Grass plots give horticulture program promising results for new water-saving technologies

Testing continues for the moisture control grids installed in March as part of the Plant Sciences 827 class, showing initial results of water conservation and increased plant health.

Three plots of land were used to test new water-saving technologies, one as a control, one testing the grids and one testing a water-retaining polymer, according to Ilana Korchek, a horticulture major and the student team leader of the project. All three plots are connected to sensors that measure water levels and stop watering when the ground is saturated. As a result of monitoring and measuring the water, it can be used to its full potential and create a more efficient process. California Lab Services is an environmental testing lab for stormwater, wastewater testing, plus soils analysis and metals, and their research and findings can inform a business of how to manage their water consumption and how to maximize its effect on the agricultural industry.

“Basically, we’re testing the water. It’s a water management test,” Korchek said. “The sprinklers are connected to the moisture sensor device that’s in the ground. If the sensor says that there’s enough water, it’s going to stop the sprinkler from over-watering.”

The grids, provided by Sources Unlimited, are placed six inches below the surface of the soil and trap water after irrigation. After the first month of testing on that plot, water savings from 20-40 percent have been measured, according to Ray Ambrosini, who collaborated on the creation of the product.

“We are finding—it’s amazing—there’s a significant difference,” Korchek said. “The plot of ground that has the moisture control grid is using less water than the other two plots and the grass is much greener, fuller, more developed.”

By retaining water at a level of six inches below the ground, the grids encourage roots of plants to grow deeper, which also contributes to plant health, said Ambrosini.

“The moisture grid pulls the water down, six inches below the ground and it allows the roots to extend that long, so the roots are well-developed,” Korchek said.

Adjunct Instructor of Agriculture Len Markowitz, who teaches the class, said further testing needs to be done before final conclusions can be drawn.

“The center plot with the grids is showing a reduced amount of water but I don’t think we’ve done enough studies to warrant that as a success yet,” Markowitz said. “Ilana will be taking numbers through the summer and even fall.”

While the initial results show promise, weather patterns could also affect the efficacy of the products being tested and more data will be collected to observe them throughout the year.

“You need about a year to watch the water and especially through the different seasons to see the reactions you’re getting with different weather conditions,” Markowitz said. “I’ve used water sensors on other projects but this is the first time that we’re evaluating a professional product.”

The use of plastic could also be a concern in the implementation of products such as the grids, if their use were more widespread, but Ambrosini asserts that they could actually reduce harmful pollutants used in landscaping.

“I mean, the worst thing that harms things are fertilizers, if used wrong. That runs off into the groundwater and into the ocean, so with something like a grid, you wouldn’t have to fertilize as much,” Ambrosini said. “A lot of times you’re fertilizing to help the potassium and phosphates, to help the roots.”

The grids are also made of recyclable PVC materials and have no exposure to the sun, decreasing the chances that they could harm ecosystems where they are used in planting.

“It’s safe for the environment. It’s not going to break down,” Ambrosini said. “I don’t want to turn the world into plastic. I’m driving everywhere and I’m seeing synthetic turfs and I’m thinking ‘oh man.’ In southern California, we want grass. We want natural, we want to breathe, we don’t want everything to be desert scape.”

Korchek, who will be continuing the project through the summer and fall, is encouraged by the results so far and by the horticulture program.

“I think it has possibilities. I think it’s a definite option for people to put in their landscaping,” Korchek said. “I’m so impressed with the horticulture program. The teachers take a real, sincere interest in students and even other students are so helpful and friendly. And it’s encouraging that people are taking an interest in things like this and saving water.”

Markowitz plans to continue tests on water conservation with his turf grass management class in September, by testing which grasses might use less water.

“I’d just like to thank the students for being involved and the moisture grid company for allowing us to run these tests, and thank the students for looking at the future of our industry,” Markowitz said. “Because that’s where these tests are leading us—more water conservations, better plant choices, better water usage for our root systems. This is the way our industry is going so this is the first of hopefully many tests that we’ll be running in the future to reduce our water use but still maintain our beautiful landscape throughout the campus and the community.”