Article by Stacey Stearns
Turfgrass is often overlooked by residents – but is one of the most abundant crops in the state, and an important part of Connecticut’s economic engine. Direct sales from the turfgrass industry are around $2.5 billion, with a total economic impact of $2.9 billion. Lawn care services are the largest turfgrass sector in the state, followed by golf courses, and lawn care retailing.
UConn’s turfgrass team includes Vickie Wallace from the Department of Extension and Karl Guillard, Jason Henderson, John Inguagiato, Ana Legrand, Tom Morris, and Steve Rackliffe from the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. A multi-faceted approach to current turfgrass issues is part of their overall goal of improving sustainability, reducing inputs, and addressing restrictions.
There is no one size fits all model for turfgrass management. The unique challenges associated with managing athletic fields are very different than managing golf courses or lawns at private homes. Various uses, along with the intense wear turfgrass receives dictate best management practices. Further complicating the situation is the variety of information regarding pesticide-free and/or organic management available to turf managers, much of it anecdotal, and not science-based.
In 2010, the state banned all Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registered lawn care pesticides on athletic fields at public and private schools with pre-kindergarten through 8th grade students. Connecticut and New York are the only states in the country with the pesticide ban. Research and outreach education done by UConn’s team is critically important, and on a national stage.
“The concern regarding this restrictive legislation goes well beyond aesthetics and can negatively impact playing surface safety,” Associate Professor Jason Henderson mentions. “We need to keep fields safe for use – and to reach that goal, controlling insects and weeds is important. Misinformation also increases risks of nitrogen and phosphorus overuse becoming an environmental issue.”
Educational programming designed by Extension faculty is multifaceted, utilizing research and demonstration to address misinformation, and providing turfgrass managers with science-based solutions and best management practices. The EPA and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection are funding field research evaluating several different management regimes over time.
The eight management strategies being tested include organic low, organic high, pesticide-free low, pesticide-free high, integrated pest management (IPM), integrated systems management (ISM), calendar-based, and a mow-only control. These management regimes are being evaluated on a plot area managed as a home lawn as well as an area managed as an athletic field.
“These research plots will help identify strengths and weaknesses for each of the management regimes as well as provide a demonstration area for education, and to correct misinformation turf managers receive,” Jason says. “These results will help improve our current recommendations to keep fields as safe as possible for the end user when managed without the use of pesticides.”
“Looking at management strategies over time will show us differences, and allow a potential cost analysis to be prepared for each management strategy,” says Associate Extension Educator Vickie Wallace. “Heading into the fourth year of the trials, you can see differences in how the plots are managed, and it can translate to landscapes and athletic fields.” A full report will be published after research concludes in April 2018.
A complicating factor to pesticide-free management is the fact that many of the athletic fields that fall under the pesticide ban do not have irrigation. Another project is currently underway to improve overseeding recommendations for non-irrigated sports fields. A new multi-state overseeding project evaluating three species, two cultivars, and multiple overseeding rates began in 2016. The New England Regional Turfgrass Foundation and the New England Sports Turf Managers Association sponsor the project.
Research on these plots is unique in that it’s occurring on actual fields in use and not at a research facility. Three fields were selected at three separate locations based on the high intensity of traffic they receive. Treatments were initiated in September 2016 and overseeding will be repeated in the spring and fall of 2017.
“While certainly different from athletic fields, backyards are also subject to wear and tear, and there may be parallels with care recommendations,” Vickie says.
Another complementary research study led by Henderson and Assistant Professor John Inguagiato is quantifying the amount of dislodgeable foliar pesticide residue remaining following a pesticide application. The study is evaluating four different commonly used active ingredients for weed control on sports fields. The results of this research can help improve recommendations for minimizing potential exposure risks, and help lawmakers make science-based decisions concerning future legislation.
In addition to the field research and demonstrations, a smart phone app is being released later this year for Apple and Android that will help turf managers and homeowners select the correct fertilizer, and purchase the proper amount. Videos in the app demonstrate fertilizer spreader calibration and application techniques.
Extension outreach is an important component of research at a land-grant institution. The biannual Turf Field Day is held in even years at the Research Farm, and draws a crowd of over 300, including 40 commercial exhibitors from all over New England.
In March 2017 the team hosted a sports turf workshop at UConn. Future workshops are being developed as research continues and needs of turfgrass managers evolve. One thing is certain; the UConn Extension team will continue to meet the demands and challenges of the diverse industry.