The Art and Science of Growing Grass
By Jim Smith
Spring in New England is an unpredictable thing. Jack Frost is usuallly slow to relinquish his grip. In February, occasional days of spring-like temperatures send hopes soaring. But it's only a tease. Snow nearly always follows.
However, once snow is finally gone, an army of professionals in landscaping and golf course management emerges in full force.
Many of these experts knowledgeable in how to turn landscapes lush after the thaw, and keep the fairways and greens challenging, are graduates of the turfgrass science program in UConn's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
By mid-April, Matt Bagshaw, '03 (RHSA), accounts manager at E. A. Quinn Landscape Gardening, in Glastonbury, Conn., is upon the land in earnest, setting things right in the aftermath of the glacier's retreat, redirecting his crews from snow removal to landscape installation, mulch blowing, lawn maintenance and the construction of walls and patios.
Things are no less busy for Dan Gilbert, '00 (CANR), an assistant superintendent at the Ellington Ridge Country Club, in Ellington, Conn. All but the most relentless golf enthusiasts pack it in once the snow starts to fly, but turf maintenance is a year-round job at golf courses. All winter he supervises equipment maintenance and by mid-March, his crews are starting to prune trees, put the sand traps in order, edge the traps and mow the greens for the first time.
It may come as a surprise that UConn has an entire program devoted to the management of grass. But the turfgrass program is one of UConn's most successful, growing consistently over the last two decades and finding that it cannot provide enough graduates annually to meet marketplace demands. Every turfgrass graduate is highly sought after for a variety of positions.
"Within the field of agronomy, UConn has always had programs devoted to plants and soil science," says Karl Guillard, professor of agronomy "The focus was on economically important crops."
It still is, but as economies have changed, so have the crops. When UConn was much closer to its agricultural roots, plant and soil science students focused mostly on the staples of traditional farms: corn, grasses, forage and silage. By the 1970s, though, as Connecticut's population became increasingly urban and suburban and the role of farming in the state's economy declined, the College began adding classes on turfgrass — the grasses used for lawns, parks, golf courses, athletic fields and other managed landscapes.
More and more students lost interest in traditional farming, but interest in horticulture and the emerging field of turfgrass management grew, especially as it became clear that there was likely to be a growing demand for professionals equipped to service this new, "recreational" form of agriculture.
In 1998, for the first time, turfgrass was offered as a degree program at UConn. Two years later, Guillard was joined on the faculty by Steven Rackliffe, extension instructor turfgrass science, who brought with him years of on-the-job experience in golf course management. The program's trajectory has been onward and upward ever since.
"This program is an enormous source of pride," says Mary Musgrave, head of the department of plant science, who joined the UConn faculty in January 2003. "The demand for professionals in the turfgrass field has grown significantly over the last quarter of the 20th century, and I'm very impressed with the foresight the agronomy program demonstrated in adapting to offer the education needed to prepare students for this burgeoning new agricultural economy."
By way of demonstrating how significant turfgrass management is, she points to the fact that Connecticut currently has more than 180 golf courses, and more are being planned all the time. "It's a huge value to the state," she says, "and we're playing an important role preparing the workforce needed."
Some 60 percent of the program's graduates end up working in the golf industry. Another 30 percent take jobs in grounds-keeping, recreation field maintenance and other sports-related field management. A few are employed in sod production, conservation and natural resources. But the program doesn't come close to meeting demand, says Guillard. Requests for graduates to fill jobs and undergraduates to work in internships outstrip available students by four to five times.
Although people who are unfamiliar with the industry may have a mistaken view of turfgrass as simple, the propagation and successful management of turfgrasses is, in fact, an extremely complex process. Courses offered at UConn cover such diverse issues as soils and soil fertility, plant diseases, integrated pest management, landscape design, environmental law, pesticide safety, business management and golf course design and management. And the University maintains greenhouses, a teaching nursery and a 150-acre teaching and research field facility to support the program.
"My education has been really useful," says Bagshaw. "I had a small landscaping business while I was in high school, so I went to UConn with an interest in this field. I had a lot to learn, though, as I found out in the turfgrass program. On the job, I use what I learned at UConn all the time."
Gilbert echoes that sentiment. "I grew up as a golfer, loved the game, played on UConn's golf team," he says, "but I didn't think there was a way I could have a career in golf." Then he signed up for the golf course management class and, he says, it changed his life.
The range of courses offered, Gilbert says, accurately reflects the variety of skills he needs to be successful on the job, wearing several hats. He manages a crew of 20 who are constantly at work.
He is an agronomist, keeping grasses and accent plants rich and robust throughout the summer. Additionally, he needs to know about plumbing, mechanics and electricity.
"It's an exciting career but a very complex and demanding one," he says. "There's not a day when my UConn education doesn't pay off."
The quality of the program and its students is impressing experienced professionals such as Greg Wojick '78 (CANR), course superintendent for the Greenwich Country Club in Greenwich, Conn., who earned a degree in agronomy, and Cindy Johnson, '78 (CANR), course superintendent at Tumble Brook Country Club in Bloomfield, Conn., who earned a degree in horticulture.
Johnson has hosted UConn students from Rackliffe's classes in turfgrass irrigation at Tumble Brook's 27-hole course, which is undergoing renovations. "The students ask good questions and are interested in what I show them," she says. "I think it's wonderful that UConn has this program. It's what the state of Connecticut has needed."
Wojick hired one of the program's early graduates, Josh Satin '01 (CANR), as one of his assistant superintendents and for the second consecutive year has a UConn student, Justin Barry '05 (CANR), doing an internship in Greenwich. He says the requirements for success in golf course management demand a broad educational background as well as the hands-on science for turfgrass management.
"Because of the high standards for entry into UConn, you receive a well-rounded education. The demands of the job require good communications skills, good management skills, technical knowledge, plus interpersonal skills when you meet the captains of industry at social functions," Wojick says. "I think that's what UConn offers. We've hit home runs on all of our UConn students. Why not have the epicenter for learning in turfgrass and landscaping at UConn?"
Lawn Care During Drought Conditions
By Dr. Karl Guillard
Cool-season turfgrasses adapted to Connecticut climatic conditions have a built-in drought response mechanism – it’s called dormancy. Turfgrasses such as Kentucky bluegrass will shut down growth when moisture is limited to conserve water. By most appearances, the grass looks “dead”, but in many cases unless there is an extreme lack of moisture for a very long time or if the drought occurs on very sandy soils, the grass will “recover” and renew growth with the return of moisture. So, to say that most lawn grasses in Connecticut are not drought tolerant is false. They tolerate drought by going dormant. Unfortunately, most homeowners desire a green lawn throughout the entire growing season and become concerned when their turf begins to undergo dormancy during hot and dry periods.
What steps can one do to care for a lawn during a drought period? First is to understand the different response to drought from the various turfgrasses adapted to Connecticut conditions. Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass are the two most widely grown lawn grass species. Both require a fair amount of available moisture or will go dormant relatively quickly. On the other hand, the turf-type tall fescues and the fine leaf fescues – creeping red fescue, hard fescue, sheep fescue – will retain color and quality for a longer period under drought conditions than will Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. Therefore, a lawn comprising more of the fescues will maintain turf quality with less water than the bluegrasses or ryegrasses. If water supply for a lawn is a yearly concern or becomes a yearly concern, it may be time to consider changing the species composition in the lawn by overseeding in the fescues or a complete lawn renovation and reseeding with a higher percentage of the fescues.
If one cannot or does not want to change the lawn composition from a predominance of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass to a predominance of the fescues, then other care practices need to be implemented for drought conditions. If irrigation is available and water supply availability is not an issue, then water should be applied at heavy rates on an infrequent basis. The reasoning behind this recommendation is that heavy, infrequent waterings will penetrate deeply into the soil and encourage a deep root system. Grass roots will grow to the water, so the deeper the available water, the deeper the root system. Light, frequent waterings actually encourage the opposite – most of the root system will stay in the shallow depths of the soil profile. This will predispose the grass to greater water stress because the water in this shallow depth will be used up quickly by the grass and some water will be lost through evaporation. The grass will then become entirely dependent on this shallow water and will not be able to reach deeper soil water if the water supply is abruptly curtailed.
Often during drought conditions, lawn watering is prohibited. Grasses conditioned to frequent light waterings will suffer more so if irrigation is stopped than grasses not irrigated or irrigated infrequently because of differences in rooting system depths. If watering restrictions are all but certain, then it is probably best not to begin to irrigate at all and allow the turfgrasses to acclimate to the low water availabilities. This is called “pre-conditioning”. A number of research studies have shown that grasses that were pre-conditioned to water stress better withstood and recovered much more quickly from drought conditions than grasses that were abruptly cutoff from irrigation. Of course the lawn will go dormant and not be as aesthetic pleasing, but the grass will be healthier in the long run.
There are other cultural management practices recommended during drought conditions. During low water availability, one should always raise the cutting height of the mower. The basis for this recommendation stems from the fact that grass rooting depths are related to mower cutting height – the longer the grass, the deeper the roots; conversely, the shorter the grass, the shallower the roots. If a grass plant has a deeper root system, then it will be able to access deeper soil water and retain quality for a longer period than shorter cut grasses.
During drought conditions, fertilizer applications, especially with nitrogen, should be avoided. Most of the commercially available lawn fertilizers are in the form of salts and applying fertilizers during a drought can worsen the situation. Fertilizing with nitrogen fertilizers stimulate shoot growth at the expense of the roots. So prior to or during drought conditions, nitrogen fertilization rates should be reduced or avoided. On the other hand, there is some evidence to show that fertilization with potassium prior to drought conditions may increase root growth, thereby allowing the grass to reach deeper soil water. The form of potassium fertilizer is important because of the salt damage potential: potassium sulfate is preferred to potassium chloride because of its lower salt index value.
Lastly, there are compounds called “wetting agents” that can increase the amount of water that is available to the grass roots. These act by reducing surface tensions and allow for a better spread of water through the soil. These are generally sprayed onto the turf and watered in, or they can be applied through the irrigation system. Wetting agents are routinely used on golf courses and high-end athletic fields. For the general homeowner, however, wetting agents may not be a viable alternative because of costs and lack of equipment. But, professional lawncare services should be able to obtain and apply them correctly.
In summary, here are lawn care tips for drought conditions:
· Irrigate deeply and infrequently
· Apply wetting agents if possible
· Pre-condition grasses to drought stress before water restrictions abruptly curtail watering
· Avoid the application of fertilizers during a drought
· Apply potassium-based fertilizers prior to drought conditions
· Reduce the rates of nitrogen-based fertilizers prior to drought conditions
· Raise the mower cutting height
Turf Science, Turf Culture Are Big Business
Turf grass science and turf culture are important businesses, and areas of growing career potential, says Karl Guillard, associate professor of plant science and head of the turf grass science program at UConn.
For example, according to the National Golf Foundation, there are now some 17,000 golf courses in the U.S. covering an area as large as Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Another 500 new golf courses are built each year.
Today, the specification of turf grasses for these golf courses, the planting of grasses, and the installation of cultivated turf is not a casual matter. It is one of scientific exactitude, depending on the climatic and environmental conditions, the geography involved, and the specific uses to which the grasses will be put.
And golf courses are but a small part of the total turf grass business, says Guillard.
Turf management is also important in erosion control, in athletic fields, municipal parks and grounds, and in the ubiquitous lawns of suburban America.
Since the days of the early English settlers, Americans have had a special fondness for lawns around their homes, Guillard notes. Farmers generally couldn't afford to waste useful growing space for lawns, so having a lawn became a type of "conspicuous consumption" in America. A well-kept lawn became a sign of wealth and success.
As America grew and spread westward, land was plentiful and settlements spread outward from village centers, allowing plenty of room for each homeowner to have a lawn.
Today, turf scientists, plant biologists, and chemists who develop ever-better fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, participate in the unending quest for the perfect lawn, a quest upon which billions of dollars are spent each year.
Interestingly, in this age of synthetics, natural turf is now being replanted in many athletic fields and stadiums where artificial turf was formerly used. This is due, Guillard says, to higher injury rates on synthetic turf, which is less forgiving and more abrasive than natural turf.
Giant Stadium in the New Jersey meadowlands is an example. Cultivated natural turf, has replaced artificial turf, and is grown on-site in four-foot-by-four-foot trays, right in the stadium's parking lot.
Maintaining a supply of replacement turf on site requires quite a complex system, says Guillard, and involves not only keeping the sod moist and fed with the proper nutrients, but warm as well. In cool weather, a blanket of warm air is maintained beneath the trays to promote the growth of the grass.
Turf scientists use their knowledge of different types of grasses in planning turf areas, depending on the terrain, the intended use, and the environmental and climatic conditions.
Turf grass scientists are also involved in experimenting with different grasses from many locales, and in hybridizing and testing new grasses that can withstand tougher conditions of weather and wear.
When It Comes to Teaching, Guillard is on Solid Turf
By John Wray
Short grasses, tall grasses, hairy and smooth, temperate and tropical, grasses of the dusty plains and grasses of the lush tropics - all are of intense interest to those who study the most widely grown crop in America.
Karl Guillard is one of these, and his enthusiasm about plant science in general and turf grass in particular is infectious.
In a recent lab session, his students dissected cross sections of different grasses, examining them under microscopes.
Preparing the specimens required patience, as students cut the thinnest possible slices across a blade of grass, mounting each specimen on a slide with a drop of water. Some of the specimens proved too large, or lay flat so that a cross section could not be seen. But Guillard and his students kept at it until they succeeded, intent on seeing the sought-after internal structures whose color and positioning are telltale signs differentiating one type of turf grass from another.
Even in lecture classes, Guillard tries to include something applied, such as experiments and field trips.
"I like to challenge my students on these walks and say: 'You're the consultants. Tell me why I can't get grass growing here and what can I do about it,'" he says. "I like to act as a facilitator in getting them to come up with their own ideas."
He also likes to incorporate technology into his classes. He uses computers wherever he can, and much of his class material can also be accessed on his website. And he encourages his students to post their class projects on the site, so they can be shared with other students.
Love of the Environment
Guillard's interest in plant science stems from early exposure to the countryside.
"My father was a country doctor," he says, "but he always dreamed of becoming a gentleman farmer. He never did become a gentleman farmer, but he did buy a big apple farm where I grew up in central Pennsylvania and I spent a lot of time there.
"I always liked being outside, and I've always been interested in the environment and the land," he says, "so I guess it's natural that I should have gravitated into plant science."
Guillard earned his bachelor of science in agriculture at Penn State, then came to UConn, where he completed a master's in plant science and a Ph.D. in agronomy, the science of crops and soils. He started teaching at UConn in 1987.
Guillard has taught many different plant science courses over the years, but finally settled on turf science as his area of concentration when he was asked to develop a turf grass science program at UConn in 1996.
In addition to heading this program, he teaches a graduate course in the design and analysis of agricultural experiments, and is developing other new courses related to turf science.
He is also a successful researcher. One recent grant, under the USDA's National Research Initiative, is currently funding research with the objective of reducing nitrogen leaching from fall nitrogen fertilization of turf. "There has been concern," Guillard says, "that nitrogen fertilizers used on grasses are leaching into the aquifers. We don't have the data yet, but we're working on it."
But above all Guillard loves to teach. This year, his dedication to teaching was recognized when he became one of three faculty members named a University Teaching Fellow for 2001-2002.
"I have known Karl Guillard both as a student, and throughout his teaching career," says Derek Allinson, interim associate dean for resident instruction, himself a teaching fellow, and former head of the Teaching and Learning Institute, who nominated Guillard for the award. "Karl is a dedicated teacher who is constantly looking for and implementing new ways to enhance his students' ability to learn. He has taught at all academic levels and has achieved success in all of them. He is a model for young faculty members to emulate."
Guillard receives high praise from his students.
Says graduate student Seth Goodall: "Dr. Guillard's enthusiasm for teaching encourages his students to strive for excellence in the classroom and beyond. His vast knowledge and use of technology makes the topics interesting."
"He is very good at relating his subject matter to the real world," adds Christy O'Neill, also a graduate student.
Matthew Staffieri, a junior in the turf grass science program, says, "Professor Guillard encourages us to challenge ourselves and not take the easy way out, in class and in real life."
He notes that Guillard is very accessible to students: "He's a very out-going teacher and is willing to help his students whenever they need it. It is nice to know that if you have a quick question or problem, you can stop by his office and he will stop what he is doing to help you out."
Guillard has been successful at recruiting graduate students into the turf science program by involving undergraduates in research early in their university experience.
"I'm always looking for potential graduate students who are going to continue to pursue turf science as a career," says Guillard. "I've found that starting undergraduate students on interesting projects is a great way to get them involved and show them what potential there is in this field. Sometimes, projects my students have started in undergraduate school have continued all the way through their graduate studies."
One of Guillard's former graduate students, Kelly Kopp, is now an extension turf grass specialist at Utah State University, where she is researching ways to reduce the water use of grasses.
"As a student and teaching assistant, I witnessed the curiosity that Dr. Guillard inspired in his students first-hand," she says. "He succeeded in blending course materials, current events, and humor in a way that engaged students with every lecture."
Turf Officials Prepare For Natural Grass in Stadium
By CHRIS BOYER
The State News
The future field of Spartan Stadium, the north end zone in the foreground, sits growing at the Hancock Turfgrass Research Center on Farm Lane. The field is scheduled to be complete June 1, but the date could be sooner because of the advanced progress of work in the stadium. this sentence is a little kooky to me...but didn’t have background info to clarify it. MSU will be only the third stadium in the country to have this turf system.
Natural turf hits close to home for Jason Henderson.
As a former offensive lineman for Pennsylvania State University in the 1990s, Henderson would hit his opponents with his massive frame. Now, he hits the books, working on his doctoral degree at MSU in crop and soil science.
Although he faced an opportunity to turn pro after his senior season in 1996 at Penn State, Henderson decided he might have found a better opportunity in graduate school.
“It was a tough decision,” he said. “I had some injuries that were becoming chronic - I had shoulder and knee problems, and I broke my foot at the beginning of senior year and missed five games right off the bat. The doctors told me it would really set me back.”
So Henderson, who studied agricultural science at Penn State, decided to look into a postgraduate program that would best suit his interests.
Since then, he has found himself back on the college football field, but this time as a researcher developing the new field for Spartan Stadium.
“It’s a marriage between the agricultural interest and the sports interest, and that just led to turf management,” he said.
This summer, grass will grow in Spartan Stadium for the first time in 33 years. Having roots as an agricultural school with a well-respected turf management program, MSU still had artificial turf in its stadium.
But all that is set to change this May, when the new field is installed.
Researchers in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences have developed a portable field similar to the one they designed in 1993 for the World Cup. The field, which was installed in the Pontiac Silverdome, provided the first indoor match play for the international soccer tournament.
The new field, made up of 4,800 modules that contain soil and grass seeds, will be assembled by forklift in the stadium this summer.
The 4-square-foot modules are unlike those used in the World Cup, which were octagonal pieces that varied in size.
The field costs $2 million to build plus an annual $200,000 for operations and upkeep. MSU spent more than $1 million along, with a $5,000 for yearly upkeep, when it had artificial turf, officials say.
Despite the price, MSU administrators say they are looking forward to the natural green in the stadium, praising the project as a good meeting of the institution’s athletic and academic sides.
“I always think it’s nice when the academic and athletic parts of the institution can come together and enhance one another,” said Trustee David Porteous, a football season-ticket-holder since 1974. “The grass field is something that all of us at the university can take pride in.”
Watching grass grow Watching grass grow
Kentucky bluegrass, according to researchers, is the best grass in Michigan for athletic fields. Out of the 200 varieties available, researchers chose a mix of nine.
“It offers good weather tolerance and recovery from wear,” said John Sorochan, a crop and soil sciences graduate student who was one of the researchers who chose the types of grass.
The grass also is found to be more stable and aggressive than the other varieties researchers considered.
But most importantly, it grows back quicker - which, after being pounded into the ground by a 250-pound linebacker, is very important, Sorochan said.
Sorochan has been involved with the stadium grass project from the beginning, working under Trey Rogers, a crop and soil sciences professor.
“I’ve been fortunate to be involved with Dr. Rogers from the very get-go,” he said. “From filling the modules to selecting the type of grass that we’d be growing. It’s a pretty labor-intensive thing.”
Sorochan, who is preparing to take a job as the only turf management professor at the University of Tennessee in May, has been working with Rogers on turf experiments since he came to MSU in 1991.
He worked on the modules for the World Cup field, and did research on a field heating system used by the New York Giants and New York Jets. The system pumps hot air underground and through the soil of the field during cold weather so the grass continues to grow.
This technology also will be incorporated in Spartan Stadium’s new field, he said.
Members of MSU’s turfgrass management program have served as consultants for soccer stadiums in Spain and the new arena for NFL expansion team Houston Texans. But despite their accomplishments, they never have been looked to for a turf system in the university stadium until 2000.
“Better late than never,” Sorochan said.
More than a sandbox More than a sandbox
Jim Crum, a crop and soil science professor, and Henderson took on the task of creating a soil mixture that would produce the optimum growing environment for the stadium’s new grass.
Henderson, for his master’s thesis, took on the role of investigating the soil mixtures himself.
“We challenged Jason with his master’s thesis research to look up and develop a mixture of sand and top soil to blend at different proportions to determine their strength and how fast they drain,” Crum said.
That mixture turned out to be about 10 percent clay and silt, and 90 percent sand.
Sand is the largest particle that makes up soil, Crum said. The sand used in the stadium field modules is a coarse sand, rougher than the sand found in an ashcan or a child’s sandbox.
The remaining silt and clay in Henderson’s mixture provide the most hospitable environment for the grass to take root, researchers determined, not to mention its stability.
“Football fields in the Big Ten are primarily 100 percent sand,” Henderson said. “As a player, it was very frustrating to get up there and be pushing clumps of sod out of the way to get a better position.”
But Henderson believes his soil mixture will be firmer than the rest of the fields he’s played on as a college athlete.
“We had a real nice field at Penn State, and I began to notice that other schools didn’t have as nice of a field as we did,” Henderson said. “So that’s where the questions started, as I began asking, ‘Why?’”
Although he says it’s rewarding to have the opportunity to develop a stronger, safer field that keeps players safe from slipping, he still misses being able to see the field from the gridiron.
“It’d be nice to be out there and try it,” he said.
Keeping off the grass
Athletics department officials say access to the field will change from what it has been in the past.
Rogers compares it to buying a new vehicle.
“You don’t want anyone to eat or drink anything in the car, so nothing gets ruined,” he said. “It’s like that.”
Researchers are concerned heavy foot traffic might damage the field, as they are unsure of the field’s stability. They might encourage more access in the future, though.
“I personally believe that once they begin to understand what the field can handle, that could change,” Rogers said.
Along with the installation of the turf, a new artificial turf track and field complex will be built near the stadium, where other sports and events will be held.
Women’s field hockey will be moved to the new artificial field. NCAA regulations require the team to play only on artificial turf.
Other club and intramural sports would have to be located elsewhere as well, said John Lewandowski, assistant athletics director.
The football team will have less access to the stadium. Its weekly practices on the field will be canceled, being relocated to the practice fields behind Duffy Daugherty Football Building.
But the biggest worry people have is over the talk of completely displacing the Spartan Marching Band.
“It’s good to be in there for the younger kids, the freshmen, to see what it’s like,” marching band President Adam Gumbrecht said. “Now the first time they’re going to be in there is on game day, and it’s gonna be a shock to them.”
Band members made use of the stadium to prepare to perform in front of large university crowds, especially since a large number of marchers come fresh from high school.
“But we are gonna do whatever we have to,” Gumbrecht said. “If they say we have to rehearse somewhere else, so be it.”
Athletics department officials are trying to keep things in perspective, though.
“The only thing they won’t be able to do is, in the past they had a Saturday morning walk-through on game day, and they won’t be able to do that anymore,” Lewandowski said. “If that’s for six to eight dates a year, then I don’t consider that as much of a displacement.”