Turfgrass Deemed Largest ‘Crop’ in Chesapeake Bay Watershed

June 30, 2010 in Extension

A recently released report from the Chesapeake Stormwater Network entitled The Clipping Point: Turf Cover Estimates for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Management Implications, indicates that turfgrass may be the largest single ‘crop’ in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, exceeding total individual acreage for row crops, pastures, or forages. Although the report has not been published in a peer-review journal yet, it is being circulated and reported on by various news outlets, including The Washington Post, Chesapeake Bay Journal, and Lancaster Farming.
The author of the report, Tom Schueler, used three methods (GIS, coarse-resolution satellite-derived equations, and turf industry surveys) to assess the extent of turf cover between 2000 and 2005 in the Bay watershed. Schueler found that 2.1 to 3.8 million acres (or 5.3 to 9.5% of the total Bay watershed) was in turfgrass, with approximately 75% of cover devoted to home lawns. He predicted that turfgrass acreage will grow as the population increases by 2 million people over the next twenty years.

This report raises some important issues for Bay stakeholders. First, turfgrass is becoming an increasingly important part of the region’s economy. Schueler estimated that over 50,000 individuals in the Bay region make their living tending turfgrasses; thus, turf care is an important source of jobs. Professional turf managers and some 6.8 million homeowners (or “grass farmers” as Schueler calls them) collectively spend over 4 billion dollars a year on their lawns, purchasing everything from seed to fertilizer to lawn mowers. Well-maintained lawns also increase home and property value. Data compiled by the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association show that a well landscaped home can increase the resale value of a property by as much as 14%.

Although the lawn care industry offers an economic boost to the region, and well-maintained lawns are known to increase property value, professional and amateur grass farmers have to be aware of the environmental implications of management practices used to maintain lawns. In most cases, research has shown that turfgrasses are effective in absorbing storm water and reducing sediment loading in urban/suburban environments. However, when not used properly, fertilizers (especially phosphorus) can contribute to nutrient loading in surface waters.

In response to President Obama’s new Executive Order to reduce nutrient loading into the Chesapeake Bay, turfgrass researchers and extension personnel from Penn State and other universities will be developing research initiatives and education programs to promote best management practices (BMPs) for home lawns, golf courses, institutional grounds, and other turfgrass areas in the Bay watershed. The goal of these programs will be to maintain healthy, functional turf, while reducing nutrient loading into the Chesapeake Bay.

Some common sense practices to consider when fertilizing lawns are:

1. Get your soil tested. Soil tests are the only way to determine how much phosphorus, potassium, and lime your lawn needs. Do not apply more fertilizer than is needed as this may harm the turf and contribute to fertilizer leaching and runoff.

2. Apply fertilizer in one, two, or in some cases, three separate applications over the growing season so as to meet the needs of your turf at the appropriate time of the year (mid to late spring, late summer, and late fall).

3. Returning clippings to lawns can cut nitrogen fertilizer use by up to one-third.

4. Keep fertilizer on the lawn, not on pavement. Shut off your spreader when moving across driveways or maintenance roads, and blow or sweep granules from pavement onto the turf. In small lawns enclosed by sidewalks and driveways, use a drop spreader for greater accuracy.

5. Do not apply fertilizer to lawns under summer dormancy or on frozen surfaces in winter.

6. Fill and empty fertilizer spreaders in an area where spills can be easily cleaned up. Use your spilled fertilizer; don’t wash it into the street or storm drains.

Peter Landschoot, Prof. Turfgrass Science