Canada’s house of turfgrass ideas

By |  July 23, 2014 0 Comments

Canada’s Guelph Turfgrass Institute remains a leader in turfgrass research, despite a nationwide pesticide ban and an impending move.

Elvis fans get all shook up at Graceland, sci-fi fans beam in on Area 51 and baseball fans flock to their field of dreams for a dog and a beer. But where do Canadian turfies go?

For 26 years, students from the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada) have made the trek from campus to the Guelph Turfgrass Institute.

For 26 years, students from the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada) have made the trek from campus to the Guelph Turfgrass Institute.

Every fall for the past 26 years, Canadian turf students in the Guelph Turfgrass Management Diploma program make an annual pilgrimage from campus to the massive Guelph Turfgrass Institute (GTI), home of a myriad of turf organizations and researchers.

From soils and fertility to sod production and management to the control of weeds, insects, pests and other invasive diseases, the collaborative research at the GTI never stops. Besides the field trials outside, inside the 80,000-square-foot facility the labs are home to 10 to 15 ongoing projects.

Katerina Serlemitsos Jordan is a plant pathologist in the Department of Plant Agriculture. Her main interest is in Integrated Pest Management. She’s worked at the GTI for the past eight years. Besides using the facility to conduct her own research, she runs a turfgrass diagnostic laboratory out of the building. Clients throughout Canada send in turf samples and look to her for a diagnosis and recommendation.

“One of the things I like about our institute, that separates it from a lot of other turfgrass facilities I’ve seen throughout the U.S., is our industry representatives are all housed there,” Jordan says. “It gives us the chance to chat with them and get an idea of what they need with respect to research.”
 

Come together

“I equate the (pesticide) ban to the three stages of grief,” Charbonneau says. “First there was disbelief. Then there was anger. Now, we are finally getting to the acceptance phase and trying to move on with it.”

“I equate the (pesticide) ban to the three stages of grief,” Charbonneau says. “First there was disbelief. Then there was anger. Now, we are finally getting to the acceptance phase and trying to move on with it.”

Besides housing academics, GTI is also the headquarters for the Ontario Turfgrass Research Foundation, the Ontario Golf Superintendents Association and the Sports Turf Association. The institute also provides office and research space for a turfgrass extension specialist from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Think of GTI as your one-stop turf shop.

“You can drop off a sample for one of the researchers to study, and then you can meet with industry representatives,” says Rob Witherspoon, who became the institute’s first dedicated director in 1993. “The GTI is a focal point for all things turf. It’s a collection of academics, government employees and industry associations all working in the same place… it’s a unique place.”

In 1981 the seeds for this innovative facility were planted. The first research trials began on the current site in 1987.

Dr. Ken Carey, a research technician in Turf Management at the GTI, laughs saying it’s not a glamorous job, but it’s a job he still loves. He has fond memories of those early development days. While the research needs have certainly changed, the institute’s mandate remains the same as when it was established.

“It was meant to pull together researchers from different departments within the university who were working in turf: horticulturalists, plant scientists and environmental biologists,” he says. “These academics then worked with — and delivered education — to the industry. We are a happy family most of the time.”
 

Showcasing research

Pamela Charbonneau, a turfgrass extension specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, has worked with GTI since 1991. Her main role is to extend the research results to the end-users: superintendents, lawn care operators, municipal sports-field managers and sod growers.

One of the big vehicles to do that is the annual Ontario Turfgrass Symposium that happens every February.

“This is one way I interact with the other researchers at the GTI,” Charbonneau says. “We try to showcase as much of the local research as possible, so the turf managers in the area get relevant research done close to home.”

Charbonneau says it’s a fantastic concept to have space so close to the university where the researchers are and graduate students have easy access. Having the different associations in the building creates opportunities for collaboration and exchanging ideas.
 

Pesticide ban effects

On April 22 (Earth Day) in 2009, the Ontario government passed the Pesticides Act. This law essentially banned the use of pesticides by most turfgrass industries. Golf courses were exempt from the outright ban. They are allowed to use some inputs, but with restrictions.

“The GTI is a focal point for all things turf. It’s a collection of academics, government employees and industry associations.”

“The GTI is a focal point for all things turf. It’s a collection of academics, government employees and industry associations.”

GTI saw this new law as an opportunity to switch the focus of its research and to help the industry — especially the sports turf and lawn care side — by testing natural products and ways to treat various turfgrass diseases without using pesticides.

“I equate the ban to the three stages of grief,” Charbonneau says. “First there was disbelief. Then there was anger. Now, we are finally getting to the acceptance phase and trying to move on with it. A big part of being able to move on is having the tools, technology and the know-how… that’s where the research conducted at GTI can help.”
 

Moving on

The Ontario government owns the building and the 250 acres of farmland and forests where the GTI resides. It’s no surprise to learn the provincial government is looking to sell this land sometime during the next few years, with the property most likely earmarked for residential development.

Most likely, the new GTI will move closer to campus, if not on it. The new site won’t have nearly as much space, but that is not necessarily a negative.

“People say that you want to have this big, expanded area where you can have large areas of turf,” Charbonneau says. “When you think about turf in the landscape, other than a sod farm, it doesn’t exist on its own in a flat field, so it might give us more opportunities to look at turf in a more natural environment. I think it’s a win-win.”

Witherspoon also sees GTI’s eventual move as a positive.

“We will reinvent ourselves once again,” he says.

Photos: University of Guelph

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