Campus Grass Is Greener without Herbicides

NAU Green Fund Funds Landscape Sustainability Project

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The Sustainable Landscape Maintenance Project is bringing NAU closer to reaching its sustainability goals, while providing students with hands-on research experience. Photo: Michelle Palumbo.

As you walk on the sidewalk that leads to the Eastburn Education Center at Northern Arizona University (NAU), you will notice grass on both sides. At first glance, both patches of grass may seem the same; but as you look closer, you will notice very distinct, striking differences. On one side of the sidewalk, the grass is a lush, deep green and has full growth; on the other side, the grass is anemic looking—short and very light green with stray patches of yellow.  Why the difference?  You are seeing the results of an experiment that is part of the Sustainable Landscape Maintenance Project. The side with rich, full grass is managed without herbicides by student interns, whereas the other side is managed with herbicides by the NAU Grounds Department.

The Sustainable Landscape Maintenance Project, which began in the 2010-2011 academic year, is a student-run project—managed, conducted, and even funded by NAU students through the NAU Green Fund—with the involvement and support of the NAU Grounds Department. Since January 2011, 16 students have contributed to the project. “I really admire the way the students have stepped in to influence the course of sustainability on campus,” said Gazda.

Project Goals

The goals of the research project are to discover how to manage healthy, attractive lawns at NAU without the use of herbicides and to persuade NAU to integrate the most successful herbicide-free practices into daily campus operations. “We’re trying to work with nature and with natural processes, rather than trying to dominate nature with toxins,” said Paul Gazda, project facilitator and a member of NAU’s Informational Technology Services staff. “It’s about trying different approaches to figure out what is effective and affordable.”

The student-run Green Fund, granted $34,000 toward the project. That money has covered student intern salaries, soil analyses costs, and research supplies, such as corn gluten, sulfur, grass seeds, organic mulch, and weeding tools. “If it wasn’t for the Green Fund, the project wouldn’t exist,” said Gazda. 

Making a transition to sustainable landscaping is important because herbicide use can cause health and environmental problems. Health effects linked to herbicide exposure include birth defects, cancer, and disruption of endocrine systems. “Most people on campus do not realize the risks that come with herbicide use. We can inform people of these risks as much as we can, but until herbicide use is stopped, we are still all in harm’s way from these chemicals,” said Alyssa Vogan, former research intern and 2012 environmental science graduate.  According to data provided by the NAU Grounds Department, in 2011, NAU used nearly 12,000 gallons of herbicides.

Project Design

Since no previous research has been recorded on herbicide use on the Flagstaff Mountain Campus, project interns had to spend a large portion of their time collecting preliminary data and figuring out what the best methods were for conducting the research. “The first year was about learning what the possibilities were, learning about native grasses and organic fertilizers, and what approaches might work,” said Gazda. “This year we’re trying to apply everything that we learned last year from the beginning of this growing season all the way through to the end.”

To compare the effectiveness of herbicide-free landscape maintenance practices to NAU’s current, more traditional landscape-management approaches, the team set up three test plots and three control plots. In addition to the Eastburn Education Center’s test and control plots, there are plots located at the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building and at the East entrance of the Knoles Parking Garage. Each area differs significantly in pH, nitrate, phosphorous, potassium, and sulfur levels. The plots in each location are all managed the same, but because they all have different soil quality and receive different amounts of sunlight and water, they have displayed different results. The diverse results have helped the interns understand what methods would best suit the different lawns around campus. 

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NAU student intern Sean Canterbury stands in front of project sign. Photo: Michelle Palumbo.


Student Tasks

Student tasks on the Sustainable Landscape Maintenance Project have included transecting test plots, applying various treatments—from sowing seeds to amending the soil, categorizing and counting weeds, manually pulling weeds, observing the quality of the turf, and collecting data to assess the changing conditions of the grass and soil. These tasks help to shed light on how weeds and grass grow in each area with herbicides and without.

There is also behind-the-scenes work to keep the project running. “One of the toughest [and most time-consuming] parts of the project is data analysis,” said Junfeng Qian, former research intern and civil engineering student (2013). Gazda agrees that accurate data is vital to determining the success of herbicide-free lawns. “We want to come up with realistic data for how much labor it would take to manually maintain the lawns instead of using chemicals,” said Gazda.

Positive Results

Gazda, the student interns, and the NAU Grounds Department have already seen positive results from their efforts.  The team was able to collect a lot of encouraging data over the summer and will be able to present their research to the public before the end of the year, once the data is fully analyzed and interpreted. Still, the transition to an herbicide-free campus will take time. “The processes of nature aren’t overnight, but we want to do as much as possible to make an observable difference now,” said Gazda.

--Candice Giffin