Jack Payne: How's this for turf geek?

April 10, 2019

How’s this for turf geek: Kevin Kenworthy grows 20 different types of grass, not on a research plot, but in his own yard. I may have to declare it a satellite research station of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

If I do, then I’d also have to declare Sandy Wilson’s yard a botanical garden. In the past year and a half, she’s been converting seven acres of Bahia grass she inherited with her purchase of her home into a backyard botanical garden of Florida native plants.

Her daily observations inform her work on right plant, right place. She says they’re also a form of emotional sustenance. Each plant tells her its origin story – the night a dinner guest brought it to her, the student who propagated the seedling as a class assignment, the leftover from a research experiment.

I’m not sure what designation I’d confer on Mary Lusk’s back patio with its 40 leaf litter decomposition bags. Lusk removes a few each month and then analyzes them for how much nitrogen and phosphorus has leached out, part of her work in identifying multiple contributors to nutrients in stormwater.

All three UF/IFAS faculty members presented at the Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology’s Urban Landscape Summit last month. Drs. Kenworthy, Wilson and Lusk didn’t take deep dives into their home life, though Kenworthy did share a photo of his patchwork lawn.

He scouts that lawn daily. It’s the simplest way for him to watch the products from his breeding program respond to daily, weekly and seasonal weather patterns in a real-world situation.

I tell you this because I’m proud of their expertise and proud of their passion. They’re not faking it. They live and breathe lawns and landscapes so much that the line between work and home is blurry.

They got to practice their vocations and their avocations simultaneously in helping CLCE Director Michael Dukes deliver two days of science at the summit, itself a bit of a passion project.

Bringing together faculty from across the state to share what they know is valuable for UF/IFAS science. What makes it even more valuable is that the summit also brings together the green industry, regulators, and end users in common cause.

Reflecting on the summit, Dukes says that common cause includes good water quality, a thriving economy, and aesthetically pleasing landscapes. His goal is to have UF/IFAS research and Extension help bring the parties together on bridging disagreements on how to pursue the common cause.

Ben Bolusky gives the annual summit a boost with his presence and with his own enthusiasm for the science. His support of CLCE signals the hope of progress in coming together on the means to achieve the ends we all agree on.

What makes me optimistic that we’ll get there are people like Kenworthy, Wilson, and Lusk, and the way they engage with Ben and with industry leaders such as Phillip Hisey, landscape superintendent of On Top of the World, who also attended the summit.

UF/IFAS faculty’s enthusiasm for their fields bodes well for the long-term commitment needed to drive positive change. I expect to hold onto Wilson for a long time, for example, because she vows never to move again. A move would be too much, she says, not just because she’s happy serving an important Florida industry, but because she would mourn the loss of her backyard botanical garden.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

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