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Restoring the People's Lawn February 4, 2022 By Katie James Watkinson

With the help of the USGA Green Section, one of the country’s most famous expanses of turf is healthier than ever

Through assistance from the USGA Green Section, agronomist Michael Naas has restored the turf around the U.S. Capitol. (USGA/Simon Bruty)

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It’s just after dawn when Michael Naas fires up the mower’s engine. The dull hum reverberates off the walls of a garage as he springs the machine into action. Naas passes through multiple security barricades and pauses for a K-9 sweep before rolling onto the expansive grounds and beginning the day’s work. Unlike most superintendents at first light, Naas isn’t headed for the fairways – he’s headed for Capitol Hill.

As turfgrass manager for the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) Grounds and Arboretum, Naas’ charge looks different than an 18-hole golf course: It’s the 70 acres surrounding the U.S. Capitol Building, which includes the country’s most recognizable lawn. Officially called the West Lawn, more affectionately referred to as “The People’s Lawn,” this 3.4-acre behemoth of a yard hosts every presidential inauguration, four mega-concerts (celebrating Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day and National Peace Officers Memorial Day), plus millions of tourists annually.

After decades of unrelenting wear and tear, this universally revered plot had become a patchwork eyesore. “We would lift up the flooring after a concert, and the grass would be absolutely torched,” Naas said. “Some spots were so severely damaged, there wasn’t even grass anymore, just bare soil.” When the decision was made in 2018 to overhaul the lawn’s hallmark center panel, Naas – a former assistant superintendent at Argyle Country Club in Silver Spring, Md. – called up the USGA.

As a field agronomist for the USGA Green Section’s Northeast Region, Elliott Dowling crisscrosses the Mid-Atlantic consulting with golf course managers. “Our goal is to help the facility, be it public, private, municipal or daily fee, to optimize the use of their resources, labor and inputs,” Dowling said, “inputs” referring to things like water and fertilizer. To improve playing conditions and overall grass health, he might recommend changing equipment, new construction methods, alternative plant protectants, or a genetically unique variety within a species of turfgrass (such as the kind used on sports fields, urban green spaces, suburban lawns, etc.).

In the case of the U.S. Capitol’s West Lawn, tackling the grass was the first priority, though improved drainage and a better growing medium were also on the list. During an initial inspection of the lawn, in summer 2018, Dowling recalls spotting some common bermudagrass growing in a patch of exposed soil. “It probably shouldn’t have surprised me, given how much bermudagrass is found in D.C.-area golf courses,” he said. “But it was a lightbulb moment.” Dowling figured that since bermudagrasses thrive in the summer – when the West Lawn hosts the majority of its concerts and sees the highest foot traffic – re-grassing with this warm-season-adapted species would be the best option. “The immediate goal was to get the bermudagrass going, and then we’d investigate cool-season grasses to seed into it for 12-month color coverage,” he said.

Identifying which bermudagrass cultivar to plant was the all-important question. The AOC needed a turfgrass that not only improved aesthetics but also could withstand daily wear-and-tear (remember: millions of tourists), use water efficiently (it’s not like Naas can throw the sprinklers on at any time of day), tolerate cold temperatures (D.C. is prone to winterkill), and is environmentally sustainable.

The strain they chose was born out of Oklahoma State University’s turfgrass breeding and development program, a consortium of faculty, staff, postdoctoral researchers, graduate and undergraduate students that has been studying bermudagrass and cultivating its genetic optimization since the 1960s. Dr. Yanqi Wu, professor of grass breeding and genetics at Oklahom State, was responsible for hybridizing the first Tahoma 31 seeds, in 2007. What followed was a painstakingly precise, decade-long breeding and testing protocol involving laboratories, greenhouses, freeze chambers and field nurseries throughout the country to narrow some 10,000 prospective plants down to one nationally certified “super grass.”

In 2017, this cultivar, dubbed Tahoma 31, was released for commercial use in partnership with Sod Production Services, which now grows Tahoma 31 sod and sprigs at roughly 30 domestic and international sod farms. Since its release, Tahoma 31 has been planted on more than 50 golf courses, football stadiums, soccer complexes, baseball fields, public parks, elementary schools and maybe even your neighbor’s yard.

Superficially, this more efficient breed offers the end user a lower-maintenance, better-quality grass. Widen the lens, and you see a higher purpose: “We know from surveys that 2.6 to 3.1 percent of all U.S. national acreage is turfgrass,” Dr. Wu explained. “That’s larger than the land size of the state of Oklahoma.” In an urbanizing world – where there is an increasing number of city greenscapes, public parks and suburban lawns – planting a high-performance turf that requires less water, pesticides, fertilizer and less fuel for mowing has broad implications for environmental sustainability.

The USGA’s Green Section already knows this well.

“Since the 1920s, our mission has been to improve golfer experiences while reducing the use of critical resources,” said Cole Thompson, the USGA’s director of Turfgrass and Environmental Research. Thompson oversees the Mike Davis Program for Advancing Golf Course Management, a competitive funding program that provides nearly $2 million in university research grants across roughly 80 projects per year (including Oklahoma State’s bermudagrass research, which it has funded since 1986).

“The primary function of the program is to advance golf course sustainability through turfgrass breeding and management,” Thompson explained. “But everything that we do spills over into other segments of the turfgrass industry. The same scientific principles apply between the way you manage turf on a golf course as on a sports field or a lawn.”

Michael Naas couldn’t agree more. His management of the U.S. Capitol grounds is very similar to his time as a golf course superintendent. “Every morning, my colleagues and I go out and scout to decide what needs to be mowed, fertilized or watered,” he said. “It’s about responding to the environment, to whatever curveballs Mother Nature throws our way.”

One unforeseeable curveball was COVID-19. Naas and his team laid down the final sprigs of Tahoma 31 in February 2020, just a few weeks before D.C. issued mandatory stay-at-home orders and large public gatherings, such as the Capitol’s annual concerts, were put on hold. While the outdoor gardens and grounds of the U.S. Capitol remained open throughout lockdown, visitors were scarce. “I’m used to seeing so many people around, even at 4 o’clock in the morning,” said Naas. “But during those times, it was kind of quiet. In a way, it was peaceful to be alone and just get lost in the work.”

When I visited the Capitol in October, Naas and his team had just completed phase two of the USGA-recommended plan: inter-seeding the West Lawn with a cold-season variety to provide year-round color. They selected a Kentucky bluegrass cultivar, and called the mixture of the two species Bluemuda. This system capitalizes on the strengths of both grasses that grow and thrive at different times of the year. It had already begun to spring up – just in time, as Tahoma 31 slowed its growing.

Naas admits that the unique circumstances of 2020, with its minimal pedestrian traffic and absence of concerts, enabled the bermudagrass to mature into a lush swath of greenery. Wishing I’d packed my 52-degree wedge to pitch across the lawn’s uniform blades (not allowed; police will come running), I settle instead for lying down on the grass. Staring up at the sky, the thick, velvety turf wrapped around me like an evergreen blanket. It felt like being on hallowed ground – which, of course, it is.

Back home in the Philadelphia suburbs, I stare out my front window, despondent at the patchy mess that is my lawn. I text Naas to congratulate him again on a job well done, and, in the same breath, outwardly lament the state of my yard. He surprises me with a confession: “My own lawn doesn’t look that great.”

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