Spreading the Good Word of Turf

from the Guelph Turfgrass Institute

The Guelph Turfgrass Institute, under the direction of Dr. Eric Lyons and funded through the WCTA, has initiated the Turfgrass Outreach Project (TOP).

The goal of this initiative was to create new channels of engagement and information sharing with stakeholders from the industry and the general public.  Another priority of the TOP was to increase exposure of turf principles to young students in order to engage new generations of potential turfgrass professionals. 

“Last fall, the GTI hired a full time Communications and Outreach Coordinator.  This new role has allowed the GTI to enhance its capacity to create educational programming and participate in new campaigns that will enhance the existing outreach and dissemination of information on turf to the public” says Dr. Lyons, Director of the GTI and Associate Professor of Turfgrass Science at the University of Guelph. 

The TOP has now been operating for approximately six months and there has already been significant success observed in our various initiatives.  Below is a list of what has been accomplished to date, much of which was made possible through the funding provided by the WCTA.

Participation in the Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) High School Program:

In collaboration with the Ontario Agricultural College, the GTI participated in an opportunity to engage high school students to consider careers in turfgrass management.  The SHSM program offers high school students interested in green industries and outdoor careers (horticulture, landscaping, agriculture etc…) the chance to participate in a variety of hands-on workshops related to a particular discipline.  The skills and experiences gained earn the students credit toward their curriculum requirements.  Students also benefit from gaining skills and insight into new career paths while the industry benefits by increasing exposure and connection with future professionals.  Some of the topics covered in the turf related workshops have included grading and drainage, sodding, weed ID, mower safety, and edging.

Rob Heggie (left) and Cam Shaw discussing the different career path options within the field of turf management. Image courtesy GTI.

Materials to help teachers implement in-class workshops/labs with a focus on turfgrass:

The GTI has created shareable content that can be used by teachers in their own classrooms to help expose students to the scientific process through principles of turfgrass management.  These workshops are designed to expose students to some of the planning and practices that professional turf managers employ in the field.  For example, one workshop involves students learning how to grow grass by exploring elements of seed rate calculation, irrigation frequency, variation in turf species and different soil types.  It is our intention to expand these offerings and produce a series of in-class workshops that can be shared with other associations, schools and stakeholders across Canada. 

Hands-on-Horticulture Day at the Guelph Turfgrass Institute:

Similar to the SHSM program, the GTI in partnership with the OAC will be introducing a new event this fall aimed at exposing high school students to principles of turfgrass including pest management, measuring golf green speeds, weed ID, irrigation principles, the environmental benefits of turf, and the various careers offered by the industry.  Because this is not an SHSM event, it affords us more freedom to generate our own content geared specifically to the messages we wish to share. The event will be hosted at the GTI and will give students the opportunity to see turfgrass research first hand.  The event will include guest speakers from the turf industry who will discuss their career paths, education and all the rewards a career in turf can provide.  One of the key values of this opportunity is having the high school teachers on-site and participating in the activities as well.  As teachers become more aware of turfgrasses and the benefits of turf, it is our hope that they will continue to promote and share our messages in their classrooms for generations of students to come. The model created by TOP will be expanded to be engaged throughout Canada in coming years.

Introductory workshop exposing students to turf management principles.  Image courtesy GTI.

Students learn about soil, thatch and turf management.  Image courtesy GTI.

Field Days:

In partnership with Rodger Tschanz, Master Gardener, Manager of the University of Guelph green houses and curator of the GTI trial gardens, the GTI hosted a field day that included attendees from Landscape Ontario, Ontario Parks, a variety of garden writers, and interested public stakeholders.  The itinerary included a tour of our research plots, discussions on the environmental benefits of turf and the value of natural turfgrass in our communities.  There were over 70 people in attendance and there was a tremendous amount of positive feedback.  It is our goal to host more field days in the future that focus specifically on public stakeholders.  Hosting the garden writers was of particular importance as it is our hope that they will continue to spread the word of turf amongst their readers as well.  

Dr. Eric Lyons comparing differences in natural and synthetic turf surfaces.  Image courtesy GTI.

Reaching out to the Ontario and Canadian Lawn Bowling Associations

The majority of lawn bowling clubs are currently faced with a variety of serious challenges.  Little to no budget, a staff of volunteers, and limited understanding of turf management principles are just some of the frustrations that many greenkeepers face.  In many cases, the playing conditions on lawn bowling greens (especially during summer months) suffers and this leads to complaints and dissatisfaction of members.  This is in addition to the existing threat of reduced memberships in the sport each year.  Since February of 2018, the GTI has been working with several members of the provincial and national associations to create some educational programming for lawn bowling greenkeepers.  Primary areas of focus are principles of turf health, fertility, and winter preparations.  There has also been some discussion to help create an affordable program through which greenkeepers can become certified in key areas of lawn bowling green maintenance practices.  We are looking forward to expanding this partnership moving forward and hope this group will be an emerging channel for sharing the good word of turf.

Attending Canada Blooms to promote the benefits of natural turf systems

Canada Blooms is a 14-day annual event that takes place at the Enercare Centre in Toronto, Ontario.  Annually, Canada Blooms sees approximately 200,000 visitors which include professional gardeners, horticulturalists, lawncare operators, as well as interested members of the general public.  With help from the Ontario Agricultural College, the GTI was able to secure a position at a booth where we could engage in conversation with patrons regarding tips for maintaining healthy lawns, but also promote the environmental and societal benefits of natural turf.  This opportunity was an excellent way for the GTI to start changing the conversation about how turf is perceived by the general public.  Materials on the environmental benefits of turfgrass funded through the Canadian Turfgrass Research Foundation were discussed and handed during the event.  Overall, the response was very positive and the GTI has already committed to attending Canada Blooms again in 2019.

Cam Shaw (left) and Stephen Fleischauer from the University of Guelph, promoting natural turfgrass at Canada Blooms in Toronto.  Image courtesy GTI.

Attending the Landscape Ontario Congress Tradeshow

In partnership with the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus, the GTI secured a booth at the Landscape Ontario Congress Trade Show.  This event is the premiere green industry landscape and horticultural event in Canada and features over 13,000 attendees annually.  Although a large number of attendees are industry professionals, the trade show is also a popular venue for interested members of the general public.  This event is a key spot to engage young people interested in outdoor, green industry careers in conversations about careers and education in turfgrass management.  This booth is also popular amongst homeowners who struggle with their lawns and are seeking advice and information on how to better manage their property.  A cornerstone focus during our participation in this event is to disseminate information on the environmental benefits and societal value of turfgrass.  

Dr. Eric Lyons discussing a research project at the GTI USGA green plot. Image courtesy GTI.

Ongoing communication and outreach from the GTI Office

The GTI receives a large volume of telephone calls and email inquiries on a monthly basis, many from outside Ontario, in regard to home lawn care, pest issues, business referrals, research, water usage, grass species as well as a multitude of other concerns related to turfgrass. With a full-time communications and outreach coordinator dedicated to TOP, the GTI can now dedicate more time to providing timely and informative answers to these inquiries.  There is an increased need for this type of outreach, now more than ever due to the reduction of turf extension and outreach work being done by provincial governments.  In 2015, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) did not commit to replacing their Turfgrass Extension Specialist position.  This was a major blow to the industry and represents the low level of importance at which our governments have placed on turfgrass. In lieu of this, the GTI is also taking the opportunity to update its website and increase social media outreach to raise the profile of the turfgrass industry throughout Canada.  These modern avenues of outreach will help fill the void of available resources for turf managers and the general public.  Thanks to support of TOP, the WCTA has been able to increase the time the GTI can spend addressing societal issues and expanding outreach.

Creating publishable materials that highlight issues in turf

As a result of the funding from the WCTA, the GTI has been able to spend more time creating publishable content to be featured in a variety of industry magazines.  Articles featuring research updates, highlighting the new GTI construction project and interest pieces focusing on technology such as drones have been featured in publications for Sports Turf Canada, Ontario Recreational Facilities Association, Canadian Golf Supers Association, as well as other provincial associations.  We also helped create an article which was featured in Wal-Mart’s Home + Life magazine which highlighted lawn care tips and discussions on the environmental benefits of grasses. As the project progresses the TOP hopes to find a regular spot in media that reaches the national golfing public as well as sports turf users.

Turf is an important part of the urban environment that many people take for granted.  Most people know very little about turf and this lack of understanding opens the door on false perceptions and mis-information to take root.  TOP initiated by the GTI is still in early phases of helping to change the conversation about turfgrass.  We are thankful to the WCTA for helping to fund these initiatives and look forward to increasing our efforts in 2019.