Trees and turfgrass: Can they get along?

Trees and turfgrass: Can they get along?

What's behind the tree care vs. turf care feud?

Industry News

Tree care professionals and turf care professional have been at odds for a long time. Arborists claim that turfgrass is evil and must be eliminated from tree areas. Agronomists believe that their best tool is a chainsaw! So how did this feud get started?

It is a given fact that in nature, trees and turf do not co-exist. Take a look at a forested area, you will notice absence of turfgrass primarily due to shade. This did not occur overnight. In ecological succession, turfgrass establishes first, then secondary invaders arrive, such as low growing trees and shrubs. As the community matures, larger trees start to shade out the understory and the turfgrass dies out. On the other hand, in a prairie setting, there is a dearth of trees likely due to recurrent brush fires that eliminate tree saplings. Where trees and grasses do co-exist in natural savanna landscapes, bunchgrasses, not turfgrass, are typically present and the trees are adapted to be tolerant of frequent grass fires.

When we care for landscapes, we try to optimize growth of both turfgrass and trees to maintain aesthetics (Photo 1). But how did this challenge originate? Let’s take a history tour:

  • 100 BC to 100 AD Roman Gardens: Peristyle gardens consisting of brick columns surrounding an enclosed area containing a pool and raised planter beds. Fountains may have been included as well. No turf present.
  • AD 118-138 Early 2nd Century: A major advancement consisted of opening the perimeter of the garden to provide views of the surrounding landscape. The large central pool area became unobstructed with plantings. Shrubs were grown along the perimeter. No turf present.
  • 13th Century AD: Islamic influence appears with the introduction of small to medium size trees to provide cool shade in the central oasis of the courtyard. Water features continue to be present.
  • Middle 16th Century to 17th Century, Renaissance Period: Hedges were planted in various geometric designs. The formal look emphasized carefully manicured shrubs, hedges and flowers. Trees were limited to perimeter areas in order to maintain openness (Photo 2).
  • Late 17th to Early 18th Centuries: English Landscape movement incorporated large expanses of lawns with native trees in the background. Lawns consisted of meadow grasses and wildflowers. Sheep were used to “mow” the lawn.

  • Early 19th Century: Victorian Gardens restored some geometric elements of formalities as illustrated by the Pleaching of trees. This is a pruning technique whereby adjacent tree canopies are pruned to resemble a continuous hedge (Photo 3). Increased emphasis was placed on trees and lesser emphasis on turf.
  • Early 20th Century, The American Garden Tradition: Incorporation of early European designs with native landscapes.
  • Middle 20th Century: Introduction of Garden Rooms with sections of various plantings separated by tall hedges or walls. This style can still be seen in some contemporary landscapes. Turfgrass may or may not be present.
  • Middle to Late 20th Century: Return to natural associations between native plants and soil suitability with emphasis on low maintenance. The latter excluded turfgrass from most gardens.

Now let’s briefly explore the origins of turfgrass culture: During Medieval Times in England, lawns consisted of low growing grasses interspersed with flowers resembling a meadow. Lawns became more popular in Europe during the 16th and 17th Centuries. Mowing was largely accomplished through close grazing by sheep. The first mowing machine was invented in 1830 by the Englishman Edwin Budding.

Early studies on turf culture were initiated in Michigan in 1880 and continued in other states during the turn of the Century. The 1950s revolutionized turf science with the introduction of improved turf cultivars, new fertilizers and pesticides and advanced mechanical methods for cultural practices.

Height Matters
Trees occupy a higher stratum than turfgrass; as a consequence, tree canopies will intercept most of the sunlight and only filtered light will reach ground level (Photo 4). Even though turfgrasses, in general, prefer full sun, there are certain types that show good shade tolerance. Tall fescue and Red fescue tolerate shade well, whereas Kentucky Bluegrass does not. Warm season grasses such as Bermudagrass and St. Augustinegrass, commonly prefer sunny conditions. However, there are some cultivars with good shade tolerance such as St. Augustinegrass ‘Bitter Blue,’ Bermudagrass ‘Celebration,’ and Zoysiagrass ‘Emerald.’ In addition to intercepting sunlight, trees indirectly shade the turf through fallen leaves and spent flowers (Photo 5).

What about artificial turf? This product maintains its green color regardless of light levels. It does not require fertilization, irrigation or mowing (Photo 6). However, depending on the product used, the underlayment may be made of non-porous material that does not allow water, air or nutrient movements into the soil. This may result in poor growing conditions for tree roots.

Underground Conflicts
Turfgrass and tree roots continually compete for water and nutrients. Trees consume large amounts of water that is lost to the atmosphere through transpiration. As the water supply is depleted in the soil, turgrass begins to show symptoms of wilt (Photo 7). Roots also compete for nutrients as shown in many studies in the literature. This is especially true with aggressively growing turfgrasses such as Bermudagrass. Surface applications of granular fertilizers applied to turf are not likely to benefit trees growing in the same environment. Deep root injection of tree fertilizers would be a better option to care for trees. Removal of fallen leaves to free turfgrass from their effects also deprives the trees of their natural mineral recycling method, further reducing their supply of nutrients.

Allelopathy (or Chemical Warfare) is another phenomenon to consider when placing plants together in the landscape. Some plants exude chemicals through the roots which inhibit the growth of other plants. A famous example is that of Juglone produced by Walnut trees. Certain turfgrasses, such as Kentucky Bluegrass, Perennial Ryegrass and Red fescue may produce harmful leachates from the roots that adversely affect the growth of small trees such as Flowering Dogwood.

Trees and turfgrass have different optimal pH ranges; so it is impossible to optimize soil pH for both at the same time. Living under the wrong pH conditions will cause the plant to become deficient in some nutrients, while other nutrients may reach toxic levels.

Creating a mulched zone around trees helps to mediate these conflicts. The area inside the mulch ring is managed for the tree needs, while the area outside the mulch is managed for the turf needs. Fertilization, pH adjustment and irrigation can then be tailored for their very different needs.

As can be deduced from the above, trees and turfgrass may be able to get along in a precarious peace treaty. However, that treaty will need the support of turgrass professionals, arborists and landscape architects in order to maintain healthy and aesthetic urban landscapes. Left to their own devices, trees and turfgrass are natural enemies!

Dr. Christopher Fields-Johnson is Technical Advisor, Mid-Atlantic region; and Dr. A.D. Ali is Technical Advisor, Southeast and South regions. Both are with the Davey Institute, The Davey Tree Expert Company.