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Dr. Jason Henderson discussing results of organic turfgrass management programs.

A clear, breezy morning on freshly watered grass, thanks to a rainstorm the afternoon before, marked an auspicious opening for the fifth biennial Turfgrass Field Day. The event was held Tuesday, July 19, at the Plant Science Research and Teaching Facility. Hosted by the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture (PSLA), the Field Day is an opportunity for UConn researchers to present their latest findings and make recommendations for best practices to professionals in the turfgrass industry. Topics addressed included golf and athletic field management, lawn care, fertility and nutrient management, soil science and pest control. The date was chosen to allow observation of research plots during the height of summer, when they endure the most stress from heat and sunlight exposure.

The daylong event featured nearly fifty exhibitors, three workshops and a walking tour of ten research plots. Exhibitors represented a wide range of organizations and businesses offering turfgrass products and services, including irrigation devices, lawn care equipment, seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. The Field Day allows UConn researchers to engage directly with turfgrass professionals to address challenges and concerns from stakeholders, learning what pressing issues the industry faces.

Jeff Seemann, vice president for research at UConn, acknowledges the importance of this exchange. “This is a program that goes both ways,” Seemann explains. “This couldn’t happen if the growers, sports field managers and the equipment business weren’t invested in this program. There is great research that our plant science faculty is doing here that is directly benefiting the industry.”

Echoing these sentiments, Michael O’Neill, associate dean and associate director of UConn Extension, pointed out the significance of turf in particular. “In this area, the crop grown on the most acres is turf,” O’Neill says. “This is the most important agricultural product in the region. The maintenance, protection and development of turf is a big piece of what we do for sustainability.”

Conservation and preservation were central themes throughout the walking tour. The tour examined ways to evaluate grass by testing clippings and soil and using smartphone and iPad apps with the goal of reducing the application of fertilizers, growth regulators, herbicides and pesticides. Pesticide use was a topic at multiple plots in relation to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s 2010 prohibition of their use at schools for students pre-K through eighth grade. This has presented numerous difficulties for turf specialists maintaining athletic fields, nearly all of which were previously treated with pesticides. UConn researchers have been exploring the effectiveness of EPA-approved agents and developing integrated pest management solutions for the past several years to demonstrate long-term solutions. One stop on the tour examined a biological control agent that kills scarab beetle larvae, white grubs that include the Japanese, Oriental and Asiatic varieties of garden beetles. White grubs are the most damaging pests for turf.

While a number of research projects focused on athletic fields and lawns, two stations on the tour were directed at golf course fairway turfgrass. Restrictions on water usage, in response to drought conditions, and regulation of pesticide use have also affected golf courses. Fine leaf fescue varieties, popular for their low maintenance requirements, were displayed on plots that also exhibited their durability to golf cart traffic, the effects of which are simulated on the parcels.

The walking tour comprised the morning of the Turfgrass Field Day. Afternoon workshops offered presentations on specific topics. Talks addressed the handling and field application of beneficial nematodes, sustainable and pesticide-free turf management and a turfgrass disease walking tour around additional research plots to identify additional cultural and chemical control options.

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Associate extension professor Steven Rackliffe showing the effects of traffic on fairway fine fescue.

The assembly of exhibitors and UConn researchers is a productive day that explores the finer points of turfgrass. Steven Rackliffe, assistant extension professor in PSLA, reminded the group as he presented the progress of 116 grass seed varieties that “there’s more than the color of the turf.” Density, leaf texture and uniformity are valuable metrics, with all UConn researchers emphasizing simple measurements to assess turf health.

Karl Guillard, professor in PSLA, commented in his presentation on widely available tools such as a nitrate meter to determine fertilization needs and an app that helps monitor variables of color in turf. He encouraged the attentive crowd to adopt such tools to increase turfgrass health, especially to increase soil carbon sequestration. With lawns covering nearly fifty million acres of land in the continental United States, Guillard predicts consumer incentives will be introduced as soil becomes more widely recognized for its ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it. Connecticut, along with eight other states, is part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Established in 2008, RGGI is a mandatory, market-based cap-and-trade program for power plants. The program sets a limit on carbon dioxide emission levels but permits companies to exchange for allowances with other firms if they fail to meet these measures by purchasing credits. The costs for credits are controlled to motivate companies to become cleaner and more efficient, having risen recently to further encourage reducing carbon emissions. Throughout the energy sector, consumers are encouraged to become more energy efficient and the program has lowered carbon emissions, decreased power consumption and saved money for companies and consumers. Guillard, acknowledging the success of RGGI and its incentives, sees soil as a potential way to involve agriculture in the fight against climate change.

The objectives of Turfgrass Field Day encompass sustainability efforts, with the goal of reducing the use and effects of harmful chemicals, limiting irrigation to support local conservation efforts and contributing to reducing worldwide carbon dioxide emissions. The event is an opportunity for UConn researchers to provide guidance on the safest and most adaptable ways to cultivate turfgrass at our homes, schools, parks, golf courses, athletic fields and countless other sites.

“This is always going to be a priority,” Seemann assured, reiterating UConn’s commitment to turfgrass and outreach. “This is at the root of what a land-grant university does.”

By Jason M. Sheldon