Pity the National Park Service (NPS). One of its tasks (perhaps its most visible) is maintaining healthy attractive turfgrass on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The deck is stacked against the NPS from the start, we were reminded April 15 as we walked the Mall on a perfect spring afternoon.
Keeping the Mall (our nation’s “front yard”) grassed is a numbers game, and the NPS can’t help but come out on the short end of the score.
How can it be otherwise?
More than 25 million people each year walk, jog, play sports on or gather for massive events on its 112 acres. One of these massive events takes place Sunday, April 25. Nobody knows for sure how many people will be gathering there for the Earth Day Climate Rally. With the likes of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, film director James Cameron and entertainer Sting making appearances, you can bet they will number in the hundreds of thousands.
They’ll find at least one rectangular patch of turf verdure. Whether they’ll be able to enjoy it (enjoy it to death) is not known. On our visit the 45-by-75-yard section of healthy turfgrass was fenced in and off limits, obviously an attempt to restore a tiny part of the Mall to a semblance of a park. The remainder of the middle turfed section of the Mall sported just tufts or small sections of turfgrass. Much of the area was bare earth and as hard as concrete.
Several years ago SafeLawns.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting natural lawn care, began conducting a test at the Mall. It tilled sections of the existing lawn, cultivated them to relieve soil compaction and added solid plant material compost and other natural soil amendments before reseeding the sections.
Since there was no signage indicating how the sole rectangle of nice turfgrass on the Mall, left, had been established or maintained, it was unclear if this, in fact, was part of the original SafeLawns demonstration area.
Add to the equation Washington D.C.’s location in the turfgrass “transition zone,” a climatic zone with cold winters unfavorable to the growth and health of warm-season grasses such as Bermudagrass and zoysiagrass and with hot and humid summers that stress cool-season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue and perennial ryegrass and the NPS has one very tough (impossible?) challenge keeping our nation’s “front yard” covered in green.
Actually, given the incredible amount of foot traffic and the number of events taking place on the Mall each year, the fact that Washington D.C. is in the transition zone or that organic products are used probably doesn’t matter too much.
Floyd Perry, a longtime sports field manager and consultant, has a saying that fits the Mall’s situation exactly. “Turf grows by the inch and is killed by the foot,” he says. In this case, of course, turfgrass is killed by the feet of 25 million people.
To check out the NPS's detailed National Mall Plan, click here. — Ron Hall