Rethinking Natural Grass for Sports & Leisure

It takes a variety of interventions — from planting and irrigation to chemical inputs and resource-intensive maintenance — to keep up a natural grass field.

Rethinking Natural Grass for Sports & Leisure

For some, there is nothing more inviting than lush, natural grass. It’s a great surface for playing outdoor sports or simply sitting around and enjoying a picnic. But what we don’t necessarily see is all the work and resources that go into keeping that healthy, green look and feel. It takes a variety of extreme interventions — from planting and irrigation to chemical inputs and resource-intensive maintenance — to keep up a natural grass field, so much so that we question whether it should still be called natural grass.

Natural Grass Fields Are Planted

It’s easy to look at a football field or park lawn and think how natural the grass looks. But the truth is that it’s planned and constructed – quite unnatural to the environment. It’s even become popular to add paint to a natural grass athletic field to enhance the green color.

Sports fields are usually cultivated from a variety of grass seeds including Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and tall fescue, among others. In most cases, these grasses are not native to the local environment. Nonnative species of grass can spread beyond the perimeter of the intended playing surface, invading nearby landscapes and causing imbalances in the local ecosystem. Nonnative grasses may also require extra irrigation and fertilizers. Moreover, it can take up to 18 months to establish the type of grass growth that can withstand sports activities. Right from the start, it’s an extraordinary effort.

Irrigation Is Necessary

One of the more striking things about a natural grass field is how uniformly green it looks. While it’s quite beautiful, it takes a lot of water resources to achieve and maintain this consistency. Natural grass fields have to be watered regularly and, in some cases, irrigated to supply water consistently and evenly, so the grass can grow lush and green. Those irrigation systems are complex — underground plumbing systems, watering zones, timed cycles — and expensive.

All that pales in comparison to the amount of water needed to keep a natural grass field playable, which is around 500,000 to 1,000,000 gallons annually. Even in areas with ample water resources, that’s still a significant amount of water. In areas with drought and water scarcity, communities have to make a tough decision between conserving water and not watering their athletic fields. Saving water is the logical choice, which can unfortunately leave people without a space to play, or with poorly maintained, potentially unsafe natural grass fields.

Chemicals Are Required

In order for grasses to grow well and stay healthy, they need added chemical intervention in the form of fertilizers and pesticides. Fertilizers supply the grass with essential nutrients that help optimize their growth. Pesticides are used as a defense against environmental threats like insects, invasive weeds and fungi. It’s worth noting that nonnative grasses can be particularly sensitive to local blights and insects and require even more fertilizers and pesticides, as they haven’t evolved the natural defenses that native grasses have.

In addition to monetary costs, fertilizers and pesticides carry an environmental cost. Fertilizers and pesticides contain PFAS and other chemicals that can leech out into the local ecosystem and water supply. This can be harmful to local plants, animals, and even humans. Additionally, fertilizers typically contain nitrogen. As they break down, they create nitrous oxide — a potent greenhouse gas.

Maintenance Is a Must

It’s a good thing when a natural grass field starts to grow in lush and green, but it also means there’s work to be done. Natural grass fields require extensive mowing, weeding, edging and more to get that pristine manicured look. It’s not something your neighbourhood lawn boy (or girl) can pull off either. It takes the work of a professional landscaping crew and industrial equipment to maintain an athletic field or public park.

Gas-powered equipment is often used in the maintenance process which comes with a host of environmental and health concerns. First, the gas itself is a fossil fuel which is a non-renewable resource that generates volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including carbon dioxide (CO2). Most gas-powered mowing and maintenance equipment also have simple, inefficient engines — just one hour of mowing is the equivalent of driving a new car for 45 miles! The EPA also estimates that up to 17 million gallons of gas is spilled each year when filling up lawn equipment. For perspective, that’s more gas spilled per year than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

In addition to air pollution and environmental health, the workers who use this equipment are also at risk from the amount of VOCs they’re inhaling on the job. This exposure can lead to acute and long-term health problems.

After All That, Is It Really Natural?

A natural grass surface is a designed space. It has to be planned, carefully constructed, and meticulously maintained. It doesn’t just happen naturally. Instead, a team of professionals is behind everything that goes into it. At that rate, it might be worth rethinking the label of “natural” grass in general. Because when you get down to it, it’s anything but a natural process. It takes a lot of time, money and precious natural resources that we’d like to conserve for other uses.

That’s where artificial turf has a host of advantages. After installation, it’s a playing surface that requires minimal maintenance and offers maximum, year-round playability. Communities can save precious water and fuel resources by installing artificial turf instead of a natural grass, while avoiding exposing their local environment to excess fertilizers and pesticides. So even though artificial turf isn’t natural by definition, it offers maintenance cost savings, resource conservation and environmental protection. And that’s a triple-win that many people are looking for.