Turf managers are increasingly incorporating biological products into their turf fertility programs to improve plant health and appearance as well as to complement their environmentally sustainable practices, according to a survey.

Bionutrition conference hails Biological Revolution

Turf managers are increasingly incorporating biological products into their turf fertility programs to improve plant health and appearance as well as to complement their environmentally sustainable practices, according to a survey* conducted on behalf of LebanonTurf. Survey respondents were asked to consider biologicals as products based on a wide range of living organisms, including microbes, bacteria, mycorrhizae, seaplant extracts and hormones, that are added to a fertilizer prill or delivered as standalone products.

The results of the survey are one reason LebanonTurf brought together bionutrition researchers and green industry editors late last month in Cooperstown, NY for conference entitled, “Bionutrition: From Bugs ‘n Jugs to Mainstream Fertility.” Having bought the Emerald Isle and ROOTS brands in the past few years, general manager Dave Heegard said LebanonTurf was committed to active biological products and wanted to the industry press to see how their readers are using the products at the beginning of what he said was a “Biological Revolution.”

According to survey respondents, 51% currently use biological products as part of their normal turf fertility program; 45% said they expect to increase their use of biologicals in the next 2 years (survey respondents included superintendents, landscape contractors and other turf professionals).

Sixty-six percent use biologicals as a complement to traditional fertilizer products, while 31% said they are experimenting with these types of products. Less than 1% said they use biologicals exclusively. “The research confirms the momentum building for bionutritional products and the growing belief in their benefits,” said Heegard.

Ninety percent said they consider biological products either essential (30%) or moderately important (60%) to their fertility programs. In addition to improved plant health and appearance (53%) and environmental friendliness (35%), 12% indicated “cost-effectiveness when compared to traditional fertilizers” as an “important” benefit of bionutrition.

Ninety-five percent of those responding said they were either very satisfied (31%) or mostly satisfied (64%) with the results they achieved with biological products.

*The survey was conducted in July on behalf of LebanonTurf by Questex Research.

Bionutritional fertilizers is the name given to the wide range of living organisms, including microbes, bacteria, mycorrhizae, seaplant extracts and hormones, that can be added to a fertilizer prill or delivered as standalone products to nourish plants. Bacteria also consume carbohydrates, which are eaten by protozoa and, in turn, convert bacterial protein into nitrogen that feeds the plants. “Think of it as an underground revolution led by nature’s own powerful army,” said Heegard.

“[Biological products] are not widely accepted in the academic community,” said Roch Gaussoin, professor of agronomy and horticulture and extension turfgrass specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. [Editor’s note: Congrats to Roch for recently being named a distinguished professor, a title reserved for less than 1% of the faculty at Nebraska].

One reason is that micro organisms are not well understood though after water they are the next most significant factor in [plant health], Gaussoin said. “Bionutrition is enhancing beneficial organisms in the soil to facilitate nutrient availability and uptake.”

“For example, nitrogen is naturally in soil waiting to be released,” he said, “and microbial-based products enable that nitrogen to release.”

Gaussoin said most academics dismissed these products early on but his research shows that they can generate an equivalent response in plants at lower inputs.

Soil scientist Dr. Mike Amaranthus, associate professor at Oregon State University (adjunct) and president of Mycorrhizal Applications, Inc., said mycorrhizae attaches to plant roots rather than go into the soil. “Mycorrhizae fungi are part of all plants,” he said, “and it improves fertilizer efficiency by increasing the surface area that takes in nutrients.”

Amaranthus emphasized that turf managers must get the mycorrhizae into the soil for best results, and depending on the situation, powders, liquids or granules should be considered. Amaranthus said his company’s products [the world’s largest selection of commercially available mycorrhizal inoculums] reduce fertilizer inputs 30%, reduce water requirements, reduce runoff and pollution, and best of all, the carbon sequestration process takes the element out of the air and into the soil.

Mycorrhizal fungi affect the health of turf through the action of the tiny absorptive threads they produce in soil. Attached to the roots, these tiny threads are the “stomach” of a plant. This is his how grasses feed themselves naturally. Without their diligent munching in the soil, grasses in natural environments would die of thirst and go hungry. A thimble full of healthy soil can have several miles of these beneficial threads. These 460 million-year-old beneficial soil organisms form a special relationship with over 90% of the world’s plant species in their native habitats. 

“I used to visit natural areas and wonder how these areas stayed so productive. Take a redwood stand, for example: trees are 300 feet tall, 1000 years old and 10 feet in diameter and they have never been fertilized, never been irrigated and never shot with pesticides,” he said. “How do they do it? A living soil provides us with the template. The effect of the mycorrhizal relationship on the root system is dramatic.  Most of the absorbing areas of the root system actually are mycorrhizal threads or hyphae.  Hyphae are much thinner than roots or root hairs and are able to grow in the tiniest pores in the soil.  As a result, the efficiency of the plant’s nutrient and water uptake is increased several hundred to several thousand times.”  

“You would be surprised to know that in most cases a turf manager’s soil contains an abundance of nutrients but delivery to the plants itself is limited. Mycorrhizae are particularly important in mobilizing nutrients in the soil and transporting them back to the plant. In exchange, the mycorrhizal fungus gets sugars produced from the leaves, the plant’s solar-powered energy factories. The plant is providing the energy for the fungus to do its job and to propagate its spores for the next generation of mycorrhizae.”

Dr. Robert Ames is senior staff scientist for Advanced Microbial Solutions and oversees AMS field support, QA/QC and research and development programs. He prefers the term “biofertility” for bacterial-based products in this category and his research is based on understanding biochemical pathways, or the communication system that he says exists between plants and microorganisms in the soil. He is studying the interactions and co-dependency of microbes with complex microbial communities.

Ames also commented on the regulation of these products, saying officials need to be educated on the products or there’s a risk they might be labeled as “biohazards.” He cited the difficulty in providing proof of the products’ efficacy and the subsequent challenge that presents in asking for modified regulations for biological products.

Robin Ross, a market development scientist at Acadian Seaplants Ltd in Nova Scotia, is responsible for managing all field research on row and vegetable crops in the US. Ross actively conducts and coordinates research with universities and private research and development groups to test marine-plant products as fertilizers and biostimulants in agriculture. She cited several studies by Dr. Erik Ervin at Virginia Tech on seaweed’s ability to more “greenly” improve root growth as well as heat and cold tolerance. Seaweed is a living plant matrix of carbohydrates, amino acids, organic acids, and vitamins.

Ross said the best seaweed comes from the Bay of Fundy [on the Atlantic coast, northeast end of the Gulf of Maine between the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, with a small portion touching Maine] because it has adapted to the harsh conditions there. She recommended buyers also ask about the harvesting process—hand harvesting is the only sustainable, legal way to get seaweed.

She said Ervin’s studies prove that seaweed enhances the effects of conventional fertilizers when used together.

Bionutritionals benefit turf and the environment while helping end-users save money, according Gaussoin. “In our tests, we have seen the opportunity to reduce fertilizer application rates by up to 30 percent over granular or dry fertilizers with no change in performance,” Gaussoin said.

“Bionutritionals help improve the structure of the soil, allowing roots to penetrate deeper, encouraging a healthier plant while reducing stress and the potential for surface water contamination. As costs of traditional fertilizers continue to rise, similar or improved performance from products that can be applied at reduced rates have the potential to provide cost savings.”

Eric Schroder is editor of SportsTurf magazine and the online newsletter, SportsTurf Insider.

More information from LebanonTurf conference

What are endomycorrhizal fungi? 

Endomycorrhizal fungi penetrate and form structures “inside” the root cells of plants. 

About 80% of the world’s plant species, including most plants from the nursery, garden and grasses, form this endomycorrhizal relationship.

What are ectomycorrhizal fungi?

Ectomycorrhizal fungi penetrate and form structures “around” the root cells of plants.  This relationship forms primarily with trees, especially within the conifer and oak groups. The most important point to remember is that both endo and ecto fungi form external absorbing threads in the soil that provide similar benefits to the plant.

What about access to water?

Human need for fresh water is growing faster than nature can provide.  It’s quickly becoming one of the key resource issues of the 21st century. How do natural areas provide for such luxuriant plant growth without irrigation? One important way is that mycorrhizal threads attached to the roots of colonized plants scour the soil resource absorbing water during periods of adequate soil moisture, retaining and slowly releasing water during periods of drought.  Natural areas have achieved a level of drought tolerance that far exceeds agricultural areas, in part, because an enormous web of mycorrhizal threads acts as a sponge, protecting plant communities from extreme moisture deficits.

These mycorrhizal threads are much thinner than roots and can penetrate into the small soil pores and access pools of water that are unavailable to thicker roots.  An extensive body of research has documented the importance of the mycorrhizal relationship for efficient water use and drought protection for a wide array plants.  The growing cost and declining quality of water are formidable issues facing homeowners and landscape professionals today. Using mycorrhizal fungi to improve water use efficiency and decrease water input costs is a tool available to everyone using Nature’s Creation products.

What are the benefits to soil?

The relationship between the soil, plant and mycorrhizal fungus is dynamic.  In order to extract nutrients for the host plant, the mycorrhizal fungi produce compounds that improve soil structure and the ability of the soil to take in water and air.  For example, glomalin, an important organic “glue” excreted by mycorrhizal fungi, welds soil particles together in stable aggregates.  The resultant soil porosity is essential for the movement and storage of air and water beneath the soil surface.  Research indicates mycorrhizal fungi also improve plants’ ability to tolerate salty soil conditions and environmental stress.

How do mycorrhizal fungi interact with disease organisms and parasitic nematodes?

Disease is rare in natural plant communities but common in intensively managed areas.  Over millions of years mycorrhizal fungi have developed elaborate methods to protect plants.  Remember, mycorrhizal fungi get their energy from the plant roots so they need to keep them healthy.  Mycorrhizal fungi produce powerful antibiotics to deter root diseases.  They tie up nutrients for the plant so there is no food for the disease organism to grow.  Mycorrhizal fungi contain chitin, the hardening agent in mammal claws and insect shells. Research studies have documented that mycorrhizae and chitin protect the root systems by acting as a physical barrier to the invasion of soil diseases.

Studies have shown root infections by pathogenic nematodes are generally less severe on crops colonized by arbuscular mycorrhizae.  A number of mechanisms of interaction between mycorrhizae and nematode pathogens have been observed.  For example, decreases in root exudation by arbuscular fungi change the attractiveness of roots to nematode pathogens.  Arbuscular mycorrhizae also improve host plant vigor, and thus reduce yield losses caused by nematode attacks, especially in low P soils and if mycorrhizae are established early in the growth cycle, before nematode outbreak.  Numerous observations also show direct control by hyphae of mycorrhizal fungi actively capturing and “strangling” live nematodes causing mortality.  While the mechanisms are still being examined, the evidence strongly indicates that mycorrhizae suppress parasitic nematode damage of roots or reduce nematode effects on plant growth and yield.

How long have mycorrhizal fungi been around?

Mycorrhizal fungi got along for about 460 million years without our help and successfully orchestrated the invasion of the earth’s surface by plants.  Until mycorrhizal fungi penetrated the roots of primitive aquatic plants, they lacked the tools to successfully colonize soils on the harsh earth’s surface.  The marriage of primitive plant and fungus unleashed the evolutionary leap that produced the “greening” of our earth.

Since the early days, these hard working fungi have been amazingly prolific.  They pluck phosphorus, nitrogen and micronutrients out of the soil with a specific arsenal of designer enzymes just right for the job.  Mycorrhizal fungi process wastes and make them usable again, purify our water and keep our plants productive. The wide variety of plants planted in the ground will thrive when given the right source of mycorrhizal inoculum.

What happened to all the natural populations of mycorrhizal fungi?

Soils from natural and undisturbed areas generally contain robust and diverse populations of mycorrhizal fungi.  Research shows, however, that compaction, erosion, grading, topsoil removal, cultivation, fungicides and the use of soil less mixes in growing operations often eliminate mycorrhizae completely. Many of the fungi do not disperse their spores in the wind and are slow to recolonize an area after they have been lost. In a disturbed habitat, the effectiveness of the return of mycorrhizae is dependent on the quality and proximity of undisturbed habitats containing suitable fungi.  Many cases have been documented where plants in disturbed urban and suburban environments have not formed mycorrhizae many years after outplanting and are surviving only through intensive care and maintenance.

Can’t I just fertilize?

Many fertilizer regimens push top growth at the expense of root development, making plants vulnerable to stressful environments. Frequent, high levels of fertilizer produce an unbalanced and often unsustainable shoot-to-root ratio. Mycorrhizae, on the other hand, feed plants and stimulate root growth. Mycorrhizae perform a lot of functions related to plant establishment that fertilizers do not. Fertilizers cannot maintain healthy roots, improve soil structure, water uptake or promote other beneficial microbes. In fact, fertilizers often negatively affect these factors.  Fertilizers can lead to other side effects, such as deterioration of water quality, soil structure and excess soil salinity. The mycorrhizal relationship improves feeder-root production so a mycorrhizal plant can better utilize added fertilizer.

How hardy are mycorrhizal fungi?

Shelf life of our standard products is two years with a 10% decrease in viability in year 3. Cold temperatures, even freezing, do not affect the viability of mycorrhizal propagules that are most commonly used as inoculum. Temperatures above 140 degrees F damage mycorrhizal propagules and should be avoided.  Once the propagules are mixed with the soil, they remain in a dormant state until there is root activity. Mycorrhizal propagules germinate in the presence of certain root exudates. Once the spores germinate and attach to the root system, the mycorrhizae will remain with the plant for the life-cycle of the plant. Plants growing on stressed sites or frequently disturbed sites may require several inoculations.

Is diversity important?

Natural areas generally contain an array of mycorrhizal fungal species. The proportions and abundance of mycorrhizal species often decline following any disturbance. Not all mycorrhizal fungi have the same capacities and tolerances. Some are better at imparting drought resistance, others are more important in protecting roots and still others are more adept at taking up nutrients. The diversity of mycorrhizal fungi formed by a given plant increases its ability to occupy diverse below-ground niches and survive a range of chemical, biological and physical conditions.


Biochemicals: compounds produced by living organisms as a result of (or to support) cell growth, metabolic functions and interactions with their environment.

Biofertility: the involvement of microorganisms in the availability and uptake of plant nutrients.

Biofertilizer: a source of plant nutrients containing microorganisms and/or biochemicals.

Biofilm: a community of microorganisms often imbedded within a mucilaginous matrix, which may consist of only a few or many different bacteria.

Enhanced efficiency fertilizer (EEF): A fertilizer made more efficient by physical, chemical or biological additives.

Fertilizer use efficiency: the improvement of plant uptake and reduction in loss of nutrients from applied fertilizers through the use of physical, chemical or biological additives

Microbial by-products: biochemicals released by microorganisms

Microbial community: a beneficial association between two or more microorganisms within close proximity.

Ascophyllum nodosum: Seaweed of the northern Atlantic Ocean, also known as Norwegian kelp, knotted Kelp, knotted wrack or egg wrack. It is common on the northwestern coast of Europe (from Svalbard to Portugal) including east Greenland and the northeastern coast of North AmericaAscophyllum nodosum is harvested for use in alginates, fertilizers and for the manufacture of seaweed meal for animal and human consumption. It has long been used as an organic and mainstream fertilizer for many varieties of crops due to its combination of both macronutrient (eg. N, P, K, Ca, Mg, S) and micronutrients (Mn, Cu, Fe, Zn, etc). It also host to cytokinins, auxin-like gibberellins, betaines, mannitol, organic acids, polysaccharides, amino acids and proteins which are all beneficial and widely used in agriculture. 

Sustainable management:  An integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term: Satisfy human food and fiber needs, make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles.

Carbohydrate: The term is most common in biochemistry, where it is a synonym of saccharide (sugar)

Amino acids: Critical to life, and have many functions in metabolism. One particularly important function is as the building blocks of proteins, which are linear chains of amino acids.

Chlorophyll: A green pigment found in all plants.