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UW-Milwaukee Experiments with "Greener" Grass

S Bence

People are accustomed to seeing UW-Milwaukee's 23 acres of lawn lush and weed-free. This year, UWM eliminated any use of chemicals on its Kentucky Bluegrass.

“There was internal and external concerns about our lawn care; people who thought they might be affected individually, or their children or their pets,” UWM's Chief Sustainability Officer Kate Nelson says. "So my vice chancellor asked that it be brought to our physical environment committee."

Nelson did one of the things she does best – a side by side comparison, in this case comparing traditional and natural lawn care. “[It examined] the different environmental impacts, economic impacts and, essentially, the communication plan and what that means, and that you might see a dandelion,” Nelson says.

The new regime includes aeration. “There’s a machine that rolls across the grass that actually pulls two- inch plugs,” Nelson explains.

The idea is to deliver oxygen down to the microbes. Then seeding follows. “We want to grow really full grass, that’s the preventative measure, is deep-rooted thick grass,” Nelson says.

She doesn’t want to give weeds any opportunity to rear their unwanted little heads.

Nelson admits she still hasn’t quite gotten over the final, and most recent, element of the natural management plan – compost application.

“Laying 1/8 of an inch of compost on 23 acres. It just finished, it took us about two weeks. You would have seen a series of 300,000 cubic yards of compost coming on campus,” Nelson says.

That was 30 dump trucks worth. There’s zero lingering smell in the air. That comment, Nelson says, illustrates a common misconception.

“It’s fully-processed compost – it’s complete. Most people imagine it’s manure, it’s not; there’s no poop on our lawn,” Nelson says.

Credit S Bence
A bit of organic compost can be seen working its way into UWM's lawn.

You have to look hard to find evidence that the compost is there at all. According the Nelson, that means it’s working; it’s doing its job to raise healthy grass.

Nelson says as important as being environmentally-friendly is, is weighing how much the new methods impact UWM’s grounds crew. The old method required zero staff time.

“This is a whole different labor process. The pesticides and herbicides were contracted out three times a year. So that wasn’t the onus of our grounds department. This is completely their work – they do the aeration, they do the overseeding,” Nelson says.

Nelson says it will be several years before UWM can prove the natural approach is worth its labor.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is keenly interested. Nelson says a proposed study could reveal useful information.

“We’re basing it on a theory that natural lawn care holds perhaps up to five times more water than traditional lawn care. MMSD is thinking of this as a new plan for green infrastructure, just very simple lawn practices being better for water retention,” Nelson says.

Credit S Bence
This soggy area will soon be remediated through a series of native plants and large boulders that will slow down and soak up storm water before ending in a "garden watering" cistern.

Nelson already proved the merits of another storm water project, that is about to break ground. She points toward a UWM dormitory.

“The slope goes down toward Sandburg and is this sort of muddy, sometimes a stream in the springtime, will be a series of native plants and large boulders will hold back the water….and then eventually move down to anunderground modular cistern to collect the water, and we’ll have a pump to pull the water out and water our gardens with,” Nelson says.

The gardens have become a fixture on campus. Not only does its food service share the raised bed system, it also harvests from rooftop gardens.

“There are probably pumpkins up there right now. When we did our sustainability analysis, we found that 14 percent of our food is either locally sourced, organic or fair trade,” Nelson says.

Nelson says over her seven-year tenure, the gardens have drawn more student interest than any other sustainable project. Some have their own plots.

One of her next proposed projects it to grow hops along a parking structure. Her strategy could blend food growing with course opportunities.

“Because there’s a new fermentation coming here to UWM that’s a multidisciplinary endeavor, for brewing,” Nelson says.

For now, Nelson will likely keep her nose to the ground, as she monitors UWM’s naturally maintained grass.

Credit S Bence
Kate Nelson in campus garden next to student dorm.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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