Pollinator-Friendly Lawns: Flowers or No Flowers?

April 28, 2013

TURF is a $25 BILLION USA INDUSTRY, said Nastaran Tofangsazi of the University of Florida (Apopka, FL), a sex pheromone researcher looking to complement biocontrols like beneficial Beauveria bassiana fungi and Steinernema carpocapsae nematodes to control the browning and uneven grass growth caused by tropical sod webworm (Herpetogramma phaeopteralis) in Florida’s $9 billion worth of turfgrass. Also at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting, Auburn University’s R. Murphey Coy noted that the USA’s 164,000 km2 (63,320 square miles) of turf is the USA’s most irrigated crop. Turfgrass irrigation consumes 300% more water than corn; plus 4.5 pounds (2 kg) of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet (93 m2).

Alabama is among the top USA turfgrass-producing states, and Auburn University researchers are looking to reduce turfgrass water, nitrogen and iron inputs by colonizing grass seeds and roots with easy to apply sprays of plant growth promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR). Blends of PGPR species such as Bacillus firmis, Pseudomonas and Rhizobium in turfgrass and cotton induce systemic resistance to pestiferous Fusarium fungi and triple parasitic wasp biocontrol of the caterpillar larvae of moth pests like fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda).

Not everyone is a fan of turfgrass lawns, and before the modern chemical era lawns were more like fragrant flowery meadows. “Agricultural experts and agribusiness are bound by the idea that even land that has lost its natural vitality can still produce crops with the addition of petroleum energy, agricultural chemicals, and water…considering this form of agriculture to be advanced,” wrote Japanese agriculturist and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka in the book, Sowing Seeds in the Desert (edited by Larry Korn).

“When I suggested that it would be a good idea to plant fruit trees to line the streets in towns and cities and to grow vegetables instead of lawns and annual flowers, so that when the townspeople were taking a walk, they could pick and eat the fruit from the roadside, people were surprisingly enthusiastic,” said Fukuoka. “When I suggested that it would be good to scatter the seeds of clover and daikon on the existing lawns so that in two or three years the clover would overcome the lawn and the daikon would take root amid the ground cover, interestingly, it was the Asian people and Asian-Americans who said they would try it right away. Most Americans would just laugh and agree with the theory, but they were cautious about putting it into practice. The reason, I believe, is that it would challenge their adherence to ‘lawn’ culture. If they cannot overcome this prejudice, there will be a limit to the growth of family gardens in the United States.”

“It seems that the main goal in the life of the average American is to save money, live in the country in a big house surrounded by large trees, and enjoy a carefully manicured lawn,” wrote Fukuoka. “It would be a further source of pride to raise a few horses. Everywhere I went I preached the abolition of lawn culture, saying that it was an imitation green created for human beings at the expense of nature and was nothing more than a remnant of the arrogant aristocratic culture of Europe…Because residential lots are large in the United States, a family vegetable garden can provide for all the food needs of a typical family, if they are willing to do the work. In Japan, a residential lot about a quarter acre would be enough to allow near self-sufficiency and provide a healthy living environment, but I learned—to my envy—that in many suburban and rural areas of the United States, people are not allowed to build houses on small lots.”

On closer inspection, modern American lawns are more often a biodiverse mixture of turfgrass and flowering plants like clover and dandelions. Kentucky bluegrass lawns may be 30% white clover, which favors native pollinators like bumblebees. Clover and dandelion flowers attract honey bees, bumble bees, parasitic wasps that kill pests, hover flies (syrphids) that eat aphids, and carnivorous rove and ground beetles eating snails, slugs, caterpillars and other pests. Nonetheless, tons of herbicides go onto USA lawns to eradicate clover and dandelions as weeds, often as part of fertilizer and insecticide mixtures.

Turf biodiversity is all well and good, but only as long as the clover and dandelion flower nectar is pure and uncontaminated by pesticide cocktails. Lawns laden with clover and dandelion flowers provide bees and beneficial insects with “a big gulp of nectar,” the University of Kentucky’s Jonathan Larson told the ESA annual meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee. When those “big gulps of nectar” are laced with certain neonicotinoid pesticides, the effects can ripple through the ecological food chain.

When turfgrass pesticide labels say, ‘Don’t treat flower heads,’ “Follow the label to the letter of the law” to avoid poisoning pollinators, said Larson. Or get rid of the flowering plants in the lawn by mowing the turf before spraying. Or delay pesticide sprays until after clovers, dandelions and other lawn flowers have finished flowering. Clover control in lawns using herbicides is difficult, and usually not feasible, Larson told the ESA. Hence, mowing is the preferred strategy for removing flowering lawn weeds before spraying pesticides.

In enclosure experiments with tents confining bees in the turf, mowing the turf before pesticide treatment mitigated the problem, resulting in more bees and more honey. In 2012, bees were tented on clothianidin-treated turf for 6 days and then moved for 6 weeks to a Lexington, Kentucky, horse ranch with unsprayed turf. Clothianidin reduced the rate of bumble bee weight gain, but at the end of 6 weeks the bees were starting to catch-up. But overall, the 6-day pesticide exposure still resulted in reduced bumble bee weight gain, less foraging and reduced queen and hive reproduction several weeks later. Chlorantraniliprole, which has a different mode of action (muscular), did not produce these adverse effects. Larson also told the ESA that clothianidin, a widely used neonicotinoid turf pesticide, also reduces decomposers (detritivores) like soil-dwelling earthworms and springtails more than chlorantraniliprole.

Besides supporting more soil life, more biocontrol organisms, and healthier crops of pollinating bees, you get a healthier turfgrass lawn if you do not need pesticides and do not have to mow so often. “Mowing height is an easily manipulated cultural practice that can have an impact on ecological conditions,” Samantha Marksbury from the University of Kentucky, Lexington, told the ESA. “Taller grass usually supports a more diverse ecosystem and increases natural enemies. Increasing cutting height stimulated deeper roots, yielding a healthier turf with less need for insecticide. Higher mowing height decreases need for irrigation and the canopy prevents water loss.”

Taller turf (raised mowing height) also tends to be more robust and more tolerant of white grubs. Nevertheless, about 75% of turf is lush residential monocultures (mostly one grass species) that is heavily fertilized, dosed with chemical herbicides and frequently mowed, Emily Dobbs of the University of Kentucky, Lexington, told the ESA. However, the ecology of grass cutting or mowing gets quite complex and has seasonal variations. In May, turf with a low mowing height (2.5 inches; 6.4 cm) was hotter, drier, and had the most predatory ground beetles, rove beetles and spiders. Later in the season and Sept/Oct, turf with a higher mowing height (4 inches; 10.2 cm) was cooler, wetter, and had the most predators.

Historically, in the Middle Ages in England, going back many centuries (even before Chaucer) before the age of chemical farming and gardening, lawns were “flowery meads” with roses, violets, periwinkles, primroses, daisies, gillyflowers and other colorful, fragrant flowers interplanted right into the turf. The idea of planting a lawn with one species of grass made no sense, though a camomile lawn or plot came into being for infirmary gardens in England after 1265, as this medicinal aromatic plant helped other plants growing nearby in poor soils and grew faster the more it was trodden.

“There were no flower-beds of the sort familiar to us,” wrote Teresa McLean in her 1981 book, Medieval English Gardens. “The simplest type of flower garden was the flowery mead, wherein low-growing flowers were planted in turf lawns, sometimes walled, sometimes left open, to make a beautiful domestic meadow. The flowery mead was the locus amoenus of God’s beautiful world.”

“Trees were often planted in raised turf mounds, surrounded by wattle fences, which doubled as seats,” wrote McLean. “Medieval lawns, unlike modern ones, were luxuriously long, and full of flowers and herbs; they were fragrant carpets to be walked, danced, sat and lain upon. What modern lawn could find a poet to write about it as Chaucer wrote about the one in the Legend of Good Women?

Upon the small, soft, sweet grass,
That was with flowers sweet embroidered all,
Of such sweetness, and such odour overall…”


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