study involved irrigating once a week for an entire summer at 30, 60 and 90 per cent ET.
Nikolai, who is often referred to by the industry as “the doctor of green speed,” said the most dangerous way to increase green speed is through irrigation. According to available data, the only way to increase green speed by decreasing irrigation is if the superintendent decides wilt is “cool.”
Study plots that were single-mowed and double-mowed indicated there was about a foot picked up in green speed on those which were double-mowed when done all the time. He said everything that’s read suggests double mowing is dangerous to the turf, but plots which were single-mowed had more dollar spot than those double-mowed.
“It’s faster green speed. It’s healthier grass. Green speed does not kill. It’s the biggest fallacy.”
Nikolai once surveyed superintendents throughout Michigan, asking them what they believe are the top three things which have changed during their careers. Seventy-nine of those he contacted answered the survey, most of whom had 15 to 20 years of experience. The top six responses, in order, were budget, irrigation, equipment, greens rolling, chemicals and management.
Earlier in his presentation, Nikolai recalled a study conducted in the early 1990s at the University of Guelph which helped answer the question, “Are turf chemicals safe?”
Under study was the herbicide 2,4-D. Volunteers in various states of dress walked and sat in areas treated with 2,4-D. Ten volunteers entered a test area an hour after it was treated. Five wore short-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks and shoes. The others wore shorts and were barefoot. Each remained in the treated area for one hour, alternating among walking, sitting and lying down in five-minute intervals.
Levels of 2,4-D in the body can be measured through urine samples. As it enters the skin, it is excreted through urine.
Ten volunteers performed the same test 24 hours after treatment.
Urine was collected from each of the volunteers for four consecutive days. Those who were in the treated area 24 days after treatment showed no detectable difference, whether they were barefoot or not. Three people who had entered the area one hour after treatment showed detectable residues. All three were barefoot.
The highest amount was collected from an individual from an individual who had removed his shirt during the experiment. He had .426 milligrams of 2,4-D in his system while the others were between .1 and .15 milligrams.
According to the World Health Organization, the accepted level of 2,4-D in the human body is 24 milligrams.