Natural lawn care brings black, gold, green to UWM

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Bees — along with many other living things — will benefit from UWM’s natural lawn-care program.

Birds and bees, plus UW-Milwaukee students, faculty and staff, all will benefit from a new natural lawn care program now spreading across all 23 acres of lawn on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.

A natural seasonal process of aerating, composting and 2-3 monthly mowings is already phasing out the university’s traditional lawn-care program. Previous lawn-care protocol included thrice annual chemical treatments covered by “right to know” rules – herbicides, insecticides, fungicides – to control weed growth. Additionally, groundskeepers mowed 23 acres of campus lawns four to five times per month.

“Our traditional lawn-care program was safe, but completely reactive and chemical dependent,” says UWM Sustainability Chief Kate Nelson. “As a leading green campus nationally, we decided we could do better. Working through the shared governance process, we considered stormwater run off issues, the impacts of long-term chemical use on urban wildlife and human health. Chemical-free lawn care became an obvious solution.”

Natural lawn care at UWM will involve 2-3 aerations yearly to oxygenate UWM soil densely compacted by years of pedestrian traffic. Soil health will get an additional boost with yearly application of a 1/8-inch cover of compost. Over seeding of grass will create a hardier turf environment that crowds out weeds naturally. A deeper emerald hue is one possible aesthetic bonus, but the natural lawn care might also result in more dandelions and clover cover.

“This doesn’t mean our lawns will be less beautiful or less healthy,” Nelson notes. “In following a more natural process we’ll achieve a more natural result – turf grass that is a healthy and diverse environment for people and animals.”

Bees are both highly vulnerable to insecticides and utterly invaluable to thriving gardens and healthy produce production worldwide. Nearly 30 percent of the nation’s bees have succumbed to Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder in just five years, their deaths attributed to factors like pesticide usage, cell phone towers and habitat destruction.

“Bees love clover and hate pesticides,” says Nelson. “So we’re hoping to bring even more black and gold back to campus with natural lawn care.”

The financial impact of this latest green initiative will take time to assess and is dependent on several factors: Whether compost will be purchased off site or produced on campus with UWM food waste, plus costs associated staff training and new equipment.

“The most important questions about this transition have already been answered,” Nelson says. “Natural lawn care is healthier for all who use our campus, and our neighbors – from Shorewood residents to Lake Michigan aquaculture. Investments in sustainable best-practices are what people have come to expect from UWM.”