Programs will fuel horticulture, turfgrass industries in Alabama

"In the studies these federal dollars are supporting, our researchers are working to find new selections of trees, plants and sod that perform well in the South, so that growers will have a wider range of choices to offer their residential and commercial customers," said Dave Williams, Auburn University horticulture professor.

"Alabama’s greenhouse, nursery and turf industries have experienced tremendous growth in recent years. This type of research is crucial if we are going to sustain and strengthen that growth."

The Nursery, Greenhouse and Turf Plant Evaluation Program — funding for which U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama’s 4th Congressional District played the key role in securing — includes more than two dozen AAES research projects aimed at further stimulating the fastest-growing segment of Alabama agriculture. Crape myrtles and maples, groundcovers and gardenias, hostas and hydrangeas, and peonies, pansies and palms are among the landscape and bedding plants researchers are targeting.

The nursery and greenhouse studies are based at AAES’s North Alabama Horticulture Research Center (NAHRC) in Cullman.

"This funding has allowed us to initiate a number of research projects that will continue for decades," said Jeff Sibley, alumni professor of horticulture at Auburn. The studies Sibley is conducting at the NAHRC include what he contends is the world’s largest sugar maple evaluation trial. The goal of that project: to identify sugar maple cultivars that will grow well and produce dazzling fall colors in Alabama’s climate.

"Sugar maples are the premier example of fall color north of the Tennessee River, but in most of Alabama, we’ve never been able to enjoy those brilliant reds and yellow-oranges because we’ve never identified specific sugar maples that perform well in our long, hot summers and short, mild winters," Sibley said. Preliminary results indicate that several of the 27 different cultivars in the trial are potential "winners," selections that nurseries will make available to Alabama homeowners as early as next fall.

The turfgrass studies funded by the initiative are in full swing a couple of counties east of Cullman, at the Sand Mountain Research and Extension Center in Crossville. In a key research project there, David Han, assistant professor of turfgrass management at Auburn, is evaluating several new bermudagrass cultivars that could give high schools affordable options for improving the turf on their sports fields. Han also is identifying and refining management techniques that will increase the resistance of bentgrass putting greens to disease, leading to better playing surfaces on north Alabama golf courses.

Over the course of the four-year Nursery, Greenhouse and Turf Plant Evaluation Program, about $800,000 of the $1.2 million in federal funds is being invested in the horticulture research at the Cullman facility, said Williams, program coordinator. The remaining $400,000 is funding the turfgrass research in Crossville.

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