Turf war

Turf war

Researchers at Olds College are investigating ways to fight the impact of cold and traffic on turf grass in the Canadian Prairies
July 1, 2005

A hush falls over the crowd as a golfer makes what he hopes will be the tournament-winning putt. The ball heads for the hole, and it looks like a sure win. But wait…it suddenly veers left redirected by some damaged turf grass on the green. Cold plant stress strikes again!

O.K., so maybe cold plant stress, doesn’t involve quite so much drama, but it’s a significant issue in the Prairie Provinces where the outdoor-activity season is short. That means, not only does the grass suffer long winters, but during warm weather, it takes a beating from intensive use. The effects are felt everywhere there’s turf grass, such as in parks, school grounds, yards, athletic fields, and even the epitome of grassy areas—the golf course.

At the Olds College School of Innovation’s (OCSI) Plant Stress Physiology Lab, researchers are working hard to evaluate the plant stresses that occur in the unique climate—particularly the frigid winters—of the Canadian Prairies. Before the lab opened, an adequate plant stress model for the turf grass industry didn't even exist. The lab’s research is aimed at maintaining and improving turf grass in the prairies in order to equip turf grass managers with the knowledge and tools to deal with plant stresses throughout the winter and during the short growing season.

“Cold stress is a huge problem for turf grasses,” says Dr. Darrell Tompkins, Research Director at the college’s Prairie Turf Grass Research Centre (PTRC). “What happens is some species tend to die off during the winter, so we’ve been looking at the impact of things like ice cover and temperature.”

Since 1989, Tompkins and his fellow researchers have been investigating ways of combating winter injury and growing better turf grass that will be more tolerant to wear and tear as well as cold temperatures. With the establishment of the lab in 2001, they can now expand their lab research to complement field studies.

“The traffic in the urban areas—in city parks and recreational fields—has increased considerably, so the turf grass is overused in many cases,” says Jim Ross, Executive Director for the PTRC. “If the turf grass is overused, over the winter it takes a beating, and by spring everything’s dead and we have to replace it, which can become quite costly. Our goal is to get these grasses through winter.”

Another important component of the Plant Stress Physiology Lab is the interdisciplinary research that occurs there. “Over the last three years, we’ve done research in the area of tissue culturing,” explains Dr. Abimbola Abiola, Scientific Leader and Director of College Research for the College’s School of Innovation. “Some of the lab equipment has been used for the incubation and culturing of potatoes for our industry partners. It’s also been used to train highly qualified personnel, especially in tissue culturing.” Students in the applied degree programs also use the lab for their own research projects.


Just imagine if you could spend your summer days doing less yard work, or being able to work on your swing through a longer golf season.

“Anyone who uses turf grass for recreational purposes will benefit from our research,” emphasizes Tompkins. “People who play on sports fields, people who use parks, golfers, and homeowners all benefit. Turf grass is a huge industry in Canada when you consider the number of places that use it.”

The environment also wins because “one of the most important things we do is help with reducing pesticide use,” says Abimbola Abiola.

“One of our goals is to reduce pesticide and chemical use with turf grass over the long term,” adds Tompkins. “This includes looking at fertilizers, what we put in our water, and alternatives for weed and pest control.”

As someone who’s always looking for better ways to address horticultural issues, Simon Wilkins, Integrated Pest Management Coordinator for the City of Calgary, values the work of the PTRC. “Because pests are often the symptom of the underlying landscape and horticultural problems, we focus on research that addresses these problems during construction and through site rehabilitation,” says Wilkins. “The benefits are improved landscape health, reduced need for traditional pest management tools, new tools, and more sustainable landscapes.”

The results from the interdisciplinary lab research are far reaching as well. “Canada’s crop and potato producers benefit from our tissue-culture work,” says Abiola. “Our students really benefit from the added value of hands-on research addressing real industry problems.”

The college is also able to attract and retain instructors because of the opportunity to do their research here. For instance, access to the lab made it possible for researchers working with maitake mushrooms to find some anti-viral activity. So now, the mushrooms are being looked at for controlling AIDS. “Some of the other research looks at converting waste streams from the forestry industry in Canada to grow these mushrooms. So, both the mushroom and forestry industries would benefit,” says Abiola.


Funded by the CFI and the McCain Foundation, the Plant Stress Physiology Lab is unique in Western Canada as an innovative plant research centre.

Along with other OCSI facilities, the lab has sparked interest from universities and scientists across Canada. The University of Alberta in particular has initiated an affiliation agreement to make use of the facilities. The many interdisciplinary research projects that take place in the lab are also funded by various organizations and industry partners.