Grass and Turf Introduction

The History of Grasses and Turf

Turf - AthmarThere are nearly 10,000 species of grasses belonging to the family Poacea.  Grasses have existed for millions of years, providing food in the form of grains, pastureland for grazing animals, and shelter for animals and humans alike.  Bamboo, corn, and rice are a few examples of the many types of cultivated grasses.  The ability of grass to survive and adapt to very diverse cultural conditions has resulted in a plant that is found worldwide from lush rain forests to dry deserts[1].

Although grasses continue to have tremendous agricultural value, the Middle Ages saw the advent of lawns in Europe.  The cool, damp climate of western European countries made them ideally suited for growing lawns and lawns became a status symbol since only the wealthy could afford the labor required to maintain them.  Grass, in the form of lawns, continues to be used for ornamental and recreational purposes.  

Lawns in North America

It wasn't until the industrial revolution that lawns became practical for most Americans… green, weed-free lawns so common today didn't exist in America until the late 18th century. Instead, the area just outside the front door of a typical rural home was typically packed dirt or perhaps a cottage garden that contained a mix of flowers, herbs, and vegetables.

Americans with enough money to travel overseas returned with images of the English lawn firmly planted in their imaginations. By 1915, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was collaborating with the U.S. Golf Association to find the right grass—or combination of grasses—that would create a durable, attractive lawn suitable to the variety of climates found in America.  Fifteen years later, the USDA had discovered several grass combinations that would work in our climate. Before long Americans were off and running, to find the most suitable pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that would protect and serve newly blended mix of grasses. 

The right grass and the right treatments weren't the only problems facing homeowners wanting the perfect lawn, however. There was also the challenge of providing sufficient water to keep the grass green in summer. It wasn't easy hauling a bucket of water out to the yard during the summer droughts. Cutting the grass was a challenge, as well. English lawns were trimmed with scythes, an expensive process that required a certain amount of finesse, or by grazing livestock on the greens.

Mechanical mowing came about early in the 19th century and there is a general agreement that an Englishman, Edwin Budding, an engineer at a textile mill, developed a cylinder, or reel-type mower.  In 1870, Elwood McGuire of Richmond, Indiana designed a machine that basically brought push mowing to the masses. By 1885, America was building 50,000 lawnmowers a year and shipping them to every country on the globe.

Grasses for the Masses

For the average American, the invention of the garden hose and the rotary mower made the lawn a more realistic option. Until then, lawns were just too much bother for most families. When most of the necessary tools and types of grass seeds became readily available, the average homeowner was now able to grow a lawn of their own if they wanted. As of yet, there wasn't a real big demand for green lawns in the front yard. It wasn't until The American Garden Club stepped in. Through contests and other forms of publicity, they convinced home owners that it was their civic duty to maintain a beautiful and healthy lawn. So effective was the club's campaign that lawns were soon the accepted form of landscaping. The garden club further stipulated that the appropriate type of lawn was "a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged." America thus entered the age of lawn care.

Today, U.S. homeowners spend over $17 billion on outdoor home improvements. More than 26 million households hired a green professional, according to a 2000 Gallup survey and this number is expected to grow.[2]

Turf Types[3]

FL turf testing siteAlthough there are thousands of varieties of turf grass, turf grass typically falls into one of two categories: either warm season turf grass or cool season turf grass.  As the name implies, warm season grasses begin to grow as the weather warms in the spring and continue to grow through the hot summer months.  Warm season grasses tolerate high summer temperatures and are more tolerant of drought than most cool season grasses.  They are typically intolerant of shade and will often succumb to winter temperatures lower than 0° F. These grasses begin to go dormant with shorter days and cooler temperatures, typically turning brown in the winter.  Zoysiagrass, Buffalo grass, and Centipede grass are examples of warm season grass. 

Kentucky bluegrass, a cool season grass, is widely used and highly valued as a turf grass.  Short periods of dormancy, the ability to recover from drought, uniform appearance, dense growth, and the ability to tolerate a wide variety of mowing heights are just a few of the characteristics that make it so desirable as a turf grass.  Cool season grasses grow best during the cool weather of spring and fall and require considerable irrigation to prevent them from going dormant during the hot summer months.  Fescue and ryegrass are other examples of cool season grass – these grasses are more tolerant of shade then warm season grasses.

Environmental Concerns

In 2003, Cristina Milesi, a graduate student at the University of Montana and now a researcher at NASA, used satellite imagery, census data and aerial photographs to estimate the total area of turf grass in the contiguous 48 states.  Milesi maintains that lawns are our biggest crop, covering an area three times that of corn. She estimates that golf courses and residential and commercial lawns cover a surface area of 128,000 km2 (49,421 square miles) or three times the acreage devoted to irrigate corn, making it the single largest irrigated crop in the United States[4].

Turf - HampdThe widespread use of turf grasses has lead to a number of environmental concerns.  As previously mentioned, Kentucky bluegrass has numerous characteristics that make it the turf grass of choice.  Unfortunately, many of the places where this turf grass is grown are too hot to prevent it from going dormant in the summer without the application of considerable amounts of water.  In peak summer months as much as 50% of the water provided by a utility may be used to maintain turf grass lawns, golf courses, and playing fields.  In addition to supplemental water, turf grasses (particularly cool season turf grasses) require the use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to maintain their vigor.  The use of supplemental irrigation, often in excess, means that many of these products run off and contaminate nearby lakes, streams, ponds, and even drinking water supplies.  Run off from fertilizers has been blamed for excess growth of algae and aquatic plants in lakes and coastal regions.

Turf grasses are typically monocultures – in other words they consist of a single species, a species often not native to the area where they are planted.  Monocultures are more likely to succumb to disease and infestations of a particular organism and can result in a decrease in biodiversity. 

One of the desirable effects of a monoculture is its uniformity, which with turf grass, is maintained by gasoline driven lawnmowers.  A study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that older mowers contributed as much as 5 percent of the smog in some urban areas.[5]

Benefits of Turf-grass Lawns[6]

Turf - SchlessmanWell-maintained turf provides considerable cooling effect; the turf from as few as eight average front lawns can provide cooling equivalent to air-conditioning for 18 homes.  Parks, golf courses, and playing fields benefit from the effects of cooling as well and the cushioning effect from well-maintained turf reduces injuries that can occur on harder playing surfaces.

Turf is very effective at absorbing precipitation and reducing runoff and erosion of topsoil.  The massive root system and supporting microbes of healthy turf serves to filter and breakdown many pollutants before they enter underlying aquifers.

Lawns have long been considered central to the a beautiful American landscape; their value for promoting health and relaxation is well understood and commonly used by hospitals to decrease recovery time for patients and by corporations to improve the well-being of employees.  Homeowners know the value of lawns in increasing the resale value of their homes.  



[1] Poaceae. Plant Families. Wikipedia. Accessed July 30, 2008.

[2] The History of Lawns in America. American-Lawns. Source: The Lawn by Virginia Scott Jenkins. Accessed July 30, 2008.

[3] Georgia Turf. Georgia Turfgrasses. Accessed July 30, 2008.

[4] Looking for Lawns. Rebecca Lindsay. Earth Observatory. NASA. Accessed July 30, 2008.

[5] Lawn. Criticisms. Wikipedia. Accessed July 30, 2008.

[6] American-Lawns. Benefits of a well-maintained healthy lawn and landscape. Accessed July 30, 2008.