New research for turf professionals

The University of Rhode Island turfgrass management program may be the oldest in the country, but it is forging ahead, exploring new ways to help turf professionals and homeowners alike.

In 1890, the program’s first turfgrass trial plots were planted. In 1930, the first Turfgrass Field Day was held. Last year, the 75th anniversary of that event was held, attracting hundreds of turf professionals.

The field days are probably the most visible activity run by the program, but there are numerous other projects that are sustaining URI’s place in the turfgrass field.

Dr. Steven Alm (left) chair of the URI plant sciences department, and Research Associate Charles Dawson have been working on a new control for white grubs of Japanese and Oriental beetles. Dr. Nathaniel Mitkowski, a specialist in diseases of turf and ornamentals, is working on a regional project involving fungicide-resistant anthracnose.
Brian Boesch, a recent master’s graduate in turfgrass management at URI and Dr. Rebecca Brown, a specialist in turfgrass breeding and genetics, are responsible for conducting a large number of turfgrass trials. A small part of the turfgrass trials
area at URI.
* Photos Courtesy of URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences.

Fungicide resistance

Dr. Nathaniel Mitkowski specializes in diseases of turf and ornamentals, and one of his projects is working in collaboration with Dr. Rob Wick at UMass on fungicide-resistant anthracnose.

“Fifteen years ago, Dr. Noel Jackson [a turf pathologist and URI professor emeritus] collected and preserved isolates,” says Mitkowski. Now, URI and UMass are collecting anthracnose isolates from golf courses to compare with those that Jackson collected to see whether there are some that are now resistant to certain fungicides. The study will takeconsiderable time because of the need to collect isolates from 30 to 50 golf courses, he says.

Mitkowski is also involved in nematode research. Golf course greens in the Northeast are very susceptible to nematode root damage, and for decades the preferred treatment has been Nemacur, a product that came out of the development of a nerve gas in World War II. Registered in 1973, the product is highly toxic to birds and fish and the registration is about to be pulled. The problem is finding something to replace the Nemacur. Mitkowski surmises that different varieties of turf combined with different cultural practices might be the answer.

Mitkowski also runs the URI turf pathology service, garnering about 200 samples a year from golf courses and athletic fields.

“We get more samples from out of state than in state,” he says. “Rhode Island is a nice place to grow grass. It’s milder, not as hot and not as cold [as other New England states]. Rhode Island is good for cool-season grasses.”

Mitkowski says the number of students enrolled in plant sciences remains steady at about 90, with the majority of them concentrating in turf management. Many are transfer students, which says something about the popularity of URI’s turfgrass program.

Mitkowski notes that URI is always able to place students in internships—in fact they get requests for more interns than they have enrolled. In addition, the employment rate for URI turfgrass program graduates has been close to 100 percent in past years.

New organic fertilizer

Dr. Rebecca Brown, who specializes in turfgrass breeding and genetics, has several interesting projects going. She is overseeing some low-input trials and just recently landed a grant in which she, Dr. Chong Lee, a professor in nutrition and food sciences and Dr. Jose Amador, a professor of soil science and microbial ecology, will be exploring the use of squid wastes for conversion into fertilizer.

Indications are that squid waste is higher in nitrogen than other fish wastes and lower in heavy metals, and squid fertilizer also could be made odorless, she says. Developing a fertilizer from squid wastes would give a boost to the organic fertilizer research program at URI.

Still another project Brown is working on is salt-tolerant native grasses for roadside use. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation is helping fund that research.

Brown is also working with the college’s Outreach Center to develop a best management practices program for turf, aimed at homeowners. The issue now is to find funding for it. She says there is a lot of funding to support golf course runoff research, but very little for research on runoff from home lawns.

“Finding funding for homeowner turf research is very challenging,” says Mitkowski. “Who would gain? Not the big companies because their margin on homeowner products is very slim, unlike those in the golf course and park business.”

A new mix

Still another area that is exciting for URI is the development of a new URI grass seed mix. For decades in the Northeast, URI Mix #1 (sunny) and #2 (sun and shade) have been on store shelves. URI does not benefit directly from the sales of these two mixes, but companies that produce the mixes pay a fee for the privilege of using the URI designation.

The problem is these two mixes are outmoded, says Dr. Bridget Ruemmele, mainly because they do not contain improved varieties that have been developed since the advent of the two mixes.

“The mix is okay, but the varieties in them are not,” says Ruemmele, who teaches several turf courses.

As a result, a new mix is ready to be launched using improved varieties. Once the makeup of the mix is finalized, it will be made available to seed companies, which will pay a user fee. URI will also get a percentage of the sales. The debut of the mix should take place within a year, and it is hoped the new mix—yet to be named—will result in added revenues for the turf program.

Entomology research

Dr. Steven Alm, chair of the URI plant science department, has been working on a regional project called “Best Management Practices for the Annual Bluegrass Weevil.” The annual bluegrass weevil is an insect that has developed resistance to several insecticides and is a major threat to golf courses in the Northeast. Alm and his graduate student Darryl Ramoutar are researching (along with eight other turfgrass entomologists in the Northeast) the most effective ways to manage this pernicious pest.

He is also hopeful that his research on BTJ (Bacillus thuringiensis japanensis) will result in the release of this biological insecticide for control of the white grubs of Japanese and Oriental beetles within a year.

Alumni effort

Off campus, Vickie Wallace, a URI 1982 master’s graduate in turf management, is in the initial stages of forming an alumni support and advisory organization for the turf program.

The effort is still in the formative stages, but the intent is to get enough alumni organized to provide support and act as an advisory body for the turfgrass program’s faculty, says Wallace, who coordinates the turf field day program each year. One possibility is that the alumni group could assist in marketing the turf program and make suggestions on research endeavors.

One of the biggest boosters for the turf program is recent master’s graduate Brian Boesch. Boesch is on the turfgrass program’s staff and his latest project is conducting herbicide trials using different tank mixes, but he also has an interesting proposal in the works.

In an unusual funding mix, he will soon have a triple-faceted position that includes turf extension work, consulting with the university’s athletic department and working with the URI conference office.

The turf industry is in favor of having a turf extension person at the university, and principals in the local turf industry, many of them URI alumni, have been lobbying for the creation of the position.

Boesch will also act as a consultant to the athletic department, which has several varsity athletic fields, including Meade Stadium.

The conference office angle comes into play because the university hosts many outside athletic events on its non-varsity fields, such as the Seaside Classic, a huge youth soccer event that brings thousands of kids and their parents each year. Such outside events are a revenue source for the university, but also an opportunity for youngsters and their parents to see URI facilities up close.

“If they go away favorably impressed with our resources here, they may be interested in applying for admission when they get old enough,” says Boesch.

Boesch, who obtained his masters in turfgrass management last December, is also working with others on a new sensor device that could be a boon for golf courses and athletic fields.

Boesch, a native of upstate New York, had a couple of friends in computer science who developed a sensor software program, “But they were interested in having an application,” says Boesch, who put them in touch with Rob Vincent, an employee of URI’s physics department.

Vincent was using an old turf building to develop a new type of compact antenna that is expected to bring in royalty revenues to the university. With Vincent’s expertise in wireless transmission, they developed plans for a sensor that can actually transmit signals underground to a computer that, in turn, will let those in charge know when a putting green or athletic field needs irrigation.

The beauty of the system is that there are no buried wires, says Boesch. The buried sensors will be battery operated, but the design will even allow users to recharge the batteries by wireless technology as well, perhaps by placing a robotic charger over the buried device.

Boesch says a preliminary patent has been acquired on the device and the next step is to develop a prototype. He hopes royalties from the sensors will help fund the turf program.

“The turf industry really wants to back us here at URI,” he says. “I really wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that something good will come out of this place.”

Rudi Hempe is a retired newspaper editor in southern Rhode Island. He currently is the editor of a Web news site for the College of the Environment and Life Sciences at the University of Rhode Island.