Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Turf Mutt makes a plea for dog-friendly lawns

Lucky (a.k.a. Turf Mutt) inspired Kris Kiser to start an awareness program for kids.
Lucky (a.k.a. Turf Mutt) inspired Kris Kiser to start an awareness program for kids. .

What would Turf Mutt do?

That’s the approach Kris Kiser urges when it comes to California’s lawn debate. Kiser invokes a cartoon canine – based on his real-life family dog Lucky – that teaches environmental awareness to kids. Popularized on Scholastic.com’s educational website, Turf Mutt aims to “save the planet, one yard at a time.”

In California, those yards are looking mighty brown. Faced with ongoing drought and mandated water cutbacks, residents are tearing out grass by the acre, often in favor of concrete paving, mulch or artificial turf.

But dogs need lawn as a place to play and, you know, be dogs, Kiser said. Birds, bees and beneficial insects – above and below the soil – depend on living landscape for survival. In fact, humans benefit from urban grass, too; it helps clean the air and cool the environment.

Those are all good reasons for second thoughts before digging up that grass.

Kiser represents a vested interest in this statewide turf war. He’s president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Outdoor Power Equipment Institute.

“Grass is a vital part of our living landscapes that contribute to our communities, our families and our health,” he said during a recent visit to California. “I’m not out here to pitch lawns – or lawnmowers. We believe in (planting) the right plant in the right place. That includes finding the right grass.”

Kiser’s pro-lawn message is simple and direct: Keep it for the dogs and people, too. That’s what Turf Mutt would recommend, he said.

“Right now, all people hear is, ‘Tear up your lawn, tear up your lawn!’” Kiser said. “But people are worried; can they keep their grass? The lawn – even a small patch of grass – often is the only place your dog and your family have to recreate. It’s your outdoor green space.”

Lawn plays a key environmental role in concrete-heavy cities, he said. Among its assets: Lawn filters and captures runoff, reduces heat, improves air quality, supports biodiversity and controls erosion.

“Turf is very hardworking if you have the right stuff,” said Kiser. “We’re all trying to do the right thing. You can keep outdoor space a living landscape and save water, too. Tearing out all the lawns in California will have consequences.”

Strips of grass or other plant-filled landscaping naturally cools its surroundings, an important benefit during searing summers, Kiser noted. According to recent research, the average summer temperature for a lawn is 31 degrees cooler than asphalt and 20 degrees cooler than bare dirt. That’s why dogs like to roll on the lawn on a hot summer day; it feels a lot cooler than concrete or mulch.

The conflict comes from our image of what a “perfect” lawn should be, Kiser added. “It’s OK to let it go brown. Add flowering plants such as clover for pollinators. Diversify with native plants and native grasses. Lawns aren’t the devil, but the problem is what grass is planted. Not every grass is right for California. It’s about finding the right species for your landscape.”

The “right stuff” for California is drought-tolerant grasses such as Bermudagrass and buffalo grass, he said. They may not make the prettiest or greenest lawn, but they’re tough, pet friendly and survive with considerably less water. Those deep-rooted grasses need only weekly or twice-monthly irrigation.

“It comes down to our fixation with green,” Kiser said. “(Bermudagrass) might not look the best, but it grows the best. I’m struck dumb by the idea of plastic artificial grass being preferred (to Bermudagrass) because it looks greener. Ask your dog what he prefers.”

Lucky, Kiser’s dog, inspired him and Turf Mutt, the star of the institute’s educational outreach program. Since 2009, more than 40 million kids have taken part in Turf Mutt’s reading and environmental education programs, Kiser said.

“Lucky is a real-life rescue dog and very, very smart,” said Kiser, adding that the mixed-breed dog was found wandering an Indiana highway. “When we got him, he was in real tough shape. He almost didn’t survive. The veterinarian said, ‘If he makes it, it will be like hitting the dog lotto.’ So, that’s how he got his name.

“He’s a mutt – the Turf Mutt – and he gave me this idea (for environmental outreach) seven years ago,” Kiser said. “We can learn a lot from our dogs.”

In addition to his featured role on Scholastic.com, Turf Mutt has his own website and blog, by Lucky and Kiser. The pair also make frequent television appearances. This month, Kiser and Lucky are filming six episodes of “Lucky Dog” for CBS with animal trainer Brandon McMillan. That show focuses on real-life rescue dogs such as Lucky.

What’s Turf Mutt’s drought advice?

“Turf Mutt says, ‘Let the lawn get taller,’” Kiser said. “The grass shades itself, stays cooler and needs less water. Use clover (to sover-seed other grasses) and let it flower; bees love it. Leave the grass clippings on the ground; it’s natural fertilizer. That’s Turf Mutt’s take.”

And don’t forget to roll on a cool lawn on a hot day.

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