Turfgrass specialist makes lawns, sports fields greener

Alec Kowalewski, the turfgrass specialist at Oregon State University, helps golf course managers and sports field groundskeepers keep their grass in top shape.

By Denise Ruttan

For the Capital Press

Published on March 13, 2015 1:39PM

Courtesy of OSU
Alec Kowalewski, Oregon State University’s turf specialist, reaches for a pot of creeping bentgrass at a greenhouse on campus.

Courtesy of OSU Alec Kowalewski, Oregon State University’s turf specialist, reaches for a pot of creeping bentgrass at a greenhouse on campus.

Photo by Heidi Kowalewski 
Inside the Bird’s Nest stadium, Alec Kowalewski kneels atop the grass he helped grow for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Photo by Heidi Kowalewski Inside the Bird’s Nest stadium, Alec Kowalewski kneels atop the grass he helped grow for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

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On any given day Alec Kowalewski juggles quite a few plates.

The mild-mannered turfgrass specialist for the Oregon State University Extension Service might teach undergraduate students about the principles of turf maintenance one day. Another day, he might find himself on an athletic field at a high school in Ontario training groundskeepers how to better manage pests. On yet another day, he might work with master gardener trainees on lawn care techniques.

Kowalewski’s duties, however, have taken on a broader scope in addition to his extension work within the past year.

“In the past, my extension work was focused on golf course turf management,” Kowalewski said. “But I felt I really needed to expand the program to get more students interested in undergraduate degrees in turfgrass management. I’ve expanded to include municipal, sports and residential turf.”

This evolution brings Kowalewski full circle to his roots, so to speak. His Ph.D. thesis at Michigan State University focused on sports turf and extension.

“I feel personally that turf management has three facets to it,” Kowalewski said. “Turfgrass has to be pleasing to the eye. It has to functional in things such as preventing surface runoff. Thirdly, if we can’t figure out ways to develop turfgrass to make it playable for young people, then I feel we aren’t doing our job. There should be more game spaces for people to enjoy.”

As part of that effort, he is working with OSU’s Integrated Plant Protection Center to reach out to public schools across the state on integrated pest management. From Ontario to Portland to Reedsport, in 11 training events a year, Kowalewski and the IPPC’s Tim Stock work with groundskeepers and school IPM coordinators. Stock teaches them about structural pests. Kowalewski takes people outside.

Kowalewski first tells a group of about 20-30 of these adult students about practices like mowing, fertilizing, and irrigating that will reduce the number of pesky bugs using fewer pesticides. Then the students take him out to their tracks and sports fields to tell him their particular challenges with pests and turf management.

“The biggest problems I’ve seen are limited budgets, limited staff and grounds that have high use requirements,” Kowalewski said.

It’s not only schools that keep Kowalewski busy. He still works with golf courses, on which he focuses most of his research. He oversees graduate students who pursue turfgrass research projects.

One of his graduate students is studying alternatives to fungicides for a disease known colloquially as pink snow mold. It discolors putting greens and creates expensive headaches for golf course managers. Alternatives could include organic products or even simple cultural practices such as pushing a roller along the putting green every morning, which significantly trims down the disease, Kowalewski said.

Another student is comparing the costs and benefits of natural grass to artificial turf for sports fields. The student collects data in the field in Corvallis, Portland and Eugene on a monthly basis, recording conditions and use characteristics. He’s found, so far, that while synthetic fields provide more consistent playing surfaces year round, they can, on the other hand, heat up 50 degrees warmer than the atmospheric temperature on a hot summer day.

Yet a third graduate student is expanding Kowalewski’s work with public schools, developing practical low-maintenance landscape plans for schools.

Kowalewski isn’t stopping there. Brimming with energy and ideas for outreach, Kowalewski gives about 30 presentations a year, including training budding master gardeners throughout the state. He’s also developed a 48-minute video and extension bulletins on lawn care.

He plans to take on a fourth graduate student this spring who will look at how homeowners and college campuses can reduce water use on the turfgrass and landscapes.



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