Turfgrass research as a participation sport

Hands-on involvement was the order of the day at the Texas A&M turfgrass field day.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Participants at the Sept. 12 Texas A&M University turfgrass field day place small flags on the plots they prefer (Yes, that’s the author’s lonely flag in the foreground.) Photo by Darrell J. Pehr

Readers of GCM have an opportunity each month to learn about the latest turfgrass research being conducted at universities and industry labs around the world.

Some of the research may be a little more difficult to fully visualize — for example, I hadn’t thought about the word “alleles” since some distant college class decades ago. But one of the research articles in this issue does a deep dive into genetics, which for me required digging around in my brain cells until I brushed off enough dust to say, “Oh, yeah … alleles!”

Other turfgrass research is easier to relate to, such as the second article this month, a very “down-to-earth” discussion of how much water it takes to grow warm-season grasses in various areas of the southern U.S. That’s a topic anyone in golf can relate to.

Both ends of that spectrum are important, but regardless of whether it’s a super-scientific process or something a little more hands-on, involving others in the research process really helps bring the importance and relevance of the research into focus.

I had a chance to visit the Texas A&M University turfgrass research facility in College Station during its turfgrass field day in September. It was a chance to catch up on research projects being conducted by TAMU faculty, but part of the day included a presentation that was more of a two-way street.

Ambika Chandra, Ph.D., is a professor of turfgrass breeding and genetics for Texas A&M AgriLife Research in Dallas. In a classroom-type setting, she provided the group with a thorough update on her current research, a zoysiagrass breeding program working to develop putting greens-type zoysias like Diamond and Lazer as well as fairway- and tees-type zoysias like cold-tolerant Innovation.

“We have several new and improved disease-/drought-/cold-tolerant breeding lines of zoysiagrass in the development pipeline that we are currently evaluating for different applications, including roughs, fairways/tees and greens,” she says.

The indoor presentation was followed by a visit to her nearby research plots. As we walked out under the Texas sun to a checkerboard of green squares, she offered us a chance to participate in the research ourselves, giving us a flag like those used to mark underground utilities.

“The outdoor activity with the attendees was what I would call ‘crowd breeding,’” Chandra told me later. “This was an interactive way to engage with the attendees, where each attendee was asked to put a flag in the plot they liked the best based on its appearance, quality, leaf texture, color and growth habit. This is an interesting way to get feedback from golf course superintendents who are actually going to manage these grasses on their golf courses. There were a couple of plots with several flags, and we took note of that.”

I’m sorry to say that the plot where I confidently planted my little flag did not attract any other flags, but after I told myself, “Hey, it’s not a competition,” I felt a little better. Chandra told me that she usually uses this engagement activity at field days and finds it very useful.

“This is not necessarily included in research results per se, but we do take a note of this, and over time we can see if there are any entries that were preferred by the producers and end-users,” she says. “This is a good way to gauge consumer preference, which helps guide us in our selection process.”

The event also offered an opportunity to chat with Matteo Serena, Ph.D., senior manager of irrigation research and services for the USGA Green Section, who is the lead author of the article on warm-season grasses in this month’s GCM. It turns out he, too, is a proponent of involving people in research projects. As part of the conclusion of his article, Serena invites superintendents to conduct an experiment of their own.

“Turf managers planning to establish warm-season grasses at their course where water use is a consideration should establish a trial of multiple options a few years before renovation to see how different species and cultivars perform at that specific site under that specific planned maintenance program,” he writes.

I like that idea, and I really appreciate the willingness that turfgrass researchers have to involve the end-users in their research. I may apply some of their ideas in my own backyard “research plot” of St. Augustinegrass. I think I can take a step or two in the name of science … as long as it doesn’t require the use of the word “alleles.”

Darrell J. Pehr is GCM’s science editor.