Alleviate the Climate Crisis: Invest in Growing Grass On Healthy Soil

By Rick Rydell

The San Francisco Bay Area, alongside most of the nation, has fallen for a myth about sports and community-use fields. But advocates including climate activists, budget-watchers, and concerned parents, say that now is the perfect time to begin acting on scientific reality.

 The falsehood? Schools and communities have only two choices when it comes to ballfields and greenspaces: Entities can choose poorly-maintained natural grass that devolves into an eyesore, while demanding lots of maintenance and water, or opt for expensive artificial turf that comes with a host of shaky promises.

However, scientific evidence, as well as real-world experience, prove these are not the only choices. There is a third option in the faux vs. for-real debate: organically-managed natural turf fields that focus on soil health before ever growing a blade of grass.

The results, experts say, are fields that require far less water, chemicals, and funds to maintain. This amounts to a win for the environment, cash-strapped schools and cities, and the sensitive human bodies who take solace on the land.  

Mowing Down a Myth

Artificial turf, praised since its invention in the 1960s, has plenty of supposed benefits. It lasts forever and doesn’t get muddy, and allegedly requires no water (it’s a fake plant, after all). You don’t need weed killers or lawn mowers to maintain it; simply install, and you’re golden for decades. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

A study out of New Mexico State University demonstrated that artificial turf requires about the same amount of water as natural turf to cool the plastic down to safe temperatures. What’s more, you often do need weed killers on artificial turf, because it’s common for natural grass and other weeds to poke through. And though artificial turf can last 8 to 12 warrantied years with proper care, its actual life—and impact—is far longer, as fake grass isn’t actually recyclable. Incineration of plastic is not recycling, nor is it safe for the environment.

In addition to the aforementioned issues regarding incinerating plastic and toxic rubber, there are other potential long-term health impacts. The biggest villain is the “forever chemical” PFAS, one of the ingredients in artificial fields. PFAS has been linked to nasty diagnoses such as liver disease, troubles with reproductive organs, developmental and cardiovascular issues, and compromised immunity. There is also evidence showing that athletes sustain serious injuries far more often on synthetic grass.

Fake playing surfaces, in other words, are harming the environment and humans. If that’s not enough to have you question the sustainability of man-made turf, the dough for installation (an artificial football field can easily run between $500,000 and well north of a million) that a school has to cough up every decade or so, doesn’t look so desirable.

Conventionally-managed natural grass, which is treated with petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides isn’t a whole lot better. Toxics are toxics, and at the end of the day, they do not produce a product that looks or performs well; nor do they help the environment.

Natural Novato

Chip Osborne, owner of Massachusetts-based Osborne Organics, a natural turf management company, has been dealing with these types of burst bubbles for at least 25 years:

“At the high school and municipal level, the consultants for other kinds of turf sell everyone on the fact that you can play 24/7, you’re saving water and the cost of fertilizer, but in reality a synthetic field can easily be 160 degrees on a hot day, and usually needs to be groomed every three weeks,” Osborne said. “None of that is presented in the beginning.”

Instead, Osborne, a professional horticulturist for 50 years, likes to demonstrate the organic natural turf method. When you have healthy soil nourishing healthy grass, not dependent on synthetic fertilizers, he says, you can produce fields that are stronger, longer-lasting, and more durable than synthetic (or real grass maintained with harmful chemicals).

It all starts with a method.

Osborne Organics (alongside a growing number of companies) uses a system-approach to field management that focuses on building soil health.

Considerations are given to what the patch of dirt needs to thrive, including addressing nutrient-depletion. After providing what the earth needs—organically, of course—the ground is ready to grow drought-resistant, lush, and durable grass.

In addition to the initial purpose of recreation, organically-managed fields assist the planet. 

“It’s a much bigger picture now involving carbon sequestration for climate change when you go natural,” Osborne says. “We’re talking about healthy green plant material pulling CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.” 

Indeed, some advocates of organic turf management call parks and greenspaces “cooling islands” that can combat the heat-related impacts of concrete, plastic turf, and asphalt.

Novato Unified School District (NUSD), less than 30 miles from San Francisco, is the first school district in the Bay Area to embark on a pilot project to transition three of their school fields to organic field management.

At the beginning of 2023, Novato Unified School District in Marin County agreed to partner with Non Toxic Schools (NTS), a project of the non-profit organization, A Voice for Choice, as well as Beyond Pesticides (BP). These organizations are working with Osborne Organics to train and advise NUSD staff in organic turf management

The project includes site-specific analyses, and maintenance plans based on soil testing and resource assessment, as well as ongoing consultation with Chip Osborne. The school district is taking a leadership role in the region, moving toward sustainable management of public lands. 

“I think of all the things I’m doing to get toxics out of schools, coordinating organic land management projects and funding has the possibility to have the broadest impact on the whole Bay Area,” says Piper Primrose, head of the Bay Area-based Non Toxic Schools. “We’re hoping the NUSD project will be a great example of what’s possible in this area with our climate and soil conditions.”

“If fields are in decline, money is going to be spent one way or the other if a school or city wants to make an improvement,” Osborne says. “With organic field management, we balance the soil chemistry and get the microbial life working, and costs decline over time, and the ability to hold onto water in the drier regions of the country booms significantly.”

“It really is a win-win for everybody.”

To that end, Non Toxic Schools is hosting an open-to-the-public event in Novato on September 27th. Community members and officials from surrounding Marin and Sonoma towns are invited to a presentation by Osborne Organics and Beyond Pesticides. Discussion will include organic natural turf management, and funding available for towns and schools to make the same switch, including details about the positive environmental and financial impacts of doing so.

On September 28th, there will be a full day in-person technical training on organic field management with Chip Osborne in Petaluma. CE credits have been applied for. This training is for those who want to learn the systems-based approach to maintaining healthy lawns and fields for a sustainable future. 

To find out more about the September events, visit Non Toxic Schools.