Abiotic Stress in Turfgrass: Main Factors and How to Alleviate

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Turfgrass stress is something turf managers must deal with constantly. Maintaining optimum quality playing surfaces requires a high level of management expertise. Numerous cultural practices are required, as well as finely balanced nutritional and irrigational inputs. While all these practices allow for the high standards expected, it also means our turfgrasses are often on a knife edge, balanced between healthy plants and those stressed from low inputs and disruptive management practices. 

Abiotic stress factors are numerous, many times it is either too much or too little of something! Abiotic stress may result in poor quality surfaces due to growth inhibition, damage to cell structures and metabolic dysfunction. Often it is from extreme environmental conditions, such as high or low temperatures, soil compaction, excessive or low light, flooding, or deficient water. Sometimes it can be caused by nutrient deficiency, incorrectly applied pesticides or fertilizers, or even excessive traffic. It’s worth noting that damage can often look very similar to biotic stress, making diagnosis difficult, and that plants suffering from abiotic stress are in most cases significantly more susceptible to biotic stress.

Golf course

How can you tell if the problem is abiotic and not biotic?

  • Abiotic damage occurs on numerous plant species while biotic problems are more limited to a specific species.
  • Abiotic damage does not spread to other plants over time, biotic diseases can spread throughout a single plant and neighbouring plants of the same species.
  • Abiotic stress does not show presence of disease signs whereas biotic diseases sometimes show physical signs of a pathogen, like fungal growth, nematode cysts, or the presence of insects.

Some abiotic stress factors and ways to help combat them.

Golf course turf disease
  • High humidity, excess water/flooding: Observed by brown turfgrass following the outline of flooded areas; scalded appearance.
  • Remedy: Increase surface and soil drainage; soil grading; reduce irrigation inputs; reduce traffic.
  • Drought: Foot printing, leaf rolling, browning of turfgrass; tissue becomes brittle. 
  • Remedy: Irrigate affected area; use a program of surfactants; aerify to improve water infiltration, reduce traffic
  • High temperature: Turfgrass with water-soaked and brown appearance. 
  • Remedy: Select heat tolerant grasses, syringe canopy to cool.
  • Low temperature: Frost injury: Straw-brown colour, bleached turfgrass appearance, crown hydration. 
  • Remedy: Top dressing; winter blankets; light watering when temperatures are above freezing.

  • Chemical or fertiliser injuries: Remove soil; bioremediation; use activated charcoal to absorb chemicals; apply pesticides according to label. Apply fertilizer during correct conditions and rate; apply evenly with correctly calibrated equipment.
Golf course turf disease

Mowing height/frequency, disruptive practices such as aeration, dethatching, topdressing, excessive wear from foot and maintenance traffic are all factors that can have a detrimental effect and enhance abiotic stress, especially during environmental extremes, and should be monitored and adjusted accordingly.  

  Abiotic stress conditions can inhibit the growth and development of turfgrass leading to a decline in turf quality, root length, and topgrowth. While turf managers can do much to limit this damage, plants themselves will also respond! Turfgrasses will initiate complex defence mechanisms, producing secondary metabolites, leading to physiological and morphological responses at the molecular level, way too much to cover in detail today!

We can help this process. For example, silicon (Si) can act as a defense enhancer, improving the extent of these defense signals. Silicon has been shown to increase tolerance to drought and temperature extremes, UVB light, metal toxicity, and increased tolerance to salt stress. 

This was just a brief outline of abiotic stress and how we can respond to it, hopefully it was of interest, and remember there’s a lot of helpful data readily available out there online!

Dr John Dempsey
Independent Turfgrass Research

Email: [email protected]
Web: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4745-1541

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