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Integrated Pest Management of Lawns

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

We often spend a lot of our time and advocacy on replacing turf grass with native plants. However, lawns are a significant cultural component of American spaces and are very functional for some purposes. For instance, turf grass lawns are superior to concrete or hardscaping for paths, gathering places, and sports fields. We could limit the collateral damage of the lawn by changing lawn management. The following is a short review of the literature on integrated pest management (IPM) techniques for lawn management. It highlights how you can maintain lawn in the healthiest way possible and provides some research for why it might be beneficial to do so. Feel free to share with others who may not be ready to eliminate their lawn entirely but might be open to learn about how management practices could make their lawn more environmentally friendly.



A tiny sweat bee forages on a dandelion. Our lawns can support more biodiversity with different management strategies.

In the last century, turf grass lawns in the continental US have grown to occupy an area equivalent to 77.8% of the nation’s National Parks. These lawns serve as gathering areas, as sports fields, and walking paths. Although lawns provide more ecosystem services than hardscapes like concrete or brick, lawn maintenance requires significant input of energy, water, and pesticides. This review highlights the most pervasive turf grass pests, traditional control approaches, and the shortcomings of those traditional approaches. Then, we move on to integrated pest management approaches for turf grass maintenance that could increase the ecosystem services of turf grass without the collateral damage associated with high levels of pesticide inputs.

Introduction

Turf grass lawns occupy an estimated 163,812 km2 in the continental United States, based on GPS mapping data (Milesi et al. 2005). This makes the surface area of turf grass equivalent to 77.8% of the cumulative surface area of all the National Parks in North America (52 million acres of National Parks is 210,436 km2). As a result of such widespread usage, turf grass lawn is irrigated 3 times more than any other irrigated crop (Milesi et al. 2005). Turf grass lawns also require significant inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer, which are known to contaminate nearby rivers (Garn 2002, Lehman et al. 2009). Herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides are all used frequently to limit turf grass pests (Braman et al. 1997), and these applications are likely to have broadly negative environmental impacts. Given the well-studied negatives of monoculture turf grass, it is not surprising recent popular press editorials have called for the end to the American Lawn (Kaysen and Fountain 2019, “Lawns are a soul-crushing timesuck and most of us would be better off without them”).


However, lawns do hold important cultural value to urban communities. The turf grass lawn is an ideal sports field and gathering place for humans. In addition, turf grass does have the opportunity to support ecosystem services alongside cultural benefits in the likes of carbon sequestration, biodiversity, flood reduction, and pollinator support (Ignatieva et al. 2015). These potential benefits of turf grass make turf grass an attractive option when weighing alternatives of concrete or artificial turf. Limiting pesticide and allowing biodiversity in lawns use could improve ecosystem functions of turf grass while also retaining cultural value, but alternative maintenance strategies would be required to maintain turf grass health. This review highlights strategies of integrated pest management (IPM) for urban turf grass lawns and green spaces.

Turf grass pests: animals

A wide taxanomical range of animals can function as pests of turf grass, either through direct damage or through transmission of disease. Several species of Lepidopteran caterpillars are considered pests of turf grass, usually through feeding on the aboveground vegetation. The fall armyworm (Noctuidae: Spodoptera frugiperda) has broad host-range and can cause damage on crops ranging from turf to rice, maize, cotton, or peanuts (Nagoshi and Meagher 2004, Buss n.d.). Other Noctuidae pests of turf grass include the cutworms (Agrotis spp.). Agrotis ipsilon caterpillars are nocturnal-feeding pests of bent grass (Agrostis palustris), a common golf course grass species. The winter moth, Operophtera brumata, is another Lepidopteran turf pest introduced from Europe (Andersen et al. 2021). Although these Lepidopteran pests are only a major cause of concern on younger grass, extension agencies regularly recommend insecticide treatment at the first sign of damage (Buss n.d.).


Several Coleoptera are pests of turf grass, particularly with larvae feeding on roots. Members of the scarab family are often collectively called “white grubs” when discussing turf grass pests. The “white-grub” designation includes exotic species like Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica) and Aphodius grenaries as well as native species like Ataenius spretulus. The Japanese beetle can cause significant damage to turf grass roots, but damage to the above-ground foliage was only shown in cases with high nitrogen application and high irrigation (Crutchfield et al. 1995). Prior to Japanese beetle establishment in the U.S., Ataenius spretulus and Aphodius granaries were reported as some of the dominant turf grass grubs (especially in-tightly mowed golf course fairways) (Smitley et al. 1998). Other Coleopteran pests of turf include the hinting billbug (Curculionidae: Sphenophorus venatus). Although billbugs feed on turf grass roots, early-instar larvae also feed on the leaves and crown (Buss n.d.), preferring southern turf grass species such as bermudagrass (Huang and Buss 2013).


An increasingly important hemipteran pest of turf grasses is the Rhodesgrass mealybug, Antonina graminis (Hemiptera: Pseudococcidae). The Rhodesgrass mealybug primarily targets warm-season grasses such as bermudagrass, zoysiagrass, and buffalograss (Reinert and Vinson 2010), so its impact is largely restricted to the south/southeast where these grasses are more commonly used in turf and lawns. Although studies of mealybug management are in their infancy, recent work has suggested repeated use of a seven-compound insecticide compound is insufficient for complete elimination from putting greens (Joseph et al. 2021).


In the southern US, introduced fire ants (Solenopsis spp.) can be significant pests of turf grass. Not only do fire ants cause damage to the turf, they also reduce the cultural value of turf as a human-gathering area (due to their painful bites) (Vittum 2020). Fire ant colonies are typically treated by granule bait insecticides that can kill the colony in 48 hours to a month (depending on the insecticide and colony size) (Buss n.d.).


Turf grass pests: plants

Most plants turf grass pests (“weeds”) are those that disrupt the aesthetic of monoculture lawn, although some annual weeds can leave bare holes that disrupt turf grass ecological and cultural functions. Crabgrass (Digitaria spp.) is an annual warm-season weed of turf grass that outcompetes cool season turf grasses in hot, dry conditions (Turner et al. 2012). Crabgrass has high fecundity and is able to germinate in small gaps in turf grass. The result of crabgrass death at the end of the season is a gap in the turf grass monoculture that can contribute to erosion, further damage to the turf (if under heavy pedestrian use), or a place of infiltration for more pernicious perennial weeds (Turner et al. 2012). Similar annual turf weeds include the annual grass Poa annua, foxtail (Setaria sp.), barnyardgrass (Echinochloa sp.), and the broadleaf forb dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Because of the turf gap left upon their death, the most receommended treatment for annual grass weeds is prevention using pre-emergent herbicides (Mccarty and Murphy 1994, Streich et al. n.d.).


Other turfgrass weeds include perennial grasses such as tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea), smooth bromegrass (Bromus inermis), Timothy (Phleum pretense), Quackgrass (Agropyron repens), sedges like yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus), and forbs such as spurges (Euphorbia spp.), henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), broadleaf plantain (Plantago sp.), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), and white clover (Trifolium repens) (Shearman et al. n.d., Streich et al. n.d.). Although perennial turf weeds are difficult to control once established, they do not leave behind bare patches at the end of their life cycle like annual weeds. However, perennial weeds take away from the monoculture aesthetic and could reduce the durability of turf grass in high-traffic areas. Traditional methods of prevention include fertilizer, aeration, frequent irrigation, and mowing combined with pre-emergent herbicides to ensure a thick turf monoculture to prevent perennial weed establishment. For broad-leaf forb weeds or sedges, selective herbicides can be used without significant harm to turf grass (Neal 1990, Wolf et al. 2000). For perennial grass weeds, spot-treatment of non-selective herbicides such as glyphosphate may be recommended (Shearman et al. n.d.).



Turf grass pests: disease

Turf grass integrity can also be lost due to disease. The Ascomycota fungus Claviceps purpurea causes ergot in cultivated grasses and grains. Although most commonly studied as a contaminant of wheat, ergot also likely weakens turf grass and increases likelihood of weed infiltration (Johnston et al. 1997, Marek et al. 2006, Menzies and Turkington 2015).


Other fungal diseases of turf grass include dollar spot, leaf spot, gray leaf spot, crown rust, and brown patch (Bonos et al. 2006). Turf grass that is overwatered or remains moist for extended periods is most susceptible to fungal pathogens. If persistent, fungal pathogens can lead to brown necrotic patches that reduce the turf aesthetic and could facilitate weed infiltration. Most fungal pathogens can be controlled with fungicide applications (Bonos et al. 2006), although fungicide resistance to turf grass pathogens is being reported (Titone et al. 2009).



Shortcomings of traditional pest management strategies for turf grass

Although largely effective, traditional pesticide-dependent turf grass pest-management strategies can cause considerable environmental collateral damage. Insecticides for combating turf grass pests are known to have high toxicity on beneficial insects such as bees (Balogh and Anderson 1992, Zhu et al. 2014). Increased insecticide use in the past century is thought to be a major cause for declining population of wild bees as well as cultivated bees (Goulson et al. 2008, 2015, Winfree et al. 2011). Insecticides targeting soil white grubs resulted in significant long-term reduction of total soil hexapods and diversity of Collembola, Thysanoptera, and desireable Coleoptera (Peck 2009). Insecticides used for control of turf pests also reduce beneficial insects such as Tiphia parasitoid wasps, leading to increased pest-damage long-term (Rogers and Potter 2003).


Although anti-fungal formulations are intended to target specific turf grass diseases, fungicides also negatively impact other organisms (such as beneficial insects). The fungicide triazole reduces the efficiency of flavonoid metabolism in honeybees, resulting in less ATP availability for flight muscles (Mao et al. 2017). Fungicides also reduce colony size and health of native bumble bees (Bernauer et al. 2015).


The traditional herbicide-heavy maintenance routine of turf grass also creates monocultures of turf. Although herbicides themselves may or may not have direct impact on beneficial insects, habitat fragmentation from reducing biodiversity is a significant cause of beneficial insect declines (Winfree et al. 2011, Goulson et al. 2015). Turf grass could retain many of the aforementioned cultural benefits without maintaining the monoculture aesthetic, thereby allowing plant biodiversity and reducing the need for pesticides. However, lessening the ecological collateral damage of lawns would require a significant shift in turf grass management.



IPM Approaches for a Healthier Lawn

Ecosystem diversity and turf pests

One way to reduce the negative effects of turf grass lawns while maintaining their cultural value is allowing or creating biodiversity within or adjacent to the lawn itself. Adding biodiversity could be as simple as reducing herbicides and allowing flowering plants such as violets, dandelions, clover, or plantain to establish within the turf grass. Turf grass lawns with more biodiversity have increased carbon storage, nitrogen retention, and weed suppression (Thompson and Kao-Kniffin 2017). Adding more structural and plant diversity to lawns also increased reduced head and increased the richness of arthropods within test plots (Francoeur et al. 2021). One study recorded 50 different pollinator species on just the two common lawn weeds of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and white clover (Trifolium repens) (including 37 species of bee, and 2 bee species considered to be in decline) (Larson et al. 2014).


This skipper is nectaring in a native habitat garden, but its larvae could have developed in "weedy" turf grass.

Increased biodiversity in lawns or native habitat adjacent to lawns can provide important pest control through beneficial insects. For example, wasps in the genus Tiphia are important parasitoids of turf-infesting white grubs that require pesticide-free habitat with sufficient flowering plants (Rogers and Potter 2004). The presence of the native forbs Achillea millefolium, Solidago juncea, S. speciose, Coreopsis tripteris, S. nemoralis, Pycnanthemum pilosum, S. oolantangiense, Asclepias syriaca, A. tuberosa, Monarda fistuolosa, and others significantly increased the abundance of natural enemies of turf grass pests (specifically parasitic wasps, predatory coleopteran, and predatory hemiptera) (Gibson et al. 2019). These findings suggest allocation of native planting refugia adjacent to turf grass lawns could be sufficient to eliminate the majority of damage from arthropod pests of turf.


In more extreme examples, low-growing wildflower mixtures can take the place of turf grass lawns. Grass-free forb lawns can be either native-only or of mixed origin, but both require less frequent mowing and pesticide applications (Smith et al. 2015). Both native-only and mixed origin grass-free lawns had significantly higher arthropod diversity than turf grass alone, but forb mixtures containing native species had the highest arthropod diversity (Smith et al. 2015). These grass-free lawns retain many of the cultural values of turf lawns, although they may not be appropriate for high traffic areas or sports fields. Collectively, reducing herbicides (and allowing some weed species), replacing turf grass lawns with grass-free forbs where appropriate, and providing native refugia habitat could all reduce the need for turf-grass pesticide applications while supporting biodiversity.


Biological control techniques

Many pests of turf grass can be effectively controlled with biological agents. Biological control has the benefit of targeting specific pest species with less collateral damage than broad-spectrum pesticides.


Monthly Enterobacter cloacae applications reduced the incidence of Dollar Spot disease by 63% on heavily irrigated golf course turf (equivalent to the fungicides iprodione or propiconazole) (Nelson 1991). Other bacteria applications are effective at controlling the range of fungal diseases from brown patch, gray snow mold, Pythium blight, red thread, southern blight, and take-all patch (Nelson et al. 1994). Unfortunately, one barrier to utilizing bacteria as a biological control is the limited industrial availability. In the upcoming years as biological agents become more readily available, prevention of fungal disease in this manner should be preferable to broad-spectrum fungicides.

Similarly, arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi may be a viable option for biological control of the weedy annual Poa annua (Gange et al. 1999). Poa annua does not have natural association of AM fungi, and increased AM fungi abundance decreases Poa annua. AM fungi applications are particularly appealing because they can be used in combination with traditional fungicides without detriment to AM fungi (Bary et al. 2005). This suggests AM fungi could be an approach to reducing Poa annua weeds even in situations where periodic fungicide applications are necessary.


Bacterial treatment is also effective against arthropod pests. Although creating natural habitat to attract natural enemies may be the more efficient control mechanism of grubs (Rogers and Potter 2004), direct release of Bacillus papillae can kill turf grass grub pests in the soil. B. papillae introduction in Delaware was associated with significantly fewer Japanese beetle grubs compared to locations with naturally-introduced B. papillae and, to a greater extent, areas where B. papillae was absent (Popillia japonica) (Hutton and Burbutis 1974).


The fungus Sclerotinia minor can also be used as a biological control agent against dandelions. The fungus reduces dandelion germination rates and can be as effective as broad-spectrum herbicides for dandelion control (Abu-Dieyeh et al. 2005, Abu-Dieyeh and Watson 2006). Similar results have been observed using the fungus Phoma macrostoma (Wolfe et al. 2016). However, just as with bacterial applications, fungal biological control of broad-leaf weeds is currently limited by scalability and access to the necessary biologicals.

Cultural Practices

Simple cultural changes in turf management practices can have a significant impact on pests when combined with other pest management approaches. Increasing mowing height to 10.2cm significantly increased the abundance of lawn predators and reduced the abundance of black cutworm and fall armyworm pests (Dobbs and Potter 2014). Closer mowing height (3-5cm) also significantly increases the infiltration of lawn weeds such as dandelion and reduces the efficacy of biological control with the fungus Sclerotinia minor (Abu-Dieyeh and Watson 2006). Thus, reducing mowing frequency could be a viable approach to save costs, increase biodiversity, and limit pest damage.


An additional way to reduce the need for pesticides in turf grass management is selecting strains and cultivars of turf grass resistant to common diseases. There are now commercially-available turf grass cultivars resistant to multiple fungal diseases ranging from leaf spot, stem rust, stripe smut, gray leaf spot, brown patch, and dollar spot (Bonos et al. 2006). There are also fescue cultivars available with strong resistance to broadleaf weed infiltration in the absence of herbicides (Bertin et al. 2009). Cultivars such as “Sandpiper” and “Salsa” consistently suppress greater than 70% of weeds (Bertin et al. 2009). By combining resistant strains with biological control techniques and other IPM practices, it might be possible to increase the ecosystem functions of turf grass and limit the collateral damage of turf grass management.


Although irrigation and fertilization strengthen turf grass to reduce broadleaf weed infiltration, excessive water or nitrogen increase the likelihood of turf grass injury from white grubs (Crutchfield et al. 1995). Excessive overnight moisture also increases susceptibility to fungal disease (Beehag et al. 2016). It is possible that reducing irrigation could increase fungal and arthropod resistance while increasing some susceptibility to weed infiltration. However, turf grass IPM practices that consider broad ecosystem functions are unlikely to result in pristine turf grass monocultures (Alumai et al. 2009).


Conclusion


The New York Times editorial called for a reduction in lawns (Kaysen and Fountain 2019). Although reducing lawns in favor of native habitat is arguably the best way to increase ecosystem services such as supporting biodiversity and increasing carbon sequestration (Thompson and Kao-Kniffin 2017), a shift in lawn management practices could support ecosystem services where lawns are valued. Indeed, the cultural value of lawn is not easily replaced by more ecological plantings. By eliminated pure-grass lawn where possible, changing lawn aesthetic standards, increasing biodiversity adjacent to turf grass lawns, applying biological pest control where possible, and changing lawn management practices, it may be possible to reduce maintain turf lawn quality while reducing the negative consequences of turf grass lawns on the environment.

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