Chapter 3: Turfgrass Research and Facilities
From its modest beginnings in 1929, Penn State's turfgrass research program has become one of the largest and best in the world. Research encompasses all aspects of turf management: breeding and selecting superior turfgrass varieties, developing improved techniques for establishing and maintaining turfgrass for various uses, and determining the environmental impact on variously maintained turfgrass areas. Research projects have been conducted in breeding and variety development; varietal identification techniques; species competition; growth regulation; weed, disease, and insect ecology; pest control; soil fertility; soil modification; and management.
It has been said that the sun never sets on a Penn State turfgrass variety. As a result of outstanding breeding research over the past seventy-five years, Penn turfgrass varieties are found all over the world. Burt Musser and Joseph Duich were the pioneers in Penn State turfgrass breeding research, which is carried on today by turfgrass breeder David Huff.
Musser and Duich developed Penncross creeping bentgrass, one of the best-known Penn State varieties. Released in 1953, it is used worldwide on putting greens as well as tennis courts and bowling greens and serves as the standard against which all new bentgrasses are compared. More putting greens have been planted with Penncross bentgrass than with any other grass.
Pennlinks, another creeping bentgrass variety, was released in the mid-1980s after being tested on golf courses in the United States, Canada, and South Africa. A third bentgrass, Penneagle, has been used on tennis courts, bowling greens, and putting greens, but has been most successful on fairways.
Pennfine, a perennial ryegrass released in 1969, is used in seed mixtures primarily because of its ability to germinate and establish quickly. Its fine texture and durability make it suitable for home lawns and athletic fields, particularly when it is blended with bluegrasses. Pennlawn, a creeping fine fescue released in 1954, was one of the earliest and best fine fescues. This variety does well on home lawns and is more tolerant to shade than are ryegrasses.
Research on Kentucky bluegrasses resulted in varieties such as Pennstar and Merion Kentucky bluegrass. Merion bluegrass, after being discovered in the mid-1930s by Joseph Valentine at the Merion Golf Club, was developed into the first improved Kentucky bluegrass and became a standard American fairway grass because of its year-round outstanding performance. Today, blends of Kentucky bluegrass, fine fescues, and perennial ryegrasses are probably the most widely used blends of grasses on Northern golf courses, athletic fields, and home lawns.
Donald Waddington inspecting turfgrass plots, 1974
Since retiring from Penn State in 1991, Duich has released seven bentgrasses, including Penn A-1, Penn A-4, Penn G-1, and Penn G-6. Developed strictly for putting greens, these varieties have been very successful, particularly in the South. Several of the new Penn varieties are known for their ability to thrive under very close mowing. The new bentgrasses are establishing new standards for putting green density, texture, and overall performance, and they remain at the top of National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) evaluations.
Breeding of improved grasses for golf courses continues. David Huff, associate professor of turfgrass breeding and genetics, performs basic and applied genetics research on a wide range of grass species and is currently focusing on annual bluegrass ( Poa annua L.). Poa annua has come to dominate many golf course greens in the northeastern and northwestern United States, along the U.S./Canadian border, and in eastern Canada. Although it has many characteristics that make it desirable as a putting surface—its upright growth lacks grain and it aggressively inhabits golf greens maintained at extremely close mowing heights—it is not commercially available for constructing, renovating, or maintaining P. annua golf greens. Huff is developing P. annua varieties for commercial release, as well as investigating the tolerance of P. annua to winter damage and heat, its management requirements, and its resistance to diseases and insects.
Athletic Field Management
Under the leadership of Donald Waddington, professor emeritus of soil science, and Jack Harper, professor emeritus of agronomy, Penn State research has contributed to the development of standard guides for growing cool-season turfgrass on athletic fields and constructing and maintaining grass tennis courts. Three standard test methods for evaluating sandy soils used for putting greens and athletic fields have been published by ASTM International, as has a test method for measuring hardness of natural turf systems.
Penn State turfgrass research on the surface characteristics of athletic fields has improved their safety and playability. In a 1980s joint study with researchers in the College of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation and the Sports Research Institute, Waddington and Harper worked to determine the relationships among high school athletic field management programs, field conditions, and injuries. They found that up to 20 percent of player injuries may be due to turfgrass conditions on playing fields. Suggestions for maintenance and renovation programs were sent to schools, and subsequent visits showed substantial improvement in field conditions.
Andrew McNitt, assistant professor of turfgrass science, is continuing work on athletic field safety with the goal of creating safer, more durable, more functional athletic field surfaces. He evaluates how to maintain grass so as to reduce athlete injury at high school and grade school levels. McNitt is also developing mobile natural turfgrass systems that would allow stadium managers to rotate fresh sections of grass into heavily worn areas or even remove the grass altogether for concerts and other nonathletic events.
Penn State research on turfgrass nutrition began with Donald Waddington and is continuing under the direction of Max Schlossberg, assistant professor of turfgrass nutrition/soil fertility. Current research projects build on early work on soil amendments and modification, nutrient availability and uptake, soil test calibration, and nitrogen source evaluation. Schlossberg also researches fertilizer use efficiency in turfgrass systems, cultural practices for treating acid soil complex, and characterizing organic and inorganic soil amendment of turfgrass root zones.
With the expansion of the lawn care industry and heightened awareness of environmental issues in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the focus of turfgrass research turned to fertilizer and pesticide issues. Runoff plots at the Landscape Management Research Center (LMRC) were put to use in the first project to study factors related to runoff from home lawns. Under the direction of Tom Watschke, professor of turfgrass science, twelve sloped plots of seeded and sodded turfgrass with varying densities at the LMRC were treated with pesticides and fertilizers commonly used by lawn care companies and homeowners. Researchers monitored the rate and amount of runoff from each plot. Research results—such as the discovery that sodded plots reduce runoff better than seeded plots and that runoff figures are higher for pastures than for home lawns—have shed light on the effects of fertilizers and pesticides applied to turfgrass. The LMRC plots have also been used to study runoff of various fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides, as well as soil movement.
Joseph M. Duich overseeing the installation of a new irrigation system at Valentine, 1976
Growth Regulators and Weed Control
The definition of a weed is a plant out of place, and from its very beginnings Penn State's turfgrass research program has studied how to get rid of weeds. In the program's early days, faculty member Tom Perkins researched weed control, as did Joseph Duich. Today, weed control and growth regulators are Tom Watschke's primary research area. Growth regulators came onto the market in the early 1970s, with the ability to inhibit weed growth as well as significantly reduce mowing requirements. They inhibit plant growth either by preventing cells from dividing or by reducing cell elongation. As a result of his studies on how growth regulators function and how they can best be used in turfgrass management strategies, Watschke has helped chemical companies in the turfgrass industry evaluate new growth regulators as they come on the market.
Watschke also studies methods for controlling common weeds such as chickweed and crabgrass. Jeff Borger, Watschke's research staff assistant, oversees research plots at Penn State's golf course, the Valentine Research Center, and the home lawn of Dave Livingston, manager of the Valentine Research Center.
Thomas Watschke spraying crabgrass control trial plots, 1978
In the 1990s, faculty member George Hamilton was writing a paper on hydromulch—the green mulch that is sprayed on newly seeded lawns throughout Penn State's University Park Campus—and at the same time researching super-absorbent gels known as polyacrilomides. To eliminate the need for expensive equipment to apply the mulch, he tried incorporating the fibers used in hydromulch with super-absorbent gel into a pellet form that could be spread easily by hand or with a spreader. The result was PennMulch, a commercially successful mulch that retains moisture and warmth in the soil. When the pellet gets wet, it swells and ruptures, expanding to cover bare patches and providing instant green. PennMulch is ideal for sports turf because it protects the seed bed and encourages fast germination. On golf courses, it supports superior germination and provides consistent green color for areas under repair. And its ease of application makes it ideal for grounds maintenance and home landscaping. Patented in 1995, PennMulch is distributed through Home Depot and other chain stores throughout the country.
Penn State's turfgrass program has had a strong history of research in turfgrass disease diagnosis and management, which has contributed to the control of turf diseases such as gray leaf spot, take-all patch, dollar spot, brown patch, and snow molds. In 1954, Houston Couch was hired as Penn State's first turfgrass pathologist and worked on diseases of forage crops and grasses along with his advisee Herbert Cole, Jr., who joined the faculty in 1957. Cole continued to research turf diseases, collaborating with Joseph Duich as well as plant pathologists Pat Sanders and Clifford Warren.
A major research focus continues to be on fungicide resistance in turfgrasses. When the early 1970s brought an enhanced awareness of fungicide resistance, Cole conducted product evaluation of fungicides for the agricultural chemical industry. Pat Sanders continued studies on fungicide resistance, earning international recognition for her work. Sanders is particularly well known for her 1993 publication The Microscope in Turfgrass Disease Diagnosis , which helps golf course superintendents identify turf pathogens by examining a few blades of ailing grass under a microscope.
Today, plant pathologist Wakar Uddin studies the management of gray leaf spot on perennial ryegrass and how environmental conditions affect gray leaf spot epidemics. He is also researching the biology of takeall patch and how to control this pathogen on golf greens and fairways. Along with research technician Mike Soika, Uddin continues fungicide evaluation, working with the agricultural chemical industry to develop effective and environmentally safe uses of fungicides as part of an integrated turfgrass management system.
Paul Heller, professor of entomology, conducts research on management of key golf course turfgrass insect pests. His program has evaluated the effectiveness of insect parasitic nematodes, conventional insecticides, and biorational formulations to suppress billbugs, black cutworm, and scarab white grubs. His program has recently conducted studies to suppress the activity of annual bluegrass weevil and nuisance ant. The program also addresses insect problems associated with residential lawns, including bluegrass billbug, hairy chinch bug, sod webworms, and white grubs. The entomology program works closely with Pennsylvania golf course superintendents, and numerous studies have been established on golf course turf.
From early turf research plots to a state-of-the-art classroom building and a vision for a new and consolidated research center, Penn State's turfgrass facilities are continually evolving to support the program's research and educational activities.
Joseph Valentine Turfgrass Research Center
In the 1940s and 50s, the turf research plots had many homes around campus. "They moved around a lot," says Tom Watschke. "They used to be at the current site of East Halls, then where the Natatorium is. Jim Watson and Jack Harper did their Ph.D. field studies on a piece of land where the computer center is now." When the plots were chased away by building construction again in the late 1950s, they were moved to their current location, the Joseph Valentine Turfgrass Research Center.
Joseph Duich, who oversaw the Valentine Center's development, remembers its beginnings. "First of all, we had to go where there was water. We looked at a university map for locations with water lines, and once the location was chosen, we started from scratch. Two technicians, Russell Smith and Herb Zimmers, and I developed the land, and it was a lot of work. We planted our first grass in 1959."
The level, flat, well-manicured plots of today are a far cry from the center's original condition. According to Dave Livingston, who has managed the Valentine Center since 1993, "When Dr. Duich first came to the Valentine Center it didn't look like much. It was basically a big hollow, a sink hole, and none of it was level. It was pretty awesome, what they did. Of course, they didn't have the equipment we have today, and they did a lot of hand raking. Dr. Duich knew what it took to get those areas flat and smooth. He had foresight: He knew what he had to do to prepare the area for really good research. People tell me there's no other research center like this."
Plaque at the Joseph Valentine Research Center, which was dedicated in 1970. The stone for the plaque comes from the Merion Golf Club, where Valentine served as golf superintendent.
Although the first grass was planted in 1959, the research center did not acquire the Valentine name until a decade later. After the 1966 death of Joseph Valentine, former golf course superintendent of Merion Golf Club and one of the founders of Penn State's turfgrass program, Dean Russell E. Larson proposed that the research center bear Valentine's name. Dedication of the Joseph Valentine Turfgrass Research Center was held in 1970.
Upon the retirement of turfgrass technicians Russell Smith and Herbert Zimmers in the early 1970s, technicians Charles Wian and Merrill Moore took over management of the turf plots until 1991. "When I was at the Valentine Center, working with Dr. Duich, we did all of our own mechanical, carpentry, and maintenance work," says Wian, who was in charge of the work crews. "There was quite a variety of work. I always enjoyed working with the students and the summer help. I know there have been a lot of changes at Valentine, and I'm sure it's all for the better."
Today, the Valentine Center is a seventeen-acre research facility that focuses on high-maintenance turfgrass. Two and a half acres of close-cut creeping bentgrass are dedicated to golf course putting green research, and other areas include Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and tall fescue. An automatic irrigation system provides uniform watering, and a wide array of turfgrass management equipment and specialized materials allows researchers to create or mimic real-world turfgrass environments.
Trial plots for the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) feature new varieties of fine fescues, tall fescues, and ryegrass, as well as new bluegrass varieties. Peter Landschoot evaluates the fescues for color, growth rate, and disease resistance, while David Huff evaluates the bluegrasses. "The fescue test will be there for five years, and we will not spray those plots," explains manager Dave Livingston. "Sometimes it looks bad, but Dr. Landschoot leaves it alone to see what will happen. One square might get plastered with a disease and the block next to it won't. It's the same with Dr. Huff's new bluegrasses: Some had leaf spot so bad this past year, and the rest were fine."
Another area of the Valentine Center is dedicated to athletic field turfgrass studies. Andy McNitt tests mowing heights as well as different grass varieties—including a new type of artificial turf—to see which varieties wear better. Wear machines create general wear-and-tear, and PennFoot, a device developed at Penn State, measures traction.
Landscape Management Research Center
In the turf program's early days, most of the research was directed toward golf course maintenance. When the late 1970s saw an expansion of the lawn care industry and resultant environmental concerns, Penn State faculty recognized the need for research that addressed these concerns. To supplement research space at the Valentine Center, the Landscape Management Research Center (LMRC) was created in 1983.
"As we were planning the LMRC, we decided to renovate some old runoff plots that had been built on the site in the late 1930s," says Thomas Watschke. "They were originally part of a government project where runoff plots were installed at all land-grant schools to study erosion problems. That work began in about 1937, and in 1942 the plots were abandoned. So when we went to renovate them, they had to be dug up. There was three-foot-high grass growing over them. George Hamilton was an undergraduate working for me, and he was also one of my advisees. So George and a few of his buddies got the runoff plots ready for action, and that was a lot of hard work."
The seventeen-acre LMRC is the current site for several projects. Runoff plots are used for studies on fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides. Other studies include crabgrass evaluation, weed control, and research on roadside grasses and wildflowers. An additional nine acres were set aside as a turfgrass breeding nursery.
Situated at the Landscape Management Research Center, the Mascaro/Steiniger Turfgrass Museum stands as testimony to two pioneers in turfgrass management. The museum is named for inventor Tom Mascaro and his lifelong friend Eb Steiniger, former golf course superintendent at the Pine Valley Country Club. Dedicated in August 1994, the museum holds many of Mascaro's inventions among, other antique equipment dating back to the early 1900s. Visitors can see the evolution of Toro and Jacobson mowers, a refurbished tractor from 1925, and an antique seeder for seeding fairways.
Both Mascaro and Steiniger were present for the museum dedication, which provided an opportunity for reminiscing. "Joe Duich and I kicked around the idea for a museum through the years," said Mascaro. "I had twelve machines I'd patented, and about twenty pieces of equipment altogether. Some never made it to the marketplace and don't work! Eb stored all of this equipment at Pine Valley for me, and when he retired the new superintendent got rid of everything. I called Joe and said, 'We talked about a museum, but I don't know what we're going to do now because everything's gone.'
Equipment found in the Mascaro/Steiniger Turfgrass Museum
"But Eb thought he knew where it was. I flew to Pine Valley and we spent a day in the junkyard. We started finding things, but I wanted to know where the original Aerifier was. I asked the guy at the junkyard and he said, 'I put this all by itself because I thought it looked important but I didn't know what the heck it was.' So when we'd gotten it all, I called Joe. He said, 'Sit still, I'll be down there.' Joe borrowed a truck from the university, drove all the way down to Pine Valley, and took it all back." Mascaro's Aerifier—both the prototype and the first commercial model—is now safe in the museum, along with his other inventions.
Art Wick, past president of the Pennsylvania Turfgrass Council, also played an integral part in the creation of the turfgrass museum. In the 1970s, when he and Joseph Duich were working on the museum collection, Wick arranged for equipment to be delivered from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Long Island, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.
Agricultural Sciences and Industries Building
The Agricultural Sciences and Industries Building, which houses Penn State's turfgrass program, came about as the result of much thought and planning. The process began in 1986, when Al Turgeon was hired as head of the Department of Agronomy. Turgeon, along with a USDA feasibility study committee, explored options for a new building to house the agronomy department.
"We got an architect and we visited other campuses and asked them what they liked and didn't like," says Turgeon, "and we brought all those ideas to the drawing board." Construction began in March 1989 and was completed in December 1990.
The building houses the Departments of Crop and Soil Sciences and Entomology as well as parts of the Departments of Veterinary Science and Dairy and Animal Science. Classrooms and labs are equipped with computers, as is an agricultural learning center designed for independent study. Administrative and faculty offices are well-lit, with plenty of windows. A club room provides a space for students to have club meetings, display their trophies, and simply relax.
"You walk into the building and the asymmetrical lobby, with sofas in the center, makes you want to stay a while," says Turgeon. "There's a comfortable feel. It's a building for people."
One drawback to the Valentine Research Center is that it is somewhat landlocked, making possibilities for expansion minimal. "About three or four years ago," said George Hamilton, "we got a call from President Spanier's office. He wanted to come out and take a look at our research facilities. In true Graham Spanier style, he drives out, shows up, rolls his sleeves up, and says, 'Walk me around.' Dave Livingston took him around, and within ten minutes, Spanier's comment was, 'A world class program needs world class facilities, and we need to do something better.'"
At that time, plans for a 395-acre Arboretum at the north end of campus were being discussed, and it was decided that it would be a logical fit to allocate space for a turfgrass research facility as part of the Arboretum. The turfgrass research area will include thirty-five acres for the Valentine plots, the Landscape Management Research Center and support buildings, yard space, and parking.
With a principal mission of teaching and outreach, the Arboretum will feature intensive landscape displays, a conservatory, and a visitors' center. Most of the acreage will be devoted to research on environmental issues such as natural plant communities, soils, forestry, turfgrass, and hydrology. The Overlook Heights Teaching and Research Area will be at least partially devoted to turfgrass research, and other areas will integrate turfgrass demonstration plots and turfgrass design features. A lawn patterned with a series of progressively widening bands of different-colored turf will be designed with the help of Penn State turfgrass scientists. This lawn, as well as other flower and turf demonstration plots, will change over time to reflect ever-evolving research on turfgrass.