Conservation Biological Control and Pest Performance in Lawn Turf: Does Mowing Height Matter?

Abstract

With >80 million United States households engaged in lawn and gardening activities, increasing sustainability of lawn care is important. Mowing height is an easily manipulated aspect of lawn management. We tested the hypothesis that elevated mowing of tall fescue lawn grass promotes a larger, more diverse community of arthropod natural enemies which in turn provides stronger biological control services, and the corollary hypothesis that doing so also renders the turf itself less suitable for growth of insect pests. Turf-type tall fescue was mowed low (6.4 cm) or high (10.2 cm) for two growing seasons, natural enemy populations were assessed by vacuum sampling, pitfall traps, and ant baits, and predation and parasitism were evaluated with sentinel prey caterpillars, grubs, and eggs. In addition, foliage-feeding caterpillars and root-feeding scarab grubs were confined in the turf to evaluate their performance. Although some predatory groups (e.g., rove beetles and spiders) were more abundant in high-mowed grass, predation rates were uniformly high because ants, the dominant predators, were similarly abundant regardless of mowing height. Lower canopy temperatures in high-mowed grass were associated with slower growth of grass-feeding caterpillars. Higher lawn mowing reduces fuel consumption and yard waste, and promotes a deep, robust root system that reduces need for water and chemical inputs. Although in this study elevated mowing height did not measurably increase the already-high levels of predation, it did suggest additional ways through which bottom-up effects on insect pest growth might interact with natural enemies to facilitate conservation biological control.

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Acknowledgments

We thank D. Williams, L. Williams, and R. King (Dept. of Plant and Soil Sciences) for assistance in establishing and maintaining the experimental site, E.R. Hoebeke for assistance in staphylinid identification, C. Redmond, S. Marksbury, S. Barney, J. Larson, and D.W. Lee for field assistance, and G. Aiken and L. Bush for facilitating the grass nutrient and endophyte evaluations. E. Dobbs was supported by the Multiyear Fellowship, the Daniel R. Reedy Quality Achievement Fellowship, and the Bobby C. Pass Fellowship from the University of Kentucky. This is paper no. 13-08-094 of the University of Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station.

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All experiments comply with the current laws of the United States.

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The authors declare they have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Daniel A. Potter.

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Dobbs, E.K., Potter, D.A. Conservation Biological Control and Pest Performance in Lawn Turf: Does Mowing Height Matter?. Environmental Management 53, 648–659 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-013-0226-2

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Keywords

  • Turfgrass
  • Sustainable lawns
  • Biological control
  • Mowing
  • Pest management