Explore Magazine Volume 4 Issue 2



In Environmental Horticulture, It Pays To Watch The Grass Grow
By Cindy Spence

In the world of turfgrass research, sometimes you have to set your sights low.

That's just what University of Florida environmental horticulture Professor Al Dudeck was doing when he made the kind of discovery turfgrass scientists dream of.

Dudeck was touring a municipal golf course in Hawaii while on a plant-collecting expedition when the course superintendent pulled the golf cart up to an unusual patch of grass he could not identify. Dudeck leaned down, took some samples of the grass and added them to the 500 or so other specimens he would bring back to UF.

In his Gainesville laboratory, many of the samples turned out to be duds. But the sprigs collected from the golf course on Kauai turned out to be a new, distinct plant, and Dudeck knew he had a winning turf on his hands.

The unique grass, patented by UF and tradenamed FloraDwarf, is a velvety bermudagrass grown with putting greens in mind. Its selling point is that it can be mowed to 1/8 inch or even lower without damage, resulting in a smooth, even putting surface that leaves golfers with one less excuse for missing putts.

Professional golfer Jerry Pate liked it so much he planted it on his sod farm in Wausau in the Panhandle and used it for the greens on a golf course he helped design.

"I think it's going to be a grass like no other grass we have seen for bermudagrass putting greens," Pate says.

Giving Green To Get Green

Floridians love their grass.

Look around - from lawns, parks and roadsides to golf courses and athletic fields, grass is everywhere: about 4.4 million cultivated acres. And Florida consumers are willing to part with their cash to keep it green, spending about $6.5 billion a year on turfgrass maintenance and products.

Most of that money stays in Florida because, unlike many other industries that ship crops or raw materials across state lines for processing, turfgrass goods and services are produced and consumed within the state. Besides a green outdoor carpet, grass provides consumers with protection from erosion, pollution filtering, a noise buffer and a comfortable, durable surface for outdoor activities.

Growing such a "crop" takes a lot of people. The Florida turfgrass industry employs about 186,000 people, most in turf maintenance, according to a study by UF researchers A.W. Hodges, John Haydu, P.J. van Blokland and A.P. Bell. With the industry contributing $7.4 billion a year to the state economy, Florida is, indeed, a place where it pays to watch the grass grow.

The quest for more success stories like FloraDwarf has prompted UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the turf industry to invest heavily in turf technology. One of those investments is a state-of-the-art facility called the Envirotron.

Under the Envirotron's glass-paned roof, three computer-controlled greenhouses allow for the ultimate in precision research. Scientists can control temperature, light and humidity and download information on those conditions into their own computers.

Their research focuses on weed control, insects, leaching studies, cool- and warm-season grasses, amending soil with compost and other matter, and shade and salt tolerance. The 4,500-square-foot Envirotron also includes a rhizotron, where root growth is studied.

Based on the Envirotron's reputation for success, in 1996 an Envirogreen was added. The 12,000-square-foot United States Golf Association (USGA) putting green is used to test different grasses and how they handle the stress of frequent, close mowing.

As chief of the Envirotron, environmental horticulture assistant Professor Grady Miller frequently gets calls from turf managers at golf courses and other venues statewide. With 1,400 golf courses in Florida, there's a lot of industry interest in the research at UF.

"I think one of our primary charges is to help industry maintain the quality of turf they need with less inputs like fertilizer and water," Miller says. "Without industry support we won't grow."

FloraDwarf and other successes have focused attention on research that has aided golf courses - which make up 35 percent of the value of the industry - but turf research extends far beyond the 18th green. These days, turfgrass is big money and big science - and a lot more than golf.

Fields Of Green

Golf courses have always been shrines to grass, but until recently only the marquee fields in other sports got similar attention.

"There has been little research on athletic fields, particularly sport-specific fields like soccer and football fields," Miller says. "Sports turf management for athletic fields is not as far along as golf course turf management. But it's advancing each year."

With 250 million people playing soccer worldwide and interest in the sport growing exponentially in the United States, the quality of soccer fields is an area of particular interest.

The beauty of soccer is that it can be played almost anywhere, from a dusty street in Brazil to the Rose Bowl. But at the highly competitive World Cup and intercollegiate level, the quality of the field can have a great impact on the outcome of the game.

That's why Miller is trying to answer a question soccer players have asked for years: Is there a way to get soccer fields, city to city and country to country, to perform in a consistent manner? After almost two years of research, Miller says the answer is yes.

"Soccer fields vary drastically not only in grass but also in soil layers. Then you throw in management practices, which can drastically influence uniformity of the turf cover and surface hardness," Miller says. "There is a wide range of field performance conditions."

Until now, no one had an objective way of rating soccer fields. So Miller developed a method of measuring field characteristics, putting numbers to qualities that have been subjective.

"Soft, hard, fast, slow. These traits have always been relative," Miller says. "What is field hardness?"

To collect data, Miller built a gadget called a soccer field gauge, similar to the Stimpmeter used to measure the speed of golf course putting greens. Miller rolls a soccer ball down the gauge's elevated ramp and measures how far and how true the ball rolls once it hits the turf. He also uses a Clegg impact hammer to measure surface hardness.

Miller gathers data at evenly spaced locations on the field to produce an objective determination of the field's softness or hardness and its uniformity. He can use the data to create a graphical image of the field and can recommend ways to correct the problems.

Although softer fields are safer, the ball rolls farther and faster on a hard surface. So balance is the key. Without balance, the style of play must change with the surface, says UF soccer Coach Becky Burleigh, who guided her team to the 1998 NCAA Division I Women's Soccer Championship in just the program's fourth year of existence.

"A lot of times up north, especially in November or December with sparse grass, soccer becomes an air game," Burleigh says. "In the South, with our shorter bermudagrass, we play on the ground."

Burleigh says Miller's quest to develop field standards is important because poorly maintained fields hamper the play of skilled teams.

"Field variations can create a tremendous home-field advantage for teams with a poor-quality field," Burleigh says. "The field takes away from the strength of a visiting team that is fast and skilled and leaves more of the play to chance."

Scenic, Safe Highways

Golf courses and athletic fields may be the glamour venue for UF turfgrass researchers, but Florida's roadsides serve as a laboratory for one of their biggest projects.

Miller and his colleagues were charged by the Florida Department of Transportation with finding a way to improve roadside soil so the grass would grow better and help stabilize roadbeds.

The researchers turned to cities and counties, whose waste treatment plants produce mountains of nutrient-rich organic compost. Rather than fill precious landfill space with the material, the municipalities were glad to give it to the UF researchers. Miller says the material cannot be used on crops because it sometimes contains metals or glass.

In general, roadside soil is too sandy to hold nutrients or water, making it difficult for grass to grow well. Importing topsoil and adding commercial fertilizer helps but is prohibitively expensive.

"The roadside is a very harsh condition in which to grow turf," Miller says. "The organic wastes add nutrients and hold water, making conditions more favorable for grass to grow."

The compost has an added advantage over commercial fertilizer, says researcher Bob Black, in that it releases nitrogen slowly. Commercial fertilizer causes a quick flush of growth after the initial application but no sustained nourishment of the soil and grass.

In field studies along an interstate in Broward County and a four-lane road in Hernando County, the researchers are studying how the organic material aids the establishment of new grass. Along two-lane roads near Steinhatchee and Melrose, they're using the compost as top dressing and looking at how it boosts the growth of existing grass.

In Envirotron tests comparing roadside turf samples grown with commercial fertilizer and samples grown with organic wastes, the grass nourished with organic wastes is faring better, Miller says.

DOT landscape architect Gary Henry says roadside vegetation ensures the structural integrity of the roadbed by preventing soil erosion and keeping asphalt from crumbling. He says the news that roadside composting looks promising is welcome.

"Importing topsoil and adding fertilizer is very costly so this alternative will be a big help," Henry says. "This will save money, improve the grass and eliminate a landfill problem by reusing a material that still has some value."

Keeping Pace With Industry

One key to advancing turfgrass management is having workers ready to put research into practice. In days gone by, if you wanted to manage a golf course or recreation field, all you needed to know was how high to mow and when to turn on the sprinklers.

Not anymore.

"The days of just mowing and whatever happens, happens are over," says Miller, who also serves as faculty adviser for the turfgrass science program.

Sophisticated new mowers can cost up to $25,000 and insects are tracked with satellite global positioning systems. New fertilizers and pesticides, retractable domes over sports fields, and irrigation systems make the seemingly simple task of growing grass extremely complex.

Then there's the business side of growing grass. It is not unusual for a superintendent of an upper-end golf course to manage a million-dollar-a-year budget, Miller says. So today's turf managers need the computer and business skills recently added to UF's turfgrass science program.

In addition to golf courses, turf managers are in demand for airports, athletic fields, resorts and theme parks, landscape businesses and even cemeteries, where knowing which fertilizers to use is important to avoid staining tombstones.

"There's a severe shortage of well-trained sports turf managers for athletic fields," says Miller, "but no shortage of opportunities for our turfgrass graduates. We even had one intern at Augusta National last year."

Elite courses like Augusta, home of the Masters Tournament, have high expectations for the quality of their turfgrass. Similarly, they have high expectations for the people who care for the turfgrass, Miller says.

Athletic fields, too, are more particular about turf these days. For World Cup soccer in 1994, the Pontiac Silverdome grew its turf off-site, transported it to the dome in containers and then put it back together for the elite soccer matches.

"With Augusta and other premier golf courses, there's a whatever-it-takes attitude," Miller says. "And, if the Super Bowl is next weekend, you're going to have nice turf.

"But somebody's got to be able to know when to do that, how to do it and how to take care of it."

Miller says UF is uniquely positioned to train turf managers.

"We've got spring training for baseball, several strong college programs in soccer, baseball and football and then golf all year," Miller says. "We're managing turf year-round in Florida and not too many places are doing that."

The changing science and growing industry add up to opportunity for turfgrass graduates. Ask Barry Greenwalt. Just 18 months after graduation, he landed a job as superintendent at Gainesville's Ironwood Golf Course.

"Between the traffic on a golf course and the weather, trying to grow grass is very, very difficult," Greenwalt says. "Growing grass is different in Florida and since I wanted to work in Florida, I'm glad I went to UF."

Albert E. Dudeck
Professor, Department of Environmental Horticulture
(352) 392-7939, aed@gnv.ifas.ufl.edu

Grady L. Miller
Assistant Professor,
Department of Environmental Horticulture
(352) 392-7942, glmi@gnv.ifas.ufl.edu

Related web site:

Turf Trivia

625 square feet of lawn provides enough oxygen for one person for an entire day.
On an average block of eight houses, front lawns have the cooling effect of 70 tons of air conditioning.
Turf absorbs gaseous pollutants such as carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide and converts them to oxygen.
Turf traps an estimated 12 million tons of dust and dirt annually.
A buffer zone of grass around buildings helps retard the spread of fire.
Turf prevents soil erosion, filters contaminants from rainwater and reduces runoff.
A well-maintained lawn and landscape can add from 5 to 15 percent to a property's value.
A healthy lawn provides an excellent cushion for children and adults at play.

Source: Professional Lawn Care Association of America