Turfgrass research flourishes at Iowa State

From football to winter injury, Iowa State program covers many aspects of turf


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Iowa State University's turf research program lends its expertise to a number of areas across the turf industry, from athletic fields to golf courses and beyond. Photos by Darrell Pehr

From the bright lights at Iowa State University’s football stadium to studies that measure turf’s ability to thrive in low-light, shady areas, researchers at Iowa State’s turfgrass program stay busy. GCM had a chance to visit the ISU turfgrass research center in mid-October for an update on research activities.

Adam Thoms, Ph.D., is leading turfgrass research at the center, located just north of Ames. Covering 16 acres at the university’s Horticulture Research Station, the golf and sports turf facility provides research opportunities for three graduate students as well as about three dozen undergraduates.

Thoms, an associate professor, came to the center in 2016. Recently retired faculty member Nick Christians, Ph.D., served at the university for more than 44 years, a career that saw tremendous growth in both turfgrass student numbers and research activity. Enrollment peaked at more than 140 students until the Great Recession, when numbers dropped off until stabilizing at current levels. Thoms said their students are currently in high demand.

“Students get job offers as juniors,” he says.

Research at Iowa State mostly focuses on cool-season grasses. Other work looks at herbicides; natural products to replace herbicides; fertilizer studies; and cultivar evaluations for the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Turf research at Iowa State focuses primarily on cool-season grasses.

Shade studies are done among a grove of trees that borders some of the turf research plots. The trees themselves are the subjects of study as well by other university faculty.

The research center is participating in the WinterTurf research group, led by the University of Minnesota Turfgrass Science Program. This will be the third year for the WinterTurf Data Collection Project. Scientists are collecting data on winter stress injury from participating golf course superintendents to help develop solutions to a problem that affects golf courses in northern regions all over the world.

The ISU turf program played a key role in a project to provide new, homegrown turf for Iowa State’s Jack Trice Stadium. A six-acre site at the research station was seeded on a 4-inch sand base in April 2021, then harvested and installed at the football stadium in May 2022. The first games were played on the new sod in the fall of 2022.

The unique, homegrown project was a source of pride for the university and is a symbol of the expertise and know-how of university staff and faculty.

Thoms, himself a 2006 Iowa State horticulture graduate, noted at the time the field was installed that the turfgrass project had served as an excellent teaching tool for Iowa State students, especially those in turfgrass management classes.

“We’ve been able to teach hands-on management, and that’s something you just can’t teach in a classroom,” Thoms said at the time. “Not every school has that ability to have all of those tools and resources right here, and so the fact that we can grow our own football field is really exciting.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Adam Thoms (right) leads Iowa State's turfgrass research. Nick Christians (left) recently retired after a 44-year career with Iowa State's turfgrass research center.

The project also fit well with the university’s land-grant mission, being used for research purposes as well as serving as the subject of talks by ISU Extension and Outreach faculty.

With the retirement of Christians, Quincy Law, Ph.D., will join the program from North Dakota State University, where he is an assistant professor and invasive and noxious weeds specialist. Law earned his doctoral degree in horticulture and his master’s in agronomy at Purdue University under the direction of Aaron Patton, Ph.D. He also earned a bachelor’s in horticulture from Iowa State University. His doctoral research investigated the biology and 2,4-D resistance of buckhorn plantain in turf. Law is from Clear Lake, Iowa.

Darrell J. Pehr is GCM's science editor