Ohio State turf students gain real-life experience

Book learning is a great way to gain knowledge of facts and figures, but sometimes it takes first-hand experience to get a better understanding of how that knowledge can be applied in real life.

At Ohio State University, turfgrass students taking “Plant Pathology 613 – Integrated Turf Health Management” recently had the opportunity to gain that type of practical, out-in-the-field experience by applying what they’ve learned in the classroom and lab to an actual turfgrass setting. “This class is for students about to graduate, and we try to work with some site where the students can do a complete evaluation of the turf’s needs and the client’s needs and put together a complete program,” explains Extension Pathologist Joe Rimelspach. “They design a big document to support their recommendations, and then they give a formal presentation to the board or the owner.”

Turfgrass students taking “Plant Pathology 613-Integrated Turf Health Management” at Ohio State University recently got an opportunity for real-life, hands-on learning when they helped Hampton Woods, a condominium complex in Akron, evaluate and correct some turfgrass maintenance challenges at the property.

Rimelspach conducts a similar program with his turf students every year, but almost always on a golf course. “Most of the turfgrass students are golf-focused,” he notes. “But this year was different, for the first time we worked with a condominium association.” A representative of Hampton Woods condominiums in Akron, Ohio, contacted Rimelspach for assistance with their lawns, and he felt it would be a terrific opportunity for the annual student-led project. The case study would be done free of charge for the condominium, while at the same time giving students valuable experience.

Rimelspach credits Ann Roher, the environmental officer and a member of the board at Hampton Woods condominiums, for spurring the detailed look at the facility’s turfgrass management program. “She wanted to move their property to being one of the first condominium complexes using a master plan to maintain their grounds in a very green, sustainable way,” he explains. While Roher’s focus was on the environment, others at the condominium complex were simply interested in improving the appearance of the lawns. And, of course, there were budgetary constraints for the students to consider when making any recommendations for changes.

“At first, they weren’t really hot on this idea,” acknowledges Rimelspach. “They really wanted to work on a golf course project. They didn’t think there would be anything new to [deal with] at the condominium complex; they thought it would be a piece of cake, and they didn’t think there would be anything for them to learn there.” However, by the end of the project, he says, “All of them said that this turned out to be a very good experience. They were out of their comfort zone. They had to deal with many entities, not just a greens chair or a club owner. There were many more facets they had to look at as far as working with an outside contractor, environmental issues, city ordinances and a more limited budget.”

There also were similarities to a golf course setting, adds Rimel- spach. He points out that there were more than 300 residents at the condominium complex, a number equal to many golf courses. And, they all have specific things they want done – different expectations and different thoughts on how much should be spent. In both cases, he says, “You have to learn how to manage those expectations, learn about the parties you’re interacting with. You have to be technically accurate and politically savvy. You can’t make assumptions.”

Extension Pathologist Joe Rimeslpach, who headed up the project at Hampton Woods, examines soil samples taken at the condominium complex. The project proved invaluable to the students, paid dividends for residents, and even drew press coverage in the Akron Beacon Journal.

The first step was for the students to travel to Akron to meet with Roher and another member of the board, as well as the condominium complex’s management company, KareCondo, and the landscaping contractor handling the lawn care, Turfscape. “Both the site foreman and the owner of Turfscape came,” says Rimelspach.

During the site visit, the students looked at what Rimelspach calls the “basics” of turfgrass management: mowing, fertility, weed management, insects, renovation, soil and water, environmental issues, and tree and shrub issues. The property totaled 77 hilly acres, with 17 acres of managed turfgrass, primarily a Kentucky bluegrass/perennial ryegrass blend.

One of the goals was to reduce pesticide and fertilization use, while still maintaining quality turfgrass. One of the first recommendations the students came up with was to switch to different species of grasses with lower maintenance requirements. “There were many undulating hillsides that would really dry out, so we recommended putting some of the improved turf-type tall fescues in those areas,” cites Rimelspach.

The topography of the land also made certain dry, mounded areas prone to scalping and other low, wet areas prone to rutting. “We recommended using small walk-behind mowers in some of those areas,” says Rimelspach. “We also recommended changing the maintenance schedule to avoid having all of the mowing take place on just one day each week.” Other recommendations included core aerating and many other specific maintenance practices.

Rimelspach says one reason the day was so successful was that Turfscape proved very willing to work with both the students and the condominium in any way necessary to improve the health of the turf. “It was very interesting, because they were all very good businesspeople, but they were a little less versed in formal agronomics,” he says. “They were like sponges; they really wanted to work with us and learn everything they could. In fact, they have since asked me to come and work with their employees on the technical aspects of agronomics and continuing education. The quality of people we worked with – the company owner and the site manager were both superb individuals – was incredible.”

After the site visit, students returned to the classroom where they prepared a detailed document to help the condominium complex achieve its goals of improved turf with decreased inputs. Representatives of Hampton Woods, KondoCare and Turfscape were then invited to the Ohio State University agricultural research station for a formal presentation of the findings and recommendations. Rimelspach says there were many good questions posed by members of the condominium board regarding the recommendations, which forced the students to think quickly and give accurate answers and explanations.

Rimelspach says that over the years of doing similar projects, he’s found that the final presentation is often just as valuable to the students as the technical turfgrass work required leading up to that point. “Everything from the way they dress to the way the room is set up to the way they present the information – it’s a very businesslike setting. And, that’s the goal of this class: to take classroom theory into a real-world situation.”

Following the presentation, it was left up to Hampton Woods on how to proceed with the recommendations. “I know they were in negotiations with Turfscape to incorporate some of these changes into the upcoming year’s program,” Rimelspach states. One significant change that was made based on recommendations involved the basic approach to maintenance. “They used to send one big crew to the property once a week, and they would just knock the whole thing out in a day. Now they’re going to assign just two people to the property, but they’re going to be there every day. That will give them a chance to do programmed maintenance according to a schedule, but also the day-to-day maintenance, as needed.”

For example, if the turf in a particular area needs mowing more than once a week, they can do that. Or, if turf in another area is still wet following a rain event, they can skip over that until it’s dry. “This will really give them a chance to modify turf maintenance as needed,” says Rimelspach. It also might help satisfy individual residents, who wanted the small area around their own condominium manicured shorter and more frequently.

Rimelspach says students, no matter their career goals, gained a great deal of real-life experience from the project. There were a few students in the group not planning a career in golf. One was interested in landscape horticulture and another in becoming a turfgrass researcher. “And, we had one person who had started his own lawn care company when he was 13 that he was still operating,” says Rimelspach.

Even some students preparing to be golf course superintendents might be surprised to find themselves someday working in another segment of the green industry, he adds. “The golf industry is not exactly in a building mode right now, and you just never know where you’re going to end up. I try to tell them that the green industry is relatively small, and you don’t ever want to burn bridges. I think to be successful in any part of this industry you need to be able to work with first people, second budgets and third grass. You need to be able to look someone in the eye, shake hands and work with them.” It’s a lesson the turf students at Ohio State get to learn firsthand.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.