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'Torsiello's Turf Talk' - Is Bionutrition the Wave of Turfgrass Care's Future?

By: John Torsiello


[Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a new Cybergolf feature called "Torsiello's Turf Talk," which will help edify golfers on efforts underway in the turf industry to improve playing conditions in an environmentally-friendly way. John Torsiello is an award-winning writer, contributing regularly to "Golf Course Industry" and "Lawn and Landscape." Look for more "Turf Talk" installments from John in the future.]

One of the big buzzwords these days in golf course turfgrass care is bionutrition. Once thought of in rather dismissive terms, bionutrients and biostimulants have become the rage with environmentally-conscious golf course superintendents who have discovered the benefits of a new age of organic products.

The greatest advances in bionutrition are the result of a better understanding of the genetics involved in nutrient uptake and utilization. Some of these investigations are currently underway in turfgrass laboratories, but are a ways off from practical use in the field. The knowledge, however, will eventually let researchers refine both the materials used for fertilization and biostimulation and also breed new cultivars that are more efficient in nutrient uptake and utilization.

Dr. Thomas Fermanian of Lebanon Seaboard is working extensively on research review, both internal and external, and validating and refining the biological and biostimulant offerings of the company's products. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois' Department of Crop Science.

"Bionutrition products are becoming more accepted for several reasons," Dr. Fermanian explained. "First, most turf managers understand that turf health is dependent on a balance of all required mineral nutrients and may benefit at times from other organic compounds in bionutrients products. Second, while bionutrients products often do not produce color change in the turf as rapidly as mineral nutrients, they are generally safer to use and can promote healthier growth."

While research has mostly been done in controlled environments, many studies on both turf and other cropping systems provide evidence of more robust root systems and protection from environmental stresses. Until scientists understand the mechanisms for these responses, it may be useful for turf managers to investigate the value of bionutrient products for their particular situation.

Although the term "bionutrition" has primarily been applied to a healthy human diet that incorporates natural food products or food supplements, the term is also appropriate for building and maintaining turf health. Turf bionutrition consists of a program using standard fertility practices combined with various natural or biologically-derived products to aid plant and soil health. These types of products are collectively referred to as biostimulants.

Although there are many different types of biostimulants, the products function to improve plant growth, soil structure, nutrient availability and fertilizer-use efficiency. Collectively, these benefits improve the ability of turf to withstand heat and drought stress through improvements in root growth and water and nutrient uptake.

Some biostimulants are designed to improve soil structure, which means roots can penetrate deeper to obtain the moisture needed to reduce water stress. Other biostimulant products are designed to aid in soil nutrient availability and retention. This approach helps roots to obtain the nutrients the plant needs to sustain plant growth - thus reducing heat stress.

So, improved root growth coupled with improved nutrient and water uptake can contribute to minimizing heat and drought stress. Biostimulants that are more on the "cutting edge" of research have been shown to reduce turf stress by improving root growth and altering root and shoot physiology to help the plant to respond better under stress conditions.

Just think of bionutrition programs for Olympic athletes. We've all seen drink formulas used by athletes to restore electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, which are lost when under physical stress. The same technology can be applied to reduce stress in turf. By increasing the uptake of potassium, for example, it's possible to reduce salt and other stresses to plants.

Superintendents John Rowland at the Country Club of Mount Pleasant in Mt. Pleasant, Texas, and Rick Holandia at Oakmont Country Club in Glendale, Calif., are both big believers in using bionutrients on their turfgrass.

Rowland reported considerable benefit from using such products and administers monthly applications. He sees it as a plus "because you are always feeding the soil and the plant." He added: "I see major benefits using bionutrition to help sustain a healthier soil chemistry. When you can build up a healthy soil you gain a lot of benefits, such as green-up coming out of the winter."

Rowland adds that it is a practice that should be incorporated into a normal maintenance program, with the benefits surpassing the product cost and time treating the turf. He says he knows more and more superintendents who are using bionutrition in their daily programs.

He said one concern when using bionutrient products is the potential for groundwater contamination, especially after applications near water. "As with any other type of application, we need to use caution when applying, avoid applying during hot temperatures during the day, and try to apply them earlier in the cool time of the day."

Says Hollandia: "They seem to be a benefit no matter when you use bionutrients. We notice a faster perk-up partly because of the added bionutrients we applied. I believe it boosts turf health earlier." He added, "When we planned to incorporate bionutrients into our program, we were looking for something to help improve our root strength and reduce our water needs. We got both in one product."

He observed the best benefits with using bionutrients have been derived in the early spring, "when everything is starting to ramp up." "The added microbe activity seems to get our greens in better condition earlier in the year. It also helps (us) get ahead in preparation for the hotter, drier months of the summer."

Brian Benedict, superintendent at The Seawane Club in Hewlett, N.Y., believes sea plant extract - combined with nitrogen, calcium and magnesium/manganese - has helped his greens. "We changed over to a soybean extract-based product that seems to really have a wonderful effect on our poa/bent greens. On the fairways we use plant food molasses on a 14-day interval at a rate of one gallon per acre. I believe the continued application of simple sugars will help the plant through periods of stress."

Benedict notes that using bionutrients is not a one-shot deal. "I think the bio-nutrition products are helpful and aid in plant health, but I do not believe that they are the end-all, be-all of our agronomic program. They are an additive source, not the staple. The bionutrition products aid in the uptake and use of the major nutrients, almost like vitamins.

"Bionutrients should not be considered on a one-application basis and (then) see what happens. You must go season after season and visually inspect the turf and monitor its resiliency."

John Torsiello is an editor/writer living in Connecticut. He has written extensively about all aspects of the golf industry for a number of national and regional publications. He is a regular contributor to "Golf Course Industry," "Lawn and Landscape," "Golfing" and "Fairway Living" magazines as well as various online publications. He has strong, ongoing relationships with industry professionals and has worked closely with course owners, architects, developers, course superintendents and general managers around the country. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including first place from the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association for a piece that appeared in "Golf Course Industry" magazine.