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For many years, University of Arizona facility managers have used traditional chemical fertilizers to feed the grass. But recently, they’ve made the switch to a more environmentally friendly organic compost mixture.

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Photo: Mark Duggan

The University of Arizona is now using organic compost to grow grass on the mall.

The UA's Facilities Management Department joined with a Tucson-based company to make the switch from traditional chemical fertilizers. They did a trial run in the summer of 2011, using a stubborn patch of grass in front of Bear Down Gymnasium. But after positive results, the program is spreading.

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Photo: Mark Duggan

Chris Kopach, with the UA's Facilities Management Department, says having a half-mile stretch of grass in the middle of the desert is a showpiece for the university.

“We’ve been really pleased with it,” said Chris Kopach, Assistant Vice President of the UA's facilities management department. “We kept measuring the roots. They would come in in a monthly basis. They would show me the root growth, where it was as a baseline at the very beginning which was extremely poor… and as they went on in the summer months you could see the root growth just growing. And we said, we might be on to something here,” said

UA facility managers realized that organic fertilizing could work for the whole mall, not just an experimental patch in front of Bear Down. Now, the entire half-mile stretch of the mall, from Old Main to Campbell Avenue, will be organically managed.

The university is working with a local firm, Merlin Organics. For the past two years, Merlin has been developing a compost tea, a special blend of organic compounds that are aerated and sprayed on the lawn once a month. The compost is said to make the grass greener and encourage root growth.

Not everyone was sure it would work. Matt Anderson, Senior Project Manager for the UA Grounds Keeping Department, says he initially preferred to stick to traditional ways of growing grass.

But, after using the new fertilizer since December of 2011, officials are seeing the advantages of organics.

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Photo: Mark Duggan

UA Groundskeeper Matt Anderson admits he was skeptical of using organic compost to grow grass.

There are some drawbacks. Organic management requires more frequent application of fertilizer, which translates to higher labor costs. Kopach says his team is working to balance the change in labor and material costs.

So, why not just keep the UA a desert landscape?

Kopach says having a half-mile stretch of grass in the middle of the desert provides a showpiece for the university. But that oasis doesn’t have to mean pouring water—or money—down the drain. Kopach says using organics is a good investment.

Using this compost goes beyond green grass—this public-private partnership between a local startup and the university could open up new opportunities for agricultural research.

So, the next time you’re walking along the grass at the UA Mall, remember that those roots might go deeper than you think.