Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lawns in the US Get Bad Press - But Zoysia Grows

It is almost certain that the lawn and turf industry in Australia is not the same as the US. Most lawns in urban areas of Australia are of modest condition, and there are plenty of gardens and even vegetable patches on suburban lots. Some areas of the US have caveats that insist that the whole front area must be lawn, for appearances only, and with that understood it is conceivable that turf areas in the US can generate bad press coverage, from a range of groups. Think Wisteria Lane from the TV show 'Desperate Housewives" for manicured lawns.

It is absolutely true that US lawns are typically over watered, overfertilised, over mowed and under used. But not all are like that.

And there are trends emerging that has seen wider use of good turf species that require much less fertiliser, manicuring and mowing, especially some of the zoysia species in warmer areas as well as a few other species that require less inputs, although some are also less aesthetically pleasing. Zoysias are generally similar in appearance to existing turf areas, and thrive on substantially reduced inputs.

Even high class golf facilities in warm temperate and sub tropical parts of the US are changing to zoysia grass fairways, and much of Asia already has. Zoysia grass costs less to maintain than couch [Bermuda grass] a common golf course grass!

However, good turf still beats bare dirt for many sports, and I do not see any Football World Cup games on dirt! Turf will be around for a while yet.

Read the article.............

But adequate turf does not require massive inputs, nor huge amounts of time if you get the species right...........try zoysia.

U.S. Lawns Getting an Eco-Makeover
By Adrianne Appel*

Homeowners, corporations and schools are catching on to the idea of creating a wild space where nature can thrive. Credit:Adrianne Appel/IPS

BOSTON, Jun 13, 2010 (IPS/IFEJ) - A radical, underground movement is growing in the suburbs of the United States.

From coast to coast, eco-concerned homeowners are ripping out their manicured, chemically-treated lawns and replacing them with organic food gardens, native flowers and sometimes, just rocks. "It's a growing endeavour. It gets bigger and bigger every year," said Steven Saffier, coordinator of the Audubon Society's At Home programme, which encourages people to let their lawns go wild to support birds and other wildlife.

The lawn, the one-third acre or more of trimmed grass outside the front door of so many U.S. homes, is getting an eco-makeover as people learn about the lawn's impact on the larger environment. Groups as diverse as urban garden clubs, environmental groups and wildlife protection groups are spreading the word that a big, lush lawn harms biodiversity and is an eco- disaster. "Lawns contribute to climate change," Saffier told IPS. "The fossil fuels used in fertiliser and pesticide production add CO2 to the environment."

Lawns in the U.S. are grown mostly from non-native grasses that require large amounts of water, pesticides and fertilisers. Many homeowners aim for perfection, considered a dark green mat of closely-mown grass without weeds, a look promoted by chemical and fertiliser manufacturers here.

But homeowners, corporations and schools are starting to catch on to the idea of creating a wild space where nature can thrive.

Last week, Saffier helped dig a garden with a native spice bush plant at a Pennsylvania school.

The group had barely covered the roots of the plant with dirt when a swallowtail butterfly landed on a leaf and laid her eggs. "That's the kind of thing we are going for, on a larger scale," Saffier said. What happens on individual lawns is multiplied many times over, because more U.S. surface area is devoted to lawns than any other irrigated crop, according to an analysis by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The Lawn Institute, which represents the 35-billion-dollar per year turf industry, estimates that 25 million acres of lawn are growing in the U.S. This land previously hosted native trees, shrubs and grasses and entire ecosystems, but not anymore.

"The nutrient, hydrology and nitrogen cycles that happen naturally in biodiverse ecosystems are completely absent in lawns," Saffier said. These acres of contiguous lawn have contributed to the severe decline in the U.S. bird population, Saffier said. "The lawn is a landscape that offers nothing to the bird," he said. Ninety-six percent of birds eat mainly insects, like caterpillars and bugs, and these insects are highly specialised and eat just one, two or three types of native plants. "The birds won't find insects on the lawn," Saffier said. Fewer caterpillars mean birds do not have enough food to feed their young. Of the 800 major bird species in the U.S., 200 are in dangerous decline, Audubon says. Populations of meadow larks and other grassland species in the mid-western U.S. have plummeted 60 percent, while interior forest birds, like scarlet tanagers, have also seen a precipitous decline. Shrub land bird species, like the Brown Thrasher and Eastern Towhee, have decreased 75 percent since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, of the U.S. Geological Survey and Environment Canada.

Bird populations are doubly harmed when lawns are sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. "It only takes a trace amount of chemicals on insects or plants to impact birds. Birds have very sensitive nervous systems," Saffier said.

Of the 30 most common pesticides used on lawns, more than half are toxic to birds and fish, and linked to cancer and birth defects in humans, according to the environmental group, Beyond Pesticides. Eleven of the 30 are endocrine disrupters, chemicals that interfere with reproductive and other hormones in humans and animals.

Lawns and gardens are sprayed with more pesticides per acre than farmland, with weed killer the most used yard chemical, at 90 million pounds per year. About 78 million U.S. households spray pesticides on their yards each year, according to Beyond Pesticides. Lawn grasses tend to shed rainwater, so the chemicals run off into surface and groundwater after a downpour, increasing the chance that animals as well as humans will be exposed to them, John Kepner, project director of Beyond Pesticides, told IPS. "Children are the most vulnerable," he said.

Lawns were originally a flagrant display of European wealth, a sign that a household was rich enough to devote land to grass rather than food. They remain a status symbol today, says Julian Agyeman, chair of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. "The paradigm is that you should have a lawn at any cost, even if you can't afford it," Agyeman told IPS.

Millions of U.S. poor can't afford homes and lawns - and sometimes not even enough food - and are hired, often at low wages, to mow and spray chemicals on the lawns of the wealthy. "Adding insult to injury, the poor can't afford a lawn and then end up caring for the lawns of those that can," Agyeman said.

Food Not Lawns, a group with chapters in many U.S. communities, works with people who are ready to completely let go of the lawn as status symbol. "We call it lawn eradification," Steve Mann, co-founder of Food Not Lawns Kansas City, Missouri, told IPS.

Instead of turf, people are encouraged to grow fruit and nut trees, like pecans, walnuts and almonds, as well as vegetables. Since 2007, 250 people have consulted with the group. The group is seeking zoning changes from the city so neighbours can sell their extra garden produce, and hire others to help them.

They've encountered surprising opposition from local realtors. "Just think, you could pick up some fresh lettuce and tomatoes for your dinner right down the street. What's wrong with that?" Mann said. The opportunity for gardens in Kansas City is endless, given the amount of lawn space. "My god, people here have acres of it," Mann said.

Penny Lewis, executive director of the Ecological Landscaping Association, a group of professionals and homeowners, told IPS the lawn paradigm must change. "Rather than the status symbol being the picture-perfect lawn, it becomes the eco-friendly lawn," she said.

*This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by Inter Press Service (IPS), CGIAR/Biodiversity International, International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), and the United Nations Environment Programme/Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP/CBD) -- all members of the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

Monday, June 14, 2010

Restoration of the Loess Plateau in China

Things tend to be done on a large scale in cities, new roads and now landscape restoration.

The loess plateau in China has traditionally been a key part of productive agriculture, but it has suffered some terrible erosion in achieving some of the production and many many areas are now totally lost to agriculture. There are many images on the net of this damage, and I have previously blogged about it. But all may not be lost.

The article below is reproduced in its entirety...........and worth reading.

The concept was, to my best knowledge, originally espoused by CSIRO scientists in the early landscape ecology. Especially relevant to arid zones, and at that time after a long drought, but also for any disturbed landscape in which the key is to get basic biology re-established in the soil. Often low forms of plants establish first, lichens, worts etc along with microbes......and things go from there as organic matter starts to accumulate.

Needless to say, add organic matter and you get a big boost, and this naturally happens in minor soil depressions where organic residuals accumlate, but a liberal dose of added mulch is just fine!!!

We used similar technology to deal with erosion and soil restoration on a major mine development in Indonesia in the late 1990s, by adding significant organic matter to help kickstart plant re-establishment in a monsoonal environment where erosion control was also a key factor in its success.
As the article says:
"It starts as a physical intervention, but it becomes a biophysical intervention once the biology stops gravity being such a destructive force,” Mr Liu said.
“The principle is to start the accumulation of organic matter and total vegetation coverage, and at a higher level understanding the role of biodiversity.”
“It’s an advance over the concept of simply tree planting, which is simplistic and doesn’t talk about other factors like soil condition or other forms of vegetation.”

This is the key issue............absolutely!


Restoring China's lost Loess Plateau
MATT CAWOOD 11 Jun, 2010 10:18 AM

ABANDONED 1000 years ago by one of the first civilisations because of land degradation, China’s Loess Plateau has become the focus of a modern land restoration effort that has transformed agriculture and the local environment.

Key to restoration of 35,000 square kilometres of the 640,000 sq km plateau was the surrendering of farmland to purely ecological plantings.

According to a film made by soil scientist John Liu, in Australia last week to talk to the National Business Leaders Forum, local farmers strongly resisted the idea of giving over farmland to trees, but were persuaded by compensation payments on land taken permanently out of production.

As reported in Mr Liu’s film, Hope in a Changing Climate, available on the internet here , engineering landscapes and re-planting vegetation across key ecological recharge areas has changed the environment in ways that have lifted farm incomes threefold.

The Loess Plateau, which takes its name from the mineral-rich wind-borne sediments that make up much of its soil, was for several thousand years the base of China’s Han people.
It is thought the plateau was the second place on Earth to have a settled agriculture based on cultivation of the soil, after Mesopotamia.

Mr Liu said that China’s extensive written records show that over thousands of years, the plateau progressively lost its ability to sustain the Han. Their primitive agriculture degraded the landscape and destroyed the ecology, until about 1000 years ago the Han power base shifted east to what is now Bejing.

The plateau has since earned the distinction of being the most eroded place on Earth. Eroded loess provides the “yellow” in China’s Yellow River.

In 1995, when Mr Liu was invited to record the initial stage of the landscape restoration project, the plateau was being farmed at a subsistence level by desperately poor farmers who unwittingly compounded their own ecological troubles.

According to Mr Liu, Chinese scientists calculated the cost of sediment loss against the cost of restoring the landscape, and decided that restoration would be a quarter of the cost of allowing degradation to continue.

Less wealthy in 1995 than now, the Chinese borrowed US$500 million from the World Bank and set about rebuilding the landscape - mostly by hand. In typically picturesque Chinese terms, the project aimed to give the eroded hills “a hat, a belt and shoes at their feet”. That translates to tree cover on the upper slopes, farming terraces on the lower slopes, and dams in the valleys.

Massive landscape engineering was involved in the transformation - an approach unlikely to get much traction in Australia - “but the results are stunning”, Mr Liu said.

At one level, the project is an endorsement of the “front of pipe” approach to water management floated earlier this year by Australian landscape campaigner Major-General Michael Jeffery of Outcomes Australia.

On the Loess Plateau, more porous vegetation-covered soils and the flat terraces now catch and rainfall that once ran off the plateau during the rainy season, leaving it in drought during the dry season.

Water captured by the soil instead filters down through the terraces, fuelling crops. Waterways run clear, and farm productivity has soared.

Better productivity on the slopes, and the dams below, have allowed greenhouse agriculture to flourish in the valleys, extending the income-making opportunities for the local communities.
“It starts as a physical intervention, but it becomes a biophysical intervention once the biology stops gravity being such a destructive force,” Mr Liu said. “The principle is to start the accumulation of organic matter and total vegetation coverage, and at a higher level understanding the role of biodiversity.” “It’s an advance over the concept of simply tree planting, which is simplistic and doesn’t talk about other factors like soil condition or other forms of vegetation.”

Since 1995, Mr Liu has travelled to 60 countries looking at landscape regeneration techniques. He is a founder of the Environmental Education Media Project, which numbers the World Bank, Rockerfeller Foundation and Syngenta among its sponsors.

Although only briefly in Australia, Mr Liu was introduced to the environmental benefits of time-controlled livestock grazing practices in use here.

Also see here with more photos -

[article reproduced from the Land online]

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Soil Stability Enhanced by Using No-Till Agriculture

Nothing new in that statement, you say.

For users and advocates of the conservation farming approach, it would seem to be old knowledge. But similar outcomes might also be expected for areas where similar practices are now also being used. For example, use of recycled organics in transport corridors, rehabilitating mining sites with similar products and similar off farm uses.

A recently concluded 19 year study across a wide region of the US has delivered some quite definitive results. Using plant residues on the soil surface, along with no till farming delivers significant improvements in soil stability and resistance to erosion.

The "cover" term in the universal loss loss equation has been so modified as to bring modifications to soil loss. And as said above, the same should apply to other areas where surface cover with organic materials is practised.

The critical part is this - "No-till stores more soil carbon, which helps bind or glue soil particles together, making the first inch of topsoil two to seven times less vulnerable to the destructive force of raindrops than ploughed soil.

The structure of these aggregates in the first inch of topsoil is the first line of defense against soil erosion by water or wind. Understanding the resistance of these aggregates to the erosive forces of wind and rain is critical to evaluating soil erodibility. "

Get your soil cover in place.
Especially so in the tropics where erosion impacts from high intensity storms can create erosion problems very quickly. And it is a wise practice for many civil engineering developments as well.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Better Energy Efficiency in Buildings Mean BIG Energy Savings

Building energy management is one of the big issues in Australia's drive to improve carbon management.

A recent report by the Carbon Trust Australia is reported here

and can be downloaded via a link in the news item. The report shows enormous potential for energy savings through building retrofits.

Another highly relevant report is also available at: as either a summary or full report.

Both offer strong pathways to achieve large carbon savings. Efficiently and cost effectively!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Downtown Agriculture - Can it Succeed

While increasing agriculture and horticulture in urban areas has been mulled over for some time, and is thought to be necessary if food production is to increase, most ideas have revolved around vertical farming.

A recent serious development has involved using urban wastelands or abandoned factory sites, with Detroit in the US seen as a model.

Property values have fallen dramatically, where leasing old sites may just be a profitable way to develop high value crops, especially for horticulture, using modern approaches.

Read the article below..............some interesting options to ponder.

May not be relevant for Australia, as our land and property values are rising, but it would certainly have potential for many areas around the world.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Reinvigorating the Rural Economy

The material below has a familiar ring for many Australian food producers.........would this country also benefit from some similar facilities closer to production sites?

North Australia is a classic example with absolute minimal cattle slaughter occuring in the region, yet with significant cities as food consumers. One major retailer used to ship mangoes from Katherine to NSW, then bring them back for the supermarket, even though grown locally!

I know some interest is occurring in the NW of WA in slaughter house development, and more needs to happen in or near Darwin and Cairns, the larger cities. It might allow some local producers to develop a finishing system for local stock. Pasture systems such as leucaena / grass can finish stock very well, equal to feed lot performance, and that has been known for over 30 years.

While north australia cannot grow many temperate vegetables, some do perform very well in the dry season.

Can we do better with more local food for the mainstream consumer?

US re-envisions its rural economy
01 Jun, 2010 01:58 PM

THE Obama Administration has a vision to rebuild the country's rural economy that includes creating a parallel universe of local and regional markets and "food hub" distribution centers that will help small - maybe even all - farmers market their production closer to home.

Earlier this month, the US Department of Agriculture released a "gap analysis" that maps the locations of small livestock producers by county and compares production to the availability of small slaughter processing facilities as well as rendering plants. The study was conducted as part of USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said local food marketing is one of the ways USDA hopes to rebuild the rural economy, which he noted has been on the decline for many years.

The Administration also supports initiatives aimed at deploying more broadband telecommunications technology in rural areas as well as renewable energy projects.

On a recent press call, Vilsack reported that the chief executive officer of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. "was in our office recently trying to figure out how to expand the connection between farmers and their local store."

Vilsack predicted that if a major retailer such as Walmart is looking at local suppliers, other big chains probably will not be far behind.

USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan suggested that more information will be forthcoming on USDA's initiative to help local areas establish livestock slaughter facilities or mobile slaughter - perhaps this month.

Meanwhile, maps showing where current small livestock operations are located in reference to local slaughter plants - by animal species as well as a consolidated map - are available from USDA's Food Safety & Inspection Service.

USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service is surveying the locations of regional food hubs as part of the Know Your Farmer initiative.

Food hubs are aggregation points - similar, in some ways, to co-operatives - where farmers can bring goods that are inspected and graded for resale to wholesalers.

The food hubs provide storage and logistics services for buyers and sellers and have been "hugely successful" in some areas of the country, a USDA official reported.

The food hubs often are "hybrids" that combine a traditional wholesale market with a retail farmers market, the official added.

In yet another aspect of the initiative, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has developed a pilot project for farmers who wish to extend their growing season using "hoop houses."

NRCS chief Dave White explained that the hoop houses, which shelter plants under plastic, not only extend the growing season but provide some soil and water conservation benefits for landowners.
Interest in the hoop houses "has been astounding", he reported: More than 1000 growers have contracts under the three-year pilot project.

The hoop house pilot project, which is expected to be offered again this year, is funded with $10 million from the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which is "less than 1 per cent" of the program's total funding, White reported.

As part of its rural development strategy, USDA will host the "The National Summit of Rural America: A Dialogue for Renewing Promise" on June 3 at Jefferson College in Hillsboro, Mo.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Farm Biosecurity - Have YOU Got a Plan?

Producers are advised to follow good on-farm biosecurity measures to protect their livestock and crops from the constant threat of pests and diseases.

Being aware of biosecurity means keeping animals safe from disease and ensuring continued market access for produce.

Straightforward measures built into everyday practice will go a long way toward protecting your farm and your future, and animal owners should assess the risks to their animals and act to reduce the risks as much as possible.

Five main risks identified for livestock are:
1. Purchased livestock brought onto the property

The movement of new animals onto your property represents the highest risk of introducing disease into your herd or flock. Inspect the animals carefully for disease before buying them.

Always request the history and supporting paperwork, such as the vendor declaration or national health statement, before you buy the animals. Isolate new animals to make sure they are disease and weed free before mixing with your stock.

2. Stray animals
Poor fencing can allow stray livestock, and wild or feral animals to mix with your stock and introduce disease. Keep all gates shut and check fences regularly.

3. People
People can carry animal pests and diseases. Ask all visitors where they have been previously; whether they've had contact with other animals, or been abroad and possibly brought diseases home. Keep a register of all visitors.

Restrict visitor access to your property and make sure they don't go near animals unless they have clean clothes and have disinfected hands and footwear.

4. Vehicles and equipment
Vehicles and equipment can carry pests and diseases. Control the entry of vehicles onto the property and ensure they stay in a designated vehicle area. Use your own vehicles to transport visitors or material around the farm. Clean and thoroughly disinfect any second hand equipment purchased and brought onto the farm.

Maintain clean and disinfected equipment and do not share with other animal owners.

5. Feed and water
Feed and water can contain pests and diseases. Always request some form of commodity vendor declaration with purchased feed. Keep feed in a clean dry storage area and ensure it does not become mouldy. Make sure that water sources are not contaminated by wild or feral animals or birds.

Major outcomes of having farm biosecurity plans in place include:

improved profitability through the reduction of diseases,
less need for expensive chemical treatments or vaccinations and
improved animal production.

Farm biosecurity plans can reduce the risk of introducing pests and diseases onto a property that are already present on your neighbours farm or elsewhere

Good planning now will also reduce the impact of the next disease emergency.

There is absolutely no doubt that the rapid and wide geographical spread of emergency diseases can be controlled more easily if all livestock owners or farmers begin to practice farm biosecurity.........NOW.

Most of the practices are simple and easily implemented on any farm, and are applicable to both livestock and plant based operations.