By refugelawn, on 11/05/2021
By Drs. Edicarlos de Castro and Jay McCurdy, Mississippi State University
Turfgrass occupies an estimated 40 to 50 million acres in the United States, approximately 40% of which is maintained lawn around homes, places of business, and institutions. There are numerous environmental and societal benefits of turfgrass in the human built environment, and the turfgrass industry contributes billions of dollars to the country’s economy each year. However, maintained turfgrass often lacks species richness to support insect pollinators, and residential properties offer poor nesting and habitat sites that are highly segmented.
An interdisciplinary group of turfgrass scientists has partnered on the Pollinator Friendly Lawns in the Southeastern United States project ($493,000), funded by the United States Department of Agriculture–National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA–NIFA). This project seeks to enhance lawn attractiveness and function for pollinating and other beneficial insects through the inclusion of flowering plant species and development of best management practices (BMPs).
Principle investigators met with industry advisers on October 8, 2021 to discuss scientific and Extension viewpoints regarding pollinator-friendly lawns and stakeholder acceptance.
- Jay McCurdy, Mississippi State University
- Edicarlos de Castro, Mississippi State University
- David Held, Auburn University
- Gerald Henry, University of Georgia
Advisors in Attendance
- Tim Ray, Extension Agent II, Harrison County, Mississippi State University
- Felder Rushing, Radio Host and Meadow Lawn Advocate, Mississippi
- Danesha Seth Carley, Associate Professor, Horticultural Science, North Carolina State University, and Director of the NC State NSF Center for Integrated Pest Management
- Jim Crockett, Nufarm US Turf and Ornamental, Regional Sales Manager
“It is important to slowly change the mindset of American lawn people from preferring a high-maintenance horticultural lawn to lawn that includes pretty flowers and pollinators in different seasons,” says Felder Rushing who is a renowned speaker, writer, urban horticulturist, and FlowerLawn advocate. He believes that, to succeed, the project must focus on biodiverse turfgrass-forb systems that work well in our region (the Southeast) and can be easily replicated throughout the country. Felder and others raise an interesting point: stakeholders may be slow to accept conversions of their entire lawn, so the focus has to start with the conversion of “pockets” or just the side or back lawn. Jim Crockett, who provides technical training for lawncare professionals, calls this a “lawn with a purpose.” Jim’s expertise and connection to the professional lawn care industry will be helpful in developing long-term strategies for lawn diversity in the green industry.
“We can use small areas of lawns and make them diverse, maybe starting with buffer strips or areas along fences, so we will create a less fragmented suburban environment and increase pollinator habits,” says Jay McCurdy. According to Jim Crockett, Refuge Lawn must help create a structured landscape, perhaps with maintained monoculture turfgrass, alongside a biodiverse flower lawn in the transition between turfgrass and ornamentals or property borders. “Much like a golf course rough,” says Danesha Seth Carley, who advised Pinehurst during their renovations to restore native habitats. “The concept of a fairway, intermediate rough, and tall-grass rough is analogous,” says Gerald Henry.
David Held raises an important question: “How do we change the diversity of lawn settings and add value in these scenarios?” According to David, “we must create an ecosystem that produces quality forage and habitats for bees, not just pretty flowers. We must ensure that the plants and the new management strategy we are promoting will benefit pollinators, homeowners, and the green industry.” This requires a shift in societal goals within the built environment. Defining this new aesthetic will require stakeholder input. Danesha believes that, to achieve these goals, “it’s necessary to evaluate the impact of turfgrass species and common cultural practices” on forb establishment, persistence, effects on pollinator visits, and maintenance costs. Tim Ray, an Extension Agent at Mississippi University, says, “Its necessary to understand the influence of age on how people maintain their lawns. Younger generations may be more interested in environmental issues than older generations.” For these reasons, understanding human behavior and attitudes towards biodiverse lawns will be an important factor impacting whether the BMPs developed by the project will achieve public acceptance.
A significant yet largely unquantified percentage of home lawns are maintained by lawn care professionals. For this reason, it is also necessary to gauge the attitudes of the professionals and companies that make up this sector. As an expert in the green industry, Jim adds, “the theory and philosophy of lawn maintenance companies in terms of pesticide use are changing. They’re decreasing the amount of applied pesticides and improving product formulation to increase safety and efficacy, and companies have been working to develop natural products.” What role these products may play in a diversified, mixed stand of forb and turfgrass species is largely unstudied. Society is willing to change; for an example, we need look no further than developments in plant varieties and ornamental species added to home lawns. Jim points out, “in the past, plant breeders have bred plants and flowers for appearance: for their size, color, and so on. However, they have now returned to breeding for resource quality (pollen and forage).”
Less than a year into this project, we have had numerous interactions with stakeholders interested in the project; most stakeholders have responded positively, but some, mainly professional lawn care operators, have questioned the project’s objectives. One asked, “So you’re telling LCOs [lawn care operators] not to spray preemergence herbicides and not to mow?” and pointed out that this contradicts standard recommendations for weed management within lawns. Another questioned whether the project objectives are an appropriate use of university and taxpayer resources. A challenging part of Extension- and university-led turfgrass research is the dichotomy separating stakeholder groups (e.g., homeowner vs. professional; monoculture vs. “mow-what-grows”). This project seeks to bridge these gaps and help to maintain an economically viable professional industry while at the same time answering the need for biodiverse alternative lawns.
Throughout the project, it will be important to gauge stakeholders’ receptiveness to alternative and biodiverse turfgrass systems. Gerald says, “We need to understand stakeholder motivation. If we can’t understand it, it will be impossible to approach stakeholders with changes.” To overcome this problem, the project will create demonstration sites (i.e., “species islands”) to measure stakeholder preference, where lawn care professionals and homeowners can choose between biodiverse and monoculture turfgrass and even among individual forb species. According to David, the investigators eventually hope to identify species that provide a “flowering sequence that can cover all seasons and [can be] established within warm-season grass systems.” Danesha’s experience in sustainable landscapes is key to understanding the needs of stakeholders and practitioners in this project. Along with her staff at the Southern Region Pest Management Center, she has offered to help develop surveys to address stakeholder preferences.
On encouraging and promoting biodiverse turfgrass lawns, Felder is working on signage proclaiming “Flower Lawn of the Month” and advocates for a matching social media hashtag (e.g., #FlowerLawn). Among many other ideas, the investigators hope to incorporate BMPs into Master Gardener training, BMP documents, and on the project website: RefugeLawn.com.
The project will also disseminate findings through an Extension program delivered by specialists and county agents throughout the Southeast. This Extension program will include field days, small-group trainings and webinars, publications, and other outreach activities (e.g., Master Gardener meetings, regional and national stakeholder meetings, etc.).
Finally, a dominant theme of the discussion centered around stakeholder adoption of BMPs. Although the project is new, investigators and advisors are certain that flowering forbs can be included in maintained lawns. According to Jay McCurdy, the questions “What will that look like?” and “How will it integrate into the common lawn culture of the southeastern US?” remain. All present agreed on the ideas that BMPs must be easily adopted and practical across a highly diverse range of turfgrass landscapes.