It’s not as fancy as a flower or as majestic as a tree, but turf is tough and getting tougher—and where would our golf, football and soccer games or our picnics and barbecues be without it?
We walk on it, play on it and snooze on it. Turf helps prevent stormwater runoff, absorbs pollutants, gives off oxygen and helps cool the air. And thanks to the O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research & Education Facility, turf becomes more walkable-, playable- and … uh … snoozeable-on all the time.
Opened in 1992 next to University Ridge Golf Course, the UW–Madison-run Noer facility is dedicated to testing and developing turfgrasses and related management technologies. The Wisconsin Turfgrass Association, comprised of sod growers, golf course superintendants, and landscape and lawn-care business owners, worked with the UW Foundation to raise the money that launched it.
“Before, when association members had problems with certain diseases, they were going out of the state to find answers,” explains Tom Schwab, the facility’s superintendent. “Researchers had to travel all over the state to set up research, and they wanted a facility close to the UW where they could monitor their research.”
Now there are about seventy to ninety studies in progress at a time, he notes, as researchers work to identify practices and turfgrass varieties that require less fertilizer, pesticides and water. “They’re looking at things people will need to know in five or ten years as environmental regulations tighten, like practical ways to harvest water from rooftops for lawns and species that can withstand tougher conditions. It’s hard to grow grass in the shade, and there are new species that work well, but people don’t know how to manage them. So we find out the best, most environmentally friendly ways.”
The Noer facility also plays an educational role. Some UW horticulture, soils, entomology and plant pathology classes meet there, and industry groups hold seminars. Puzzled golf course superintendents or other professionals bring samples to its diagnostic lab, and homeowners call with turf-related questions. At annual field days, researchers present their findings and visitors talk with industry suppliers and check out new products and equipment.
The facility works frequently with golf course and athletic field managers. “Our researchers have been on every golf course in the city, if not the state,” says Schwab.
A large part of a course’s success depends on the turfgrass selection, says Aron Hogden, superintendent at University Ridge Golf Course. “In an area like Madison, where the golf market is very competitive, people have lots of choices. One decision point is the condition of the course.”
That’s why most golf course superintendents have degrees in turfgrass science or a related field, he says. “Superintendents spend a lot of time learning the best ways to maximize the health of turf. You need to irrigate and fertilize properly, have a well-designed course to withstand a lot of traffic and have good drainage.”
The process has gotten pretty sophisticated, and Hogden and other superintendents often turn to the O.J. Noer facility for consultation and the latest research results. One promising study involves the use of velvet bentgrass on putting greens instead of the creeping bentgrass University Ridge and most other area courses use.
“Velvet bentgrass gets virtually no dollar spot, the number-one disease golf courses spray for, and it uses significantly less water than creeping bentgrass,” says John Stier, chair of the horticulture department at UW–Madison and a principal investigator at Noer. “We’re also looking at different types of turf that require less nitrogen, types that use less water and return more to the ground, and that require fewer fungicides.”
The planet benefits, and so does the bottom line. “People who own and manage golf courses don’t want to put down any more chemicals or use any more water than they have to,” Stier says.
Athletic field managers, too, are looking for practical ways to keep their turf healthy. “Golf courses will close down if it’s really wet so the turf doesn’t get wrecked. But you never see a Friday night high school football game called for rain, and the fields get destroyed,” says Schwab. “Kentucky bluegrass is generally the best playing surface for sports fields, but they often put down perennial ryegrass because it will germinate quickly for the next week’s game. It’s not the best grass, though.”
High schools usually use an “athletic field mixture” of grasses—fifty percent bluegrass and fifty percent ryegrass. “John Stier has found that if you use that much rye, your field will turn into mostly that,” Schwab says. “He found that if you really want Kentucky blue to be your surface, you can’t have over fifteen percent rye.”
Now a plant breeder claims to have developed a faster-germinating Kentucky bluegrass, which would be more useful for sports fields. “We’re testing it to see if it works,” says Schwab.
Also among the Noer facility’s varied turfgrass investigations is one that compared the abilities of turf and rain gardens to limit runoff. The Terry and Kathleen Kurth Distinguished Graduate Fellowship funded the study. “People talk about the deeper roots of prairie plants, but with runoff it’s all about the density,” says Terry Kurth, owner of lawn care firm Weed Man Madison.
The study found no significant differences in limiting runoff, reports Stier. “Turf has shorter roots than prairie plants, but there are more of them. As each root penetrates the ground, it helps water infiltrate. And the plants are right next to each other, where in prairies it’s common to have six to twelve inches between plants.”
Either way, vegetation helps filter sediment out of stormwater and increases infiltration. Kurth says homeowners would benefit from having a rain garden with native plants and turf as well as a well-maintained lawn. “People should do their research and take the time to do it right.” How about starting with a call to the O.J. Noer facility?
Judy Dahl is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.
Aerial photo courtesy of O.J. Noer Turfgrass