CHOOSING between a synthetic and organic fertilizer isn’t as simple as merely wishing to take a more environmentally-friendly approach toward turf care. Dr. Eric Lyons, a plant nutritionist with the University of Guelph, examined the key differences between the two fertilizer types during an address he made in Toronto in January at the Ontario Golf Superintendents’ Association-sponsored Golf Course Management Conference and Trade Show.
WITH water becoming increasingly more expensive to buy and turfgrass lawns suffering drought-induced setbacks, more and more people are turning to landscape contractors to create xeriscaped yards for them. Xeriscaping, an environmental design of land to minimize water use, has been showing up quite a bit of late "on people's radar," said Sean James, owner of Fern Ridge Landscaping in Milton, Ont. Speaking in January at Landscape Congress in Toronto, he said aesthetic-looking residential and park properties can be created, requiring little maintenance and next to no water. "We can create beauty with it," he said. "It isn't impossible. You just have to think about the plants you're going to use." James said nature does a good job on its own, and contractors and their customers can draw on that for inspiration. He said he prefers using native plants, but isn't opposed to using non-native species to create something different. Anything that can grow in pure sand is likely to be drought-tolerant. Periwinkle, for example, is an ideal, drought-tolerant plant, given the proper establishment process. It's slow to establish, he admitted, but will last a long time. Surface irrigation is usually required at the outset to get plants established, but "once that's done, you're off to the races." Xeriscaping doesn't mean water can't be used, James said. "Certainly water is an important part of any landscape for establishment and for aesthetics, but there are systems you can use that put water right at the root of the plant. I only look at irrigation as a method of establishment." Scree gardening is a method of xeriscaping which requires no soil. Scree is the gravel-like material which falls down the side of a mountain and comes in various sizes. The type of gravel used under roads is ideal for ordinary scree gardens. James, who has created a scree garden atop a driveway, said the growing medium for his scree garden at home ranges in depth from about one inch to a foot and a half, but it doesn't need to be particularly thick for plants to grow. Scree gardens "allow you to tap a whole different palette of plant material." James said it's "uncanny" what Mother Nature can grow that he can't. Keeping plants shorter and stronger will proof them against such things as a lack of water and nutrients. "If you're putting something in scree and you're cutting back on that nutrient and water availability, then you're going to make the plant an awful lot stronger and a lot more disease and insect tolerant." Because plants tend to grow shorter and stronger in scree plantings, powdery mildew will be absent. "In this age where pesticides are being taken out of the tool box, perhaps this is a good way to go to reduce the use." Xeriscapes can be home to several different plant varieties, including types of cacti that are Canadian winter hardy. "Anything that can set your landscape apart is a good thing." Dwarf conifers and miniature roses are among plant types which can prosper in a xeriscaped setting. James said he doesn't do anything with his roses which don't die back during the winter and bloom all summer. He added some landscapers tend to "baby" certain plants during the season, leading to winter dieback and winter kill. Little bluestem is a favourite grass of his for sunny environments because of its appearance, its ease of growing, and the fact it needs no water at all once it's established. "Think long term when you're landscaping. We should be thinking five, 10, 20 years down the line when we're doing things." A juniper big enough to fill the area, for example, "will fill the yard in no time at all." James told his audience to think twice before pulling something Mother Nature has planted, recalling how he gave a second thought to pulling a New England astor from his property. He opted to leave it alone and found it offered good winter interest, it complemented the grass, and looked as if it belonged there. Other plants to consider when xeriscaping, he noted, included iron weed, cat mint, various bamboos, wild blue indigo and red switchgrass. "If you have super, well-draining soil, then thyme is good. If it drains well, it's a beautiful ground cover." James said thyme also thrives in full sun, but added sun and shade are relative. "If something blooms in deep shade, especially late in the year, I'm happy. Try things out and see how they do." Drought-tolerant landscapes should not be overirrigated, he warned, because they will suffer if subjected to too much water. "If something is native and blooms in the shade and blooms in the fall, why would we not have it in our landscape?" Plants such as yuccas offer spectacular texture, James said. "Xeriscaping can have fabulous texture. It is about the leaves and the foliage colour as well and can make a landscape stand out from the competition." Trees such as black locust are drought-tolerant and are fast to grow when young, but slow down as they get older. They are native and problem-free. Barberries work well in xeriscapes, but James warned to be careful where they are planted. Because they are potentially invasive, he suggested they not be planted near a creek. "Put plants together that you think work well together and you'll learn to have fun with it." He said contractors should set the expectations of their customers the right way. Some plants may not look like much the first year but, with patience, will look great down the road. "Your customers aren't stupid. They didn't get financially well off enough to afford us by being stupid. They just may not know, and all they need is some information." The customer, however, is much better informed than he used to be due to such resources as the Internet and garden clubs, James said.
DEVELOPING environmentally-friendly yet profitable programs will be a challenge for lawn care operators and landscape contractors in Ontario now that a province-wide pesticide ban is imminent, but those willing to take that step can continue to offer their customers healthy, pest-free lawns. Such was the message from Turf Revolution's Tim Cradduck who spoke in January at Landscape Congress in Toronto. His message, entitled "Green unleashed: strategies for the new lawn care industry," offered advice to those wishing to provide their customers with the best available programs yet doing so using a "green tool box." It all begins with soil testing, he said. The contactor can meet with the customer, going over key points about what is happening with his turf "without getting lost in the science and confusing the customer." Such an approach, he noted, gives the contractor an added level of professionalism. The key point to note in any soil test, Cradduck said, is the soil's pH level which, if out of whack, will send everything else out of whack. Cation exchange capacity, potassium-to-magnesium ratio, organic matter, soil texture and sodium content are other key points to look at in a soil test. Turf Revolution uses a third party laboratory which conducts its soils tests using Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs standards. Testing is done in the form of a mail-in kit, providing the customer with full results in a PDF format within seven to 10 days. Make sure your spreader is calibrated to the pace of the operator. Using that soil test as a starting point, a core fertility program can be developed for the customer of four applications of fertilizer for the season. If the customer's soil is particularly sandy, one or two additional applications may be necessary because the nitrogen will be used up much faster. The soil test will indicate how many pounds of nitrogen are needed to be put down over the course of a season. The test will also suggest what correctives are necessary as well as the need for adding organics. Cradduck said results from a soil test create an opportunity for contractors to "up sell" other programs to their customers. "You've got an opportunity to sell aeration, overseeding, topdressing, correctives...those are all additional up-sells." He said if a customer can be sold on four yearly fertilizer applications, he can perhaps also be sold on some up-sells. It is important to understand the difference between synthetic and organic fertilizers, he said, because the way in which they work will be affected by the climate. Synthetic fertilizers, he noted, feed the plant directly vs. feeding the soil. High in nitrogen as a rule, they promote top growth but not a lot of root growth. Once it becomes hot and dry, the turf has difficulty surviving due to the imbalance between top and root growth. The reason synthetic fertilizers have become so expensive of late, Cradduck said, is because of the natural gas necessary to make the urea as well as the inflated cost of potash. Organic fertilizers, by law, contain a minimum of 15 per cent organic matter. The remaining 85 per cent of filler is synthetic fertilizer, in most cases. "You may have been sold thinking you're buying an organic fertilizer, but the reality is you've bought a synthetic fertilizer with a little bit of chicken manure or something like that tucked in the back end." Synthetic fertilizers contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium unless it also contains a micropackage of other nutrients. Organic fertilizers, by comparison, not only contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but about 12 other nutrients, including zinc, magnesium, sulfur and boron. Organic fertilizers "feed the soil which in turn feeds the plant, promoting healthy, balanced plant growth," Cradduck said. Although organic fertilizers have their attributes, they also have their drawbacks which include odour, he said, as they are often derived from animal manures or processed human waste. Cradduck said Turf Revolution chooses not to use any animal byproducts because of their propensity for odour and their salt content. Instead, the company uses plant/mineral-based fertilizers made from such products as corn, alfalfa and seaweed. "The nice thing about it is you're feeding a plant back to a plant." Attributes include a low salt index, an excellent slow-release source of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and a balanced source of nutrients. "The neat thing about organics is there is lots of cool things that go on behind the scenes." Cradduck said alfalfa, for example, is an ideal nitrogen fertilizer which contains a biostimulant called triacontanal. The biostimulant creates a stronger and healthier grass, more vigorous tillering, and a healthier and stronger cell wall. Kelp also contains a biostimulant which produces significant root growth and doesn't cause the plant to stretch, yet keeps it solid, strong and healthy. It also helps with seed germination and drought tolerance. Polymer-coated urea fertilizers offer a truer form of release among synthetics, Cradduck said, but they are difficult to find anymore due to increased shipments to China. He said if they can be found, they will be expensive. "The nice thing about organics is they're totally natural slow-release fertilizers, so you'll get four to eight weeks of steady, slow feed out of an organic fertilizer." He added organics don't produce the same amount of top growth that synthetics do, which means a company that removes its clippings will be less burdened. It also helps to ensure that only the top third of the blade is cut when mowing regularly. "Ideally, we want to have a fertilizer that's balanced, meaning the first and last number (nitrogen and potassium) are close to being the same." A balanced organic fertilizer will promote both top and root growth, he said. Whenever weeds are present in a lawn, it tends to be a sign of other issues, including a pH level which isn't optimum, salt presence, compaction, low nitrogen levels, and nutrients tied up in the soil. At Turf Revolution, a product called Salt Stopper is used to neutralize the salt content in soil, allowing it to be flushed out so that grass can grow. Cradduck said last winter's salt usage in his driveway damaged the turf on either side of the pavement. By using the Salt Stopper product, he was able to restore a lush, healthy lawn in those areas within three weeks. The product is also helpful in preventing dog patch damage. Since it is the salt content in dog urine which causes the most damage, customers owning dogs can be up-sold on a Salt Stopper program, he said. Three applications in the spring, summer and fall of eight pounds per 1,000 square feet will stave off the problem. "Once the salt levels go down, it actually releases nitrates back into the soil. It's also a great clay buster which helps to reduce compaction. "Your core fertility program will be the key thing in your tool box," Cradduck said, recommending at least five pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet for each of the four yearly applications. If the soil is sandy, six pounds may be required. "The trick is, don't cheap out on this. This is where guys make a fatal error with their lawn care programs if they don't calibrate their fertilizer spreaders properly." He said the walking speed of the applicator must be taken into account so that the spreader can be adjusted according to the individual. Taller people with longer strides will cover more ground in a shorter period of time than someone shorter. The core fertility program is a big key toward crowding out weeds, but adding organic matter into the soil is also important. Microbes need to be replenished in the soil which can be accomplished by using organic fertilizers, retaining grass clippings and using compost. When overseeding, certified seed blends should be used, Cradduck said. "When you go shopping for seed, you'll have to pay a little more for a certified blend." The bag tag will indicate the exact percentage of the type of seed it is as well as the seed variety. Seed should be selected according to its growing conditions, he added, suggesting full sun or predominant shade will dictate what is needed. Seed type can combat potential damage from such pests as chinch bugs, billbugs and sod webworm. Ryegrass and creeping red fescue, for example, contain endophytes which upset the pests' stomachs, prompting them to stop feeding, dehydrate and die. Cradduck recommended maintaining a mowing height of between 21/2 and three inches and leaving behind the clippings which add about a pound of nitrogen to the soil during the course of a season. Water should be used judiciously, he suggested. "If we've got an irrigation system set up and it's coming on every single day and it's splashing water on the lawn 20 minutes every day, the roots don't have to go down anywhere. They can stay right there. You want to make sure you've got a deeper root zone." The customer needs to water less often, but for a longer period of time, he said, suggesting an inch of water per week on average is ideal. Aerating should ideally be done in both the spring and fall. "If you can aerate twice a year, you're off to the races. If you can encourage your customers to aerate more than that, even better." The idea behind aerating is to reduce compaction and increase the root zone. "We're root pruning the grass and it sends out more rhizomes which produces a bigger, thicker lawn and enables the water and nutrients down into the root zone." Topdressing will increase organic matter in the soil. The more organic matter, the higher the turf's drought tolerance will be. Ideally, topdressing should be done in conjunction with aerating, Cradduck said. If the right kind of compost is used, it should be free of weed seeds. Certified compost, or CQA, is weed-free. At the centre of the compost pile, the temperature is taken up to about 60 degrees Celsius so that any weed seeds or pathogens that may have existed are dead. The microbes, however, are still there digesting everything. Turf Revolution uses a spreader-friendly compost product called Time Sav'R Topdressing which can be put down by a broadcast or drop spreader in a quick application. A 3,000-square-foot lawn can be done in 15 minutes. A soccer field can be done in 45 minutes using a broadcast spreader. "Not all compost is created equal," Cradduck said, explaining that anaerobic compost-that without oxygen-is created inside a vessel. When taken out and exposed to oxygen, the microbes die and it tends to have a high salt index. He suggested aerobic compost be used, which is produced with oxygen and material derived from leaf and yard trimmings. "Don't get stuff with a high salt index to it because you'll pay for it in the end when you have to redo the lawn." Cradduck said the Time Sav'R product is pelletized, spreader-friendly, derived from CQA compost, is composted from leaf and yard trimmings, and makes for a fast and easy application. "Put a skid of product in the back of a pickup truck with a spreader and a guy, and he can go off and do 18 3,000-square-foot lawns in a six-hour day and make you about $800." Cradduck's final message: "Educate your customers. You have a formal partnership with your customers. If they want success from the program they're paying you to do, there has to be a partnership between the two of you to make sure it happens."
Dr. Brian Horgan The decisions that golf course superintendents made last fall in regard to fertilization, nitrogen applications and coverings will determine the health and appearance of their turf in the spring. That was the principal message delivered by University of Minnesota turfgrass scientist Dr. Brian Horgan to Manitoba superintendents and students attending the Manitoba Golf and Turf Conference in Winnipeg, Nov. 23-25. Horgan's topic was "recovery for northern climates." And that recovery, of course, depends on actions superintendents take in the fall. The proper time to apply water-soluble nitrogen fertilizer in the fall is after the last mowing, which is usually in mid-October when growth has essentially ceased, Horgan noted. Late fall fertilizer applications improve turf density and aid in carbohydrate accumulation as growth slows. The benefits are improved fall colour retention and earlier spring greenup. The optimum time to apple fertilizer in the fall is when the temperature is between five and 15 degrees Celsius, Horgan said. Nitrogen application rates for water-soluble sources are 0.5 to one pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet and, for organic and slow-release sources, one pound nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Horgan asked how many in his audience had introduced nitrogen into their turf this past fall. Only three responded positively. He noted the reason so few put nitrogen into the plant at this time of year is because of the concern about snow mould developing. "It is a dice roll," he observed about nitrogen input. "If you put it in at the wrong time, you risk encouraging disease. The key is experience. You have to know your pollens. Some pollens respond differently to different levels of nitrogen." Nitrogen has to be applied at critical growth junctures, Horgan said. Different nitrogen sources have to be applied at different times. For IBDU, late fall application should be no later than Sept. 15. The cutoff time for natural organic nitrogen is October. The deadline for coated ureas is generally around Oct. 15. Soluble nitrogen can be held back until the beginning of November. Again, this is all weather dependent. A cool fall with early frosts may push these dates earlier. "This year was tougher," he noted, "because there wasn't much time between the end of the warm weather and the beginning of cooler days." Where ice is concerned, Horgan pointed out the danger to turfgrass can come during the initial ice formation at the beginning of winter or during thaws when standing water increases crown hydration levels and then there is a sudden drop in temperature below minus five degrees Celsius. Poa annua turfgrass can survive up to 75 days under snow and ice, he noted. The hardier bentgrasses can survive up to 150 days under snow and ice. Turf is most susceptible to injury as it starts to green again in March, he added. Crown hydration generally affects poa annua grass rather than bentgrass because the former is always ready to come out at the first hint of spring while the latter grows more slowly. However, given the right conditions, crown hydration can kill any turfgrass. In discussing winter desiccation-death by drying out during the winter-Horgan noted that perennial ryegrass crowns are longer and more exposed than Kentucky bluegrass. The latter also contains rhizomes that protect growing points from winter desiccation. In addressing the matter of covers to protect against winter desiccation, Horgan noted that permeable ones work well. "We had guys in the Minnesota area who lost a lot of turf to winter kill because they put on impermeable covers over very wet soils. That resulted in a buildup of carbon dioxide and methane that proved lethal to the turf underneath. Now they are putting a foam layer down first and covering that with impermeable blankets." He added that wood fibre blankets can also be used to protect against winter injury. The three to four-inch wood fibre keeps temperatures steady throughout the winter, he said. The disadvantages are that you need a barn to store them when not in use, and they have to be replaced every few years.
GOLF course superintendents who manage poa annua putting green surfaces paid particular attention to a Dec. 3 address by Dr. James Murphy, extension specialist at New Jersey's Rutgers University, who shared his findings on the latest research in anthracnose management. Speaking to more than 250 superintendents and their assistants in Waterloo at the 20th annual Ontario Seed Company/Nutrite professional turfgrass seminar, Murphy looked at how various cultural management practices affect the disease on annual bluegrass. Researchers began to take note of the disease when it became particularly problematic around the turn of the millennium. "At that time, we weren't sure what factors were really causing this disease to become more problematic," Murphy said. "It was suggested that a lot of our management practices that put stress on turf were maybe related to this disease, but we didn't know which, if any, of these management factors made the disease more severe." Anthracnose is also known to attack creeping bentgrass, but it's more prevalent in poa annua. Although it can be present during the spring and fall, it is most aggressive in the summer during periods of extreme heat and humidity. Symptoms begin as small yellow or orange-coloured spots. As it progresses, it can coalesce and cause extensive damage by blighting younger leaves and shoots. The basal rot phase of anthracnose is the most severe. Southern Ontario and the northern regions of the United States have become especially prone to the disease. Murphy is one of 23 researchers from various institutions who is looking at how anthracnose is affected through normal cultural management practices. It's been determined the disease has developed a resistance to certain fungicides, and studies have been conducted to see if such practices as mowing, fertilization, plant growth regulation and topdressing may hinder or drive anthracnose on. Murphy said the objective of the research is to determine whether these practices add severity to the disease or if manipulation of them can make anthracnose less severe. In a study of fertility, one test plot was fertilized with one-tenth of a pound of nitrogen per month while another received four-tenths of a pound. The lesser amount of nitrogen contributed to a greater presence of the disease. "What we're recommending is for a summer program, if it's at all feasible for you to increase your amount of fertility during the summer months, do so because you will see a benefit from that type of management change." The greater amount of nitrogen led to reduced thinning of the turf due to anthracnose damage. Murphy recommended applying sufficient amounts of nitrogen to maintain adequate vigor of the plant through light, frequent applications during the summer months. "Soluble summer nitrogen fertility is a good tool to try to combat this disease." Mowing trials were conducted with cutting heights ranging from one-tenth of an inch to .14 inches and mowing frequencies at seven cuts per week vs. 14 cuts. The higher height of cut resulted in the least amount of disease. "Small, subtle changes in your mowing height can have a big impact on how severe this disease will be. If you can afford to raise your cutting height, the better off you are." Murphy said he figured an increase in mowing frequency would make the plant more susceptible to anthracnose, but "double cutting did not have a negative effect on this disease." The same type of observation was made in plots which were rolled vs. those which went without rolling treatments. A vibratory roller set up on a triplex machine was used for lightweight rolling treatments done every other day. "There was more disease with the non-rolled treatments which goes against the normal conventional wisdom," Murphy said. "We expected to see things like double cutting and rolling to cause problems, yet the data is telling us the complete opposite." He said the researchers believe this to be the case because the turf is getting a truer cut with such programs. Turf that is rolled and smoothed relieves surface stress because scalping and injury are reduced. Murphy recommended mowing heights of 3.2 millimetres or higher to best ward off the disease. However, if clubs require increased playability, they would be better off to mow twice daily or incorporate rolling than to drop their height of cut if they wish to achieve green speed relative to the disease problem. The trials were based on ball roll speeds of 10 feet. "We're able to give superintendents recommendations for mowing and rolling programs that will give them reasonable playability without intensifying the disease to a great extent." Research involving rollers has since compared data between vibratory and sidewinding rollers, so far showing no discernable difference. Growth regulators are commonly used on greens today as a means of shutting off seed head production and allowing the plant to divert carbohydrates to root and shoot growth. "We're not recommending growth regulators as a cure to anthracnose, but what we have proven to our satisfaction is that these growth regulators and not antagonizing and making the disease worse. So we're suggesting to superintendents to stay on their growth regulation program. It's certainly doing other things for you. There's a lot of playability reasons for using growth regulators." Murphy said research involving topdressing indicates there is more reason to practise it more often than less often. The less frequent one topdresses, the more likely the disease will be found, he said. "What we think happens with sand topdressing is really kind of a physical feature," he said. "There may be some other physiological effects as well. We think it's improving the structure of the thatch. It's supporting the mower better so that the mower doesn't dig down in the turf and scalp it as badly. We think topdressing helps support the mower and get much better quality of cut and minimize the scalping kinds of conditions you get without topdressing."
Are we sceptical? You bet. The purpose of this short article is to focus on the maintenance and safety issues that are influenced by the policies encouraged by the environmental movement. As always, we provide this information from an independent perspective. We ask the following question. With existing and looming bans, what are the so-called green alternatives to cosmetic weed control products? First of all, let's ask a basic question. What is a weed control product? A weed control product, more precisely referred to as a herbicide, is a chemical used to control, suppress, or inhibit plants that have been deemed as undesirable weeds in turf. What is a cosmetic weed control product? Politicians and environmentalists would say that it is any herbicide used to merely improve the appearance of turf. Are weeds controlled purely for aesthetic purposes? Not really. What are the true effects of weeds in turf? Weeds actually interfere with the ability of turf to grow properly by competing for carbon dioxide, nutrients, sunlight, and water. Weeds can choke out turf. Herbicides are not to be classified as merely cosmetic, or not. Herbicides are classified as either selective or non-selective. Selective herbicides, such as 2,4-D, will destroy broad-leaved weeds, such as dandelions, with little or no injury to desirable turfgrasses. Conversely, non-selective herbicides will destroy weeds, as well as all surrounding vegetation to which they are applied. Two examples of non-selective herbicides are acetic acid and herbicidal soap. These so-called green alternatives are recommended by the environmental movement. They are highly destructive because they are non-selective. In other words, conventional and safe weed control products like 2,4-D may be replaced by green products that are harmful to turf. The green alternatives may not provide much of an improvement. In fact, their use may be a technical step backward. Herbicides are also classified as either pre-emergent or post-emergent. Post-emergent herbicides, such as 2,4-D, are highly effective in controlling weeds after they have emerged and developed. Conversely, pre-emergent herbicides, such as corn gluten meal, must be applied to create a chemical soil barrier before certain weeds emerge. They are soil-active products that prevent the germination of seeds or the early growth of seedlings. The environmental movement has falsely given the public the impression that pre-emergent green alternative products like corn gluten meal are just as effective as 2,4-D. In fact, there are absolutely no valid replacements for herbicides like 2,4-D. Finally, herbicides are classified as either foliar contact or systemic. Contact herbicides may be non-selective, as well as fast-acting. They may provide a quick burn of the foliage. However, contact herbicides may only suppress perennial weeds, which are able to re-grow from unaffected underground roots and stems. Consequently, weed control applications will need to be repeated often during the growing season. Several of the green alternatives are contact and non-selective, such as acetic acid and herbicidal soap. By contrast, systemic herbicides, such as 2,4-D, are highly effective since they destroy weeds by being translocated throughout the plant. They are more capable of controlling perennial plants. They may be slower-acting, but, ultimately, they are much more effective than contact herbicides. There are no valid replacements for systemic herbicides like 2,4-D.
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Ontario Turfgrass Symposium
WCTA annual conference and show
Canadian Golf Course Management Conference
March 4-7, 2019