SportsTurf sat down with Gary Maurer, President of Green Pro Solutions, LLC, to discuss their use of plant-based organic programs for athletic fields.
Organics can help with budget concerns
ST: Why do you think Molloy College (a private school on Long Island) is a good example of your program and the results that can be obtained using organic-based products?
Maurer: Well, there are a number of reasons. First, Molloy is in a densely populated urban/suburban area that is very expensive. And by that I mean everything is expensive. Labor is expensive, utilities are expensive, equipment and equipment maintenance, land, water – everything, like many other large metropolitan areas, is expensive. It is critical that Molloy get the best value for the dollars that it has available to spend.
ST: Can you be a little more specific?
Maurer: Everyone knows today that we should do what we can to manage water use intelligently. That means one thing when it is free. It means something entirely different when water is really expensive in areas like Long Island, or where water is rationed and just not available due to drought. So a turf program that can produce great results with a minimal amount of water can be a huge cost savings.
ST: You mentioned labor. It is easy to understand why a program that can reduce labor costs would create value. But you also mentioned ‘equipment maintenance’. What is that about?
Maurer: Any program that reduces the need for equipment can save significant amounts of money. You know as well as anyone how expensive equipment is. But if a school, a business, a factory, a municipality, a park has to have equipment, they also have to maintain it (labor costs) and protect it. If a piece of equipment is used less, there are reductions in maintenance costs.
Protection may mean a building or at least a piece of land. In areas of high density land use, even that represents a cost. Unless all of the services are contracted out, almost every facility has a minimum amount of multi-use equipment, like a tractor with a host of attachments. Minimizing the number of attachments saves on acquisition costs, maintenance costs and storage costs.
ST: So you are suggesting that a school or organization does not have to buy all kinds of equipment to maintain their fields if they use organic products and, consequently, they can save a lot of money.
Maurer: Let me give you a qualified ‘Yes’ on that. Molloy College is a good case in point. Green Pro products, which are distributed under the Nature’s Pro brand, have been used on their baseball field for the better part of 20 years. Currently, application of the products is managed by Warren Getch, branch manager of Nature’s Pro of Long Island, an operating entity of The TruGreen Companies, LLC. Year in and year out the only piece of equipment on the field is the lawn mower. Of course, they do have equipment to maintain the clay surfaces, but nothing else goes on the turf.
ST: That seems pretty remarkable.
Maurer: Many in the turf management field would think it impossible. Or, they would imagine that the quality of the field would be unacceptable. A soil probe provides clues as to why the right kind of organics work. In the spring and late fall of the year, a soil probe will penetrate 15” into the soil. Approximately the top 3 inches is topsoil. From there down it is all clay. If I ball that clay up in my hand, it will become a rock in 48 hours as it dries out.
ST: How deep can you probe the rest of the year?
Maurer: If moisture levels are maintained, 15 inches. But the real story is the depth of the grass roots. In the spring, the turf roots can be protruding from the end of the probe, more than 15 inches. Now in cool season grasses we know that some of that stored energy will be consumed by the grass plant during the stressful hot days of summer. The roots may only be 6-8” deep then, until the cool weather of the fall. At that point the grass roots will again grow deeper as they begin to store carbohydrates for the next season.
ST: Did I understand you to say that you don’t use any kind of aeration equipment and it is still possible to get rootzones that deep?
Maurer: That is correct. We use aeration products, what we call liquid aeration. Unlike equipment, which actually causes a certain amount of compaction while it is doing its aeration, liquid aeration products actually cover 100% of the field, not just 5-10% of the surface area. In an article published by Michigan State University in July/August 2001, agronomist Christ Hartwiger and Patrick O’Brien make the case that mechanical aeration should impact 15%-30% of a golf course green’s surface area each year. That means multiple trips with expensive equipment and perhaps additional labor to remove or recycle debris and add other soil loosening amendments.
Liquid aeration may not be quite as fast, but it does cover 100% of the surface area and can be done in a fraction of the time at a fraction of the cost. And it is cumulative; every application builds on the previous applications. Many, many dollars can be saved.
ST: How do organic products produce such deep root zones in what is essentially clay?
Maurer: There are a number of things at work here. Initially we begin with a more advanced soil testing procedure. Most tests are nutrient assays. They determine what nutrients are present in the soil. Our test determines nutrient availability. It determines what is functioning. The difference between the two can be very significant. Based on the soil test results, our special computer program analyzes the data and generates a Prescription, providing specific instructions on how to make the soil healthier.
ST: Green Pro focuses on soil health instead of plant health?
Maurer: Exactly! No plant can be healthier than the soil in which it grows. Poor quality turf, compaction, puddling and weeds are symptoms of sick soil. Many turf care providers try to deal with the symptoms. We address the causes. When we produce healthy soil, the turf automatically responds.
ST: Are you saying weeds indicate what you call ‘sick soil’?
Maurer: Turfgrass management is about creating and sustaining a monoculture. The natural order of things is toward greater diversity, so creating a single type or vary narrow diversity of plant species in an area is an uphill battle. However, by understanding how biological and biochemical systems function, it is possible to support natural processes to produce the desired result. In overly simplified terms, weeds have a different nutrient profile than turf grass. By providing the nutrient components in the correct proportions to optimize turf production, weeds are discouraged from germinating and growing. We create an inhospitable environment for weed growth.
ST: I have seen photos of the Molloy College baseball field and I did not see any weeds. Are you saying that your program eliminates the germination of all weeds?
Maurer: Not exactly. In reality, so few weeds germinate that it is much more efficient for someone with a backpack sprayer to spot treat the few weeds that germinate than use an expensive piece of equipment to needlessly spray chemicals on the vast majority of the field that does not require treatment. Depending on the size of the mower, this can be done by the person while he/she is mowing the field. Either way, chemical control costs and labor costs are reduced.
On the other hand, we have seen weeds germinate, grow for a few days, and then die. The nutrient profile was just not favorable for their survival.
ST: You are saying that a lawn mower and organic products are going on the field and that the product selection is determined, at least in part, by a special soil test. What products are you using?
Maurer: Let me first be clear about the word organic. There are hundreds of ‘organic’ products. To me, they fall into two distinct categories. There are products that are associated with animals and products that come from plants. Plants do not, with few exceptions, eat animals. Products made from animals and animal byproducts can be good for plants but they are made up of components that are too complex for plants to utilize. Enzymes and other biological components must be present in the soil to make these animal-based nutrients plant-available. If these biological elements are present in the soil, the animal-based products can produce results. If they are not present, the results can be disappointing. Typically, the presence or absence of these biological elements are unknown. There are also possible toxicity issues with animal by-products.
On the other hand, plant-based products are immediately bio-available to the plant. Plant-derived products are easily and more quickly broken down and available for use. If you think of a forest, it feeds itself what it needs and it is all plant-based material. There are deposits of decomposed plant materials all around the world, greatly concentrated and compressed over centuries that are available for us to use.
Humates is a term used to describe these natural carbon-based materials that contain humic, fulvic, ulmic and other organic acids necessary for plant health, much as amino acids make up some of the building blocks of the human body. Since Humates are derived from plants, they provide a rich storehouse of energy containing everything the plant – and soil – need to be healthy, including a full range of nutrients, enzymes, minerals, natural surfactants, bio-stimulants, amino acids, and essential components to stimulate microbes and mycorrhizae. Humates provide benefits that animal-based products do not have.
ST: So the products you use are only made of Humates?
Maurer: In part. As you know plants need many kinds of nutrients. We make products with humates and other essential nutrients, like calcium and iron. Depending on the Prescription Soil Test Results, we may apply calcium in one of its various forms, or a number of other ingredients. It depends on what the soil needs and the proper proportion in relation to the other nutrients already present in the soil or required by the soil to make it more balanced and productive. To the extent possible and based on the client’s wishes, we try not to use man-made nutrient sources.
ST: So not everything you use is organic.
Maurer: We prefer it to be 100% organic but it is not always practical either economically or because of the client’s needs. We have a number of products that are 100% organic; however we also work with bridge products that have some man-made ingredients. But with man-made products, we have pretty stringent criteria.
ST: That’s interesting. What are your criteria?
Maurer: We look for products that have little or no salts or chlorides and will not disturb the biological activities going on in the soil. For instance, we will use food grade potassium and phosphate, the kind that is in soft drinks like Coke. They are immediately bio-available to the plant and leave no residue in the soil. Urea promotes insect activity, so we avoid using it if at all possible.
ST: So you do use N-P-K in your products just like other companies?
Maurer: There are many formulations of N-P-K. Many of them are detrimental to the soil or to the soil biology. We are very selective in what we use and limit its use as much as possible. Humates chelate nutrients so much lower amounts are needed. Healthy soil has millions of microbes per teaspoonful which do an amazing job at nitrogen recycling. The healthier the soil, the less artificial ingredients are needed, if needed at all. That is our goal. And as the health of the soil improves, the ‘symptoms’ begin to disappear.
ST: You mention soil biology. How critical is that?
Maurer: It is impossible to have healthy soil without healthy biology. Products with high salt and chloride contents tend to kill off the biology. Then add fungicides, pesticides and other control products and that may complete the job. Now don’t get me wrong about control products. If the patient is about to die, turf managers have to make calculated decisions. Should I try to preserve the turf and kill off the soil biology, or should I let the turf die and try to preserve what soil biology is present?
In reality, it is much easier to grow new turf than replace soil biology, which can take years. Remember, soil biology is critical to healthy turf. But there may be another option. Often it is possible to adjust the soil biology to save the turf. There are beneficial fungi and detrimental fungi. Both are typically present in the soil. When the good and bad are in the proper balance, the good control the bad and the turf is healthy. When the disease causing fungi overwhelm the good fungi, disease breaks out.
So one way to deal with fungus outbreaks is to treat with beneficial fungi, putting the natural processes back in control instead of chemicals, which are typically not specific to a specific fungi, or bacteria, but instead end up killing a lot of beneficials along with the unsavory characters that are causing the damage.
ST: How do you add good biology?
Maurer: It is possible to purchase a very limited number of varieties of bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi. But out of the 10’s of thousands of bacteria and fungi in the world, what is available for purchase is a drop in a very large bucket. Quality compost and/or compost tea has the greatest diversity of beneficial microbes to impact soil biology.
ST: hat sounds like a topic for another time. I am still intrigued by the depth of the roots in you soil probe. How do plant-based organic products produce that kind of result?
Maurer: Energy is part of the process but that is probably a topic for another time also. For now, let me just address altering the physical characteristics of the soil. Humates have the amazing ability to make hard soils like clay more porous. Small cavities are opened through the soil that permits air, water and roots to go deeper. Roots cannot grow where there is no air.
Conversely, when added to sandy soils they become less porous. Humates chelate nutrients, holding them in the root zone. There is less leaching of nutrients into the ground water and less volatility of nitrogen into the air.
In addition, humic material holds up to 20 times its weight in water, acting like a huge sponge. Therefore, between increased root depth and greater water-holding capacity, less water is needed to have quality turf. Again, significant amounts of money can be saved.
ST: Do you have some cost saving numbers?
Maurer: Molloy College applies about 7000 gallons per watering at a local cost of approximately $30 per application. It is not unusual in the high quality soils that I am discussing to reduce water usage 30% or more. For Molloy that could mean $30-$50 per week, perhaps $1000 per year for one field. Now geographically Long Island gets a fair amount of rain and a baseball field is larger than a football or soccer field. But you can see how the savings really begin to pile up. The savings would be even more dramatic in drought prone or warmer climates, into many thousands of dollars per year just in water savings, particularly if organics are used campus wide, as they are at Molloy College.
ST: We haven’t really discussed the ecological and consumerism benefits of using organic and more natural products in turf grass management, but you are making a strong case for the economics of using organics. But don’t organic products cost more?
Maurer: Historically that is true, but with the current dramatic increase in chemical, petroleum-derived products, the difference is rapidly disappearing. But that is true only if you compare the product costs and not the program costs. When a school, a business campus or any turfgrass manager compares the annualized cost of all of the components in the complete program, organics can often beat the cost of a chemical program.
To review those costs, we have spent a little more money for organic products, but we have saved money from a number of other inputs that more than offset the initial cost. Molloy College saves money on water, on labor, on equipment purchases, on fuel, on equipment maintenance, and less building space is required to store the equipment it didn’t need to buy in the first place. Fewer chemicals are used on campus. The campus is much more eco-friendly. Organics even absorb more carbon dioxide from the air.¹ Molloy College is promoting itself as a responsible steward of both its financial resources and the world’s natural resources.
¹ Soil Carbon – Diamond in the Rough, Mike Amaranthus, Ph.D., Acres USA, Oct. 2008.