Georgia superintendent and a university researcher want to study how both microbial and nonorganic products impact the soil microbiome in turfgrass. They just need money to do it.

Mark Hoban, superintendent at Rivermont Golf Club in Johns Creek, Georgia, along with Mussie Habteselassie, an associate professor of soil microbiology at the University of Georgia’s Griffin campus, are waiting for approval of a $40,000 research project on the effectiveness of beneficial fungi, wetting agents and growth regulators on the course.

They are waiting to hear whether the Georgia Golf Environmental Foundation (GGEF) – the philanthropic arm of the Georgia Golf Course Superintendents Association – will fund their research, but they already know the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America did not include their project as part of its $115,000 outlay for turfgrass research this year.

“Most research is funded by chemical companies and no one wants to put research in what would not require as much fertilizer or chemical inputs,” says Hoban, who is hoping the research will take place at Rivermont, where cultural practices, inputs and 38,000 rounds of play will figure into the results.

“We want to promote environmentally sound practices, and that’s why we are looking at this,” says Kyle Marshall, GGEF Research Committee chairman and superintendent at Capital City Club in Woodstock, Georgia. “We want to support Mark Hoban in any way we can. We send out requests every year to find research funding. It’s just that the wheels of progress turn slow when you have committees.”

On the bright side, Habteselassie did receive $5,000 from the USGA to begin part of the research at Rivermont. He established a way to measure the effects of innoculations of Trichoderma atroviride, a beneficial fungi, to manage turf diseases such as brown patch, Pythium and Fusarium. Future work will measure the efficacy of the fungi over a two-year period.

If funded, the other portion of the research would seek to determine the effects commonly used nonorganic products have on soil microbiology.

“We want to know what these chemicals do to the soil system,” Habteselassie says. “The microbial community is very important for a healthy turfgrass system. We want to see their impacts and support it with some data and science. We are not saying chemicals are damaging because we haven’t done the test, but going forward, we want to do that.”

Meanwhile, Hoban is testing 14 different biological products on plots along his course. These are conducted in an area where the University of Georgia (UGA) performed similar tests about two years ago, including those for his compost tea.

Results of these studies, which were funded by the Turner Foundation, have not been published and were based on an isolation approach, meaning they featured only one product with no other inputs.

“We saw some disease suppression – not necessarily control – and that is encouraging,” says Clint Waltz, a professor and turfgrass extension specialist at UGA’s Griffin campus who worked on the project. “So there are some encouraging things that could come from growing with natural products. They may not be to the level we could expect on sports turf but could be part of an integrated approach.”

Hoban says his soil samples have the same products tested, but they are used in conjunction with other chemicals superintendents regularly use to see how they fare under working conditions.

A study of compost tea’s fallout on campus at the University of Colorado in Boulder (CU) yielded little evidence of the organic approach’s beneficial effect on grass health.

“We saw no effect on growth or greenness,” says Noah Fierer, a microbial ecologist and associate professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at CU. “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t effective; it just means the site we studied didn’t increase in growth over just adding weather. But, it could have been if we had done it in a drought year, we would have seen different results.”

Fierer says while his studies didn’t find microbes from compost tea surviving in the soil, “My guess is where compost has an effect is because of the nutrients.”

Ryan Heiland, assistant manager of outdoor services at CU, devised the plan to deliver compost tea to 100 acres of campus via its sprinkler system. The resulting turf has received loads of recognition over the past six years and has gained favor among environmentally conscious locals.

“I honestly never planned to see a ‘result,'” Heiland says. “I never thought, ‘As soon as we injected, things would be green.’ My goal was to look at things from a soil health perspective. There is no smoking gun.”

Fierer is in search of funding for “citizen science” so he can study the relationship between turfgrass health and soil organisms. The program would collect soil samples from individuals across the country and Fierer says his lab would quantify, under controlled conditions, how well they promote turfgrass growth.

“The idea is that you could take a soil sample and we could tell you whether it will be fertile, and we can manipulate the microbes there to promote soil fertility,” he says. “I think we have reached the point in the field where we know turfgrass management is not just adding fertilizer and water. We know it’s really important what organisms are in the soil. Some are pathogens that can cause disease. Some may be beneficial. How can you promote those that are beneficial so you can reduce the number of fertilizers you have to apply?”

Fierer will focus on beneficial organisms.

“What’s out there shows what causes disease. We don’t know what we’re going to find. With a lot of research, you know what you will find before you start. We are just trying to get the word out now to see if someone wants to have some vested interest and be willing to kick in some money to get it off the ground.”