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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Tennessee's Samples says be a lifelong learner to help ensure success


Tom Samples, Ph.D., right, talks turf at the University of Tennessee Turf and Ornamental Field Day.

Some things in life just aren't fair, like giving Tom Samples, Ph.D., 25 minutes to discuss a topic like "35 Years of Turf Tips" at this year's University of Tennessee Turf and Ornamental Field Day.

The unofficial, or maybe official, ambassador of Tennessee's turfgrass program, Samples has been a fixture of the program in Knoxville since earning a doctorate from Oklahoma State in 1985.

"I warned them," Samples said at the field day held Aug. 30 at the East Tennessee Ag Research and Education Center in Knoxville. "It takes me 10 minutes just to say 'hi.' "

Samples' experiences during parts of the past five decades could fill a book not to mention a weeklong turfgrass seminar. At Tennessee's field day they were squeezed into a 25-minute window with other golf-specific topics that included weed management, developing fungicide programs and the latest on zoysiagrass for putting greens (more on those topics coming next week on TurfNet).

Professional turf managers from the golf, sports field and lawn care operator markets turned out in droves for the information. The event attracted a record 417 who pre-registered and at least 100 additional walk-ups who registered the day of the event.

Lingering cold conditions followed by brutally hot temperatures in late spring set the table for difficult growing conditions for warm-season turf throughout Tennessee and much of the rest of the transition zone. Summer conditions that have been defined by hot, humid and cloudy days and high temperatures overnight have made it equally difficult for those growing cool-season turf.

To get through such challenges, he said, sometimes you just have to throw the book out the window.


Tom Samples says sometimes turf managers have to throw out the book and get creative, like during the growing season of 2018 in the transition zone.

"Some things don't change in turfgrass care, but if there's one thing I've learned over the years is you're not going to learn it all in a textbook," Samples said. "How many of you went the college route and two years into the real world realized 'boy, I don't know as much as I thought I knew?' Now you're being asked to solve problems you never read about in a text book."

Samples' take-home message to attendees were: above all else always protect the crown of the plant, make sure you have the right turf for your location and climate, embrace change - especially new technology and never stop asking questions.

"You're in one of the most challenging places in the country to grow quality turfgrass," he said. "You can grow anything here. They will look good seasonally, but I guarantee you will have to prepare that grass for some stress whether you are preparing warm-season grass for winter dormancy, or if you are preparing cool-season grass for heat stress and drought stress."

When making turf variety recommendations, Samples scours test results not only for how new varieties are performing in Tennessee, but in places like Lexington, Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina, as well.

"Varietal selection is important," he said. "If something performs well in all those areas, it's going to perform in Tennessee."

And if you don't maintain a nursery area or test plot, start one to explore new turf varieties and new products.

"There are some products out there that are snake oil, and those companies usually don't stay in business very long, thank goodness" he said. "But there also are some very good products out there that the companies who manufacture and market those products cannot afford to have research conducted so that they can provide you with research-based information.

"Because there is no research doesn't mean they are snake oil or not. My job is to provide you with research-based information that can benefit you or your clientele. So, when people call about them, I want you to try them out on a small scale on a test area, never on all your turf. I would encourage you to have an inquiring mind and be a lifelong learner. And I think you are, or you wouldn't be here."

Edited by John Reitman

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