Western Innovator: Researcher and his ‘dream team’ build better turfgrass

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Across the drought-stricken Western U.S., some cities and states have temporarily banned watering “non-functional turf,” including lawns.

Other municipalities, domestic and international, are restricting fungicide use on landscapes.

These and other developments have cast a sudden spotlight on turfgrass management, an important and often-overlooked field of study, and the innovators behind it — people like Alec Kowalewski, Oregon State University turfgrass specialist.

BeaverTurf, OSU’s turf management program, is exploring how to grow turfgrass on sports fields, golf courses and parks in a way that’s more environmentally and economically sustainable.

Kowalewski leads a “dream team” of Ph.D. researchers who are exploring how to grow turfgrass with less water, testing which cultivars are disease-resistant, experimenting with fungicide alternatives, irrigating with wastewater, documenting which varieties are safest for livestock consumption and exploring how management practices can impact carbon sequestration.

“I’m very proud of the team I have. It’s truly a world-class team,” said Kowalewski.

He and the researchers, like game pieces on a checkerboard, were standing on an experimental plot with hundreds of square test blocks, each containing a different grass cultivar.

The researchers under Kowalewski say he’s not only an innovator but a teacher and adviser who empowers other innovators to shine.

This year, Kowalewski said he’s excited about many of the projects his team is taking on.

One project looks at soil health and the potential to sequester carbon in turfgrass systems. Emily Braithwaite, faculty research assistant, said recent climate extremes have created a “sense of urgency” in the turfgrass industry for ways to limit emissions and be more sustainable.

The project uses a carbon-capturing device, tracks how much carbon plants absorb while photosynthesizing and explores how management practices impact carbon storage.

Tests so far have found that grass is healthier and stores more carbon if it’s mowed frequently — about once a week — to four inches tall rather than taller or down to stubble.

In watering, too, frequency matters. Irrigating a plot four times a week at just a quarter-inch leads to healthier, better carbon-storing turf than a plot that’s watered excessively but less often.

“See how much greener this is,” said Wrennie Wang, research associate, pointing at a block.

This “less water, more often” concept can save water during droughts.

The researchers are also interested in irrigating turf with effluent water, or “graywater,” non-sewage wastewater that comes from sources such as sinks and showers.

Clint Mattox, another research associate, is exploring alternatives to fungicides. Mattox is testing less toxic products, including sulfur and mineral oils.

Research associate Chas Schmid is leading a study in the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program for which turfgrass seed breeders submit entries. Schmid tests the entries, looking for which cultivars “rise to the top” as most disease-resistant, sustainable and attractive.

“It’s like a beauty pageant for turf,” said Schmid.

Another project will study endophytes, microbes that live in some turfgrasses.

Endophytes can make grass more disease-resistant, which is great for landscaping. But grass with high endophyte levels can be toxic to livestock. Although grass seed breeders have a general idea of which cultivars have endophytes, a comprehensive study has never been done. This fall, the researchers will document endophyte levels in hundreds of cultivars.

Kowalewski said that he, as “facilitator” for the researchers, is excited to see where the projects go.

Originally published in Capital Press, 9/17/2021