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Making Grass Out of Trash

By David Elstein
July 9, 2004

Turning the U.S. Army's trash into a useful pulp is how the Agricultural Research Service is helping to revegetate the Army's training grounds at Fort Campbell, Ky.

At the base, the Army is using a conveyor system to separate useful garbage from waste. The useful material is then heated and sterilized. After it is dried, a pulp, which looks like home insulation material, remains.

That's when ARS takes over. Soil scientists H. Allen Torbert of the National Soil Dynamics Laboratory, Auburn, Ala., along with Ken Potter of the Blacklands Research Center, Temple, Texas, have planted native grasses on bare training areas. They are studying the soil chemical properties after the pulp--which contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium--is added. It has a neutral pH.

Native grasses were successfully established, and a significant increase in plant biomass occurred between the first and second year of the project. The researchers were able to make the soil fertile again. The addition of native grasses not only has made bare areas look nicer, but has cut down on soil erosion. This research should be applicable to degraded agricultural soils and may be used in the future to grow grass in parks, golf courses and backyards.

The ARS soil scientists also conducted work at Fort Benning, Ga., where the soil condition was even worse and needed a higher concentration of the pulp. The results, however, were the same. Degraded training areas became fertile grasslands.

The Army considers the research a success and is interested in expanding the technology to other bases--and even possibly to the other military branches.

More information on the research is available in the July issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.