I wrote a while back about a forthcoming lawn education program at the National Arboretum financed entirely by the turf industry. (Scroll down here to see the funders). Well, it’s now a reality, with the official ground-breaking event last week, and I’m more concerned than ever. Though I’m a big fan of the Arboretum (I even volunteer there) and they need financial support from somewhere, I think it’s important to nudge them to make their “Grass Roots Initiative” serve not just the turf industry but also the cause of promoting responsible lawn care.
The four-year $400,000 program is comprised of an exhibit in a very visible spot at the Arboretum, a website, workshops, demonstrations, and more. The website’s listing of the goals of the program are the first red flag and indication that public input is needed:
What are the goals of Grass Roots? Increase awareness of the importance of turfgrass and lawns to society and the environment. Demonstrate new technologies within the turfgrass industry that improve maintenance practices and efficiencies. Review and update national research priorities for turfgrass. Bring together policymakers and others interested in regulatory issues that impact the turfgrass industry.
Now I’m fine with their touting the benefits of lawn, especially compared to, say, asphalt. Lawn isn’t the terrible-awful-bad thing that some folks make it out to be, at least in regions with adequate rainfall. But I urge the Arboretum to use this prominent campaign to move the public toward smart, Bay-friendly fertilizing practices, more tolerance for diversity (“weeds”), and awareness of new seed mixes that require less water and mowing.
Instead, the website includes Mythbusters: The Truth about Turfgrass, which contains language you expect from an industry lobby group, not a scientific institution like the Arboretum. The very first “myth” listed is about lawn fertilizers polluting the Chesapeake Bay, countered with the lame defense that agriculture is way worse than turfgrass when it comes to polluting the Bay – with nitrogen. That’s disingenuous at best, considering that that nitrogen isn’t the primary cause of pollution at all. The worst offender is phosphorus , which has recently been banned from lawn fertilizers sold in Maryland.
The website does include this link to EPA’s info about environmentally friendly lawn and garden practices, and the video about lawn fertilizers actually says: “If you fertilize this [a lawn], a lot of it would probably wash off into [the nearby creek]. One of the studies shows that there’s more pollution from fertilizers from homeowners’ lawns than there is from agriculture.” Also, “Fertilizers can harm the environment because they can create a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus run-offs into the Bay.”
So that’s the website, which I’m told will have much more on it eventually, and there will be signage at the outdoor demonstration site, which had its ground-breaking ceremony last week. Some garden writers received invitations to the event but not me – I heard about it accidentally. Reporter/garden writer attendees were David Ellis, editor of American Gardener magazine, and myself.
So here’s what I heard from the speakers at the kick-off event: “Environment, environment, peer-reviewed, science, science, science-based!” Everything in the program will be scientifically vetted because after all, the slogan at the Arboretum is “Where science meets beauty.” So, who’s doing the vetting? The turfgrass division of the Crop Science Society of America. I wonder if how familiar they are with urban soil issues.
On the bright side, the outdoor exhibit will include not just sports fields, lawn games and golf, but a green roof, a rain garden, “responsible” fertilization practices, and proper water use and re-use techniques. In fact, the designers doing this demonstration site (pro bono) specialize in stormwater management.
Another positive note is that one Arboretum staffer (Nancy Luria) encouraged David and me to submit suggestions to the director of this project about what we’d like it to include, so let’s do it! Let’s be pro-active and suggest ways to make this grass-education project in a prominent spot, with the imprimatur of the USDA, as good as possible. Email the project director (email on that link) but if you do, please also post it here in a comment (or later today on the Lawn Reform Coalition site – link to come) so that it’s public.
My one big suggestion is that rather than re-inventing the wheel, the project simply follow the lawn recommendations already provided by experts within the federation government – at the EPA and elsewhere. Maryland’s Home and Garden Information Center also has good science-based advice.
by Susan Harris