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Texas Tech Plant and Soil Sceinces

Plant Talk

Photo of Vikram Baliga standing in the greenhouse.
Vikram Baliga is the creator of Planthropology.

There are more than 500,000 podcasts active on Apple Podcast. Researchers are using this new trendy type of communication. Vikram Baliga, a plant and soil science doctoral student at Texas Tech University, created his own podcast called “Planthropology.”

“The goal of this podcast is to get better at the public outreach of our science,” Baliga said. 

Baliga is a podcast listener himself and said he always wanted to start one. 

“I was having a conversation with a friend in the greenhouse and was like, ‘This was so nerdy, I think people would enjoy listening,’” Baliga said. 

The idea of a podcast came up again in a later conversation for Baliga. The new Plant and Soil Science department chair, Glen Ritchie, Ph. D., mentioned in his interview for the position that there needs to be a new way to get the scientific research out of the public. 

“He said, ‘podcast’ and it just stuck in my head,” Baliga said. “I feel like I had loose permission, so I did it.” 

With support from the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at Texas Tech, Baliga started his podcast “Planthropology” in the fall of 2019. 

“I interview researchers, educators, and people involved in natural science,” Baliga said. 

He said that he goes into the interview with a few basic questions but does not want to restrict the guests’ story. He focuses on the people instead of the research. 

Photo of Vikram Baliga recording an episode of his podcast.
Vikram Baliga uses the Adobe platform, Audition, to do minimal edits to his podcast “Planthropology”.

“People are complicated,” Baliga said. “Even if they take the same classes and everything, they all come at a problem from a different angle.”

Baliga said the wide variety of researchers and educators keeps the podcast interesting. 

“No two people have the same story.”

“No two people have the same story,” Baliga said. 

On average, each of Baliga’s podcast episodes gets about 2,500 listens. He said he tries to generally target outdoorsy people with interest in natural resources and sciences, but sometimes reaches others. 

Baliga said his podcast is based on scientific research. 

Photo of red and yellow flowers
These flowers can be found in the annual boxes that are located in the Horticultural Gardens.

“The science information is true and accurate, but sometimes people are not going to agree with it or even understand it,” Baliga said. 

When negative comments surface on his reviews, Baliga said he looks at them as exposure to natural science research.

“I know the material I am putting out there is factual and true information,” Baliga said. “I may change a mind or two, but even if I do not, they still hear the information, which is a teaching moment.” 

These negative comments can be a deterrent for individuals who want to start negative comments. 

“The biggest hurdle is getting used to having your own thoughts out in the world,” Baliga said. 

With 26 years of media experience, however, Baliga said it was easy for him to give his thoughts and to keep the conversations going with his guests. 

Photo of a cactus with headphones
In order to record a podcast a microphone and a pair of headphones are needed to get started.

For others, this may not be the case, but Baliga believes that people who let fear keep them from starting a podcast like “Planthropology” should try it out and do it. 

“It’s fun to do,” Baliga said. “It’s weird, and I am fortunate that I get to do stuff like this in a job like this.”

Where the Grass Grows Greener

The researchers will utilize a drone, equip with various sensors, in hopes of identifying the optimum sensor to detect drought stress on turfgrass. Golf courses in the Lubbock area provide economic benefit to the region according to the projects lead researcher, Joey Young Ph. D.

A situation is playing out in the Texas Panhandle and local golf courses are feeling the heat. During the end of 2017 and into early 2018, the region has gone through an extreme drought, and the main source of groundwater has been in rapid decline for over a decade. Two Texas Tech University faculty members are gearing up to tackle the water issue.

Although an afternoon on the golf course sounds like a fun way to spend the day, for Joey Young, Ph.D. and Wenxuan Guo, Ph.D., two assistant professors in the Department of Plant and Soil Science, it is an opportunity to solve overwatering of recreational turfgrass.

With the region in an extreme drought and the Ogallala Aquifer at risk of total depletion, golf courses like the Rawls Course at Texas Tech are under pressure, said course superintendent, Rodnie Bermea.

“Golf courses use a lot of water,” Bermea said. “In times of drought, it’s especially hard to water all areas of the properly and efficiently. We can end up using more water than we need to, which costs us money and hurts our water supply.”

According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, turf requires an average of 25 to 60 inches of water annually, depending on climate, to maintain a healthy appearance. This is one reason some argue golf courses are wasteful. However, Young, an assistant professor of turfgrass science, sees it differently.

It’s more than a tee time

“There’s definitely a perception that golf courses and turfgrass are something that’s basically a waste of a lot of water, and therefore unnecessary,” Young said. “But that’s just not the case. Courses provide a big economic benefit for cities like Lubbock.”

[Left to Right] Joey Young Ph. D., and Wenxuan Guo Ph. D., discuss plans for their turfgrass research at the Rawls Golf Course as the drone waits, ready for takeoff.
Young argues tournaments and other events hosted at courses like the Rawls impact the local economy by bringing people into the city who utilize local businesses. A sentiment echoed by Bermea.

“Tournaments aren’t only beneficial to the Rawls course, ” Bermea said. “They help everyone. There are the obvious businesses that benefit directly from visitors to the golf course, like hotels, restaurants and all that. But there’s a trickle-down effect on the economy that just can’t be understated.”

While it is apparent golf courses use a lot of water, Young and Guo have devised a plan that could help not only the drought-stricken Lubbock area, but could impact courses around the country and the world.

“Water is our No. 1 limiting resource,” said Guo, an assistant professor of crop ecophysiology and precision agriculture. “Everyone knows the Ogallala Aquifer is depleting at a rapid rate. So, we need to figure out how to save the water or use the water more wisely, more efficiently. This is important from both an economic and social perspective.”

Driving with the drone

Guo said it is not only important to save water for the next generation, but also to conserve water for conventional agriculture production. With a grant provided by the United States Golf Association, the two researchers have developed an experiment with the potential to allow more accurate water allocation on golf courses.

Courses provide a big economic benefit for cities like Lubbock.

“Our goal is to utilize drones and different sensors that will be attached to the drones to collect imagery that could basically determine areas of drought stress on a golf course,” Young said. “The overall purpose would be to utilize various sensors that may give us different information.”

Once these optimal sensors are identified, they could be utilized by golf courses to identify drought stress, potentially before it is even visible to the human eye, Young said. This technology would be used by course managers to adjust irrigation from areas that stay wetter to areas that tend to dry out more. This will ultimately help lower water usage on the golf course and achieve more balanced playing conditions.

“If this technology could allow us to see an area that’s dryer or an area that’s wetter we would be able to water those areas more efficiently,” Bermea said. “We could create a more sustainable irrigation program that would be environmentally beneficial and save us money.”

Simply lowering the golf courses irrigation by 10 to 15 percent would be a huge financial saving for the Rawls, Bermea said.

The research is being conducted at the Rawls Golf Course as well as the Amarillo Country Club, which use different kinds of turfgrass. The varying sensors will give a broader picture of how cool season and warm season turfgrasses handle drought stress.

Young says ultimately he hopes to identify sensors to address specific issues on golf courses and would then like to share that information with course managers around the country. But, it is not just golf courses that may be reaping the benefit of his research.

A put for all mankind

In tandem with the research being conducted on Lubbock and Amarillo golf courses, Guo will also be utilizing the drone and sensor technology to look at lowering water usage in conventional agriculture.

“My area of research is in crop ecophysiology and precision agriculture,” Guo said. “I will be using drones to identify the crop growth variability in fields, within the same season. So, before the final yield at the end of the season, we can look at how the plants are growing and adjust irrigation and other imputes to minimize resource use.”

He said even though different plants sometimes require different methods to study, all plants show drought stress in the same way.

Just like the work being done on the courses, Guo hopes to utilize drone imagery to identify areas of drought stress in crops like corn, cotton and sorghum.

“It has become increasingly important to conserve our water,” Guo said. “The water in our area has been diminishing much faster than originally expected, and we don’t know what our water supply will look like in 20 years. Our whole economy is driven by an adequate water supply, so that makes it urgent.”

This joint research endeavor to ultimately lower water usage in West Texas could have a lasting impact on the region, through improving sustainability and protecting the economic stability of golf courses and conventional agriculture practices. But Young hopes their research will have an even greater impact.

“It’s important to us that we are doing what’s right for our region,” Young said. “But bigger than that I want to communicate our findings to the scientific community in hopes that the information can be shared with course superintendents around the world. For my research to have that kind of reach and impact communities around the world would be the ultimate reward.”

Old Course, New Credits

April showers bring Mayflowers; springtime brings the gardener out in most people. In the spring, people begin to plant seeds and the flowers begin to bloom with help from the bright sun and a little bit of water. Fancy floral arrangements are often given for Valentines Day, birthdays and anniversaries. Decorations at funerals, weddings and banquets are often thought to be some flowers thrown in water. People do not appreciate the skill of floral design. Creating a memorable and beautiful floral arrangement takes artistic skill, and more people are getting involved in the newly established degree program art of floral design.

The Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at Texas Tech University now offers classes to learn how to properly arrange floral arrangement as a specialization. Institutions including Texas Tech, are seeing the demand for the art of floral design. The Department of Plant and Soil Sciences has offered floral design classes for years but recently began offering the course as an art credit. Ed Plowman, an instructor at Texas Tech, teaches the floral design and horticulture courses.
Plowman applied his education from Texas Tech and is now known for influencing the growth of the horticulture and floral design program. His eye for detail in plants and flowers, as well as his passion to educate students, is evident in his teaching. He said he has watched the enrollment of students double throughout his career teaching at Texas Tech.

“Mr. Plowman’s class was challenging,” said Chad Brooks, a former student of Plowman. “But I learned so much from him. I would highly recommend anyone take one of his classes.”

The Number Rise

The rumors the plant and soil science department would offer floral design as a specialization credit traveled to different colleges across campus. From there enrollment numbers quadrupled. Before floral design was offered as a specialization credit there were 20 students enrolled each spring semester to 80 students enrolled in the spring semester and 80 students enrolled in the fall semester. Students began to get involved in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and many students from different backgrounds have changed their majors to plant and soil sciences as a result of the course.

“We are using this as a recruitment tool to get students interested in coming over to agriculture,” Plowman said.

Plowman Expands His Knowledge Outside of the University

In the last year, Plowman was part of the FFA Floral Design Career Development Events in San Antonio where 300 high school students participated in the contest for the first time since its inception. In 2018 the contest will be offering $10,000 in scholarships, and they are expecting the number of students competing to double, said Plowman.

In March 2018 The Department of Plant and Soil Science hosted the FFA-CDE Floriculture contest at the Horticulture Greenhouse Plowman said. There were 80 students who attended the contest.

Students classroom knowledge and skills are used to identify and evaluate cut flowers. Houseplants and flowering plants are also evaluated through an exam. The state winning teams advance and compete at the National FFA Convention.

Roses are condsidered the focal point in an arragement.
Roses are considered the focal point in an arrangement.

The Petals Get Put to Work

To be successful in the floral design class, one must be able to interpret art, such as music and express their interpretation through flowers. During the lab portion of the course, students are required to complete an interpretation project and showcase the topic through an arrangement as a final project. The completed projects are ranked from one to ten and the top three projects are given the opportunity to compete at a higher level.

“I’ve gotten to work with flowers every week and most of the time I’ve gotten to take home what I made that day,” said Allison Reid, a junior Texas Tech agricultural communications major. “So that’s been pretty cool.”

Floral Design Services is a program offered through the plant and soil science department, giving students the opportunity to design floral arrangements for events around campus and Lubbock. Floral arrangements are designed by students involved in this program and are used as decorations at events across the Texas Tech campus. The department considers this program to be an honor for students to be a part of.

Students enrolled in the floral design course are given the opportunity to submit photos to be highlighted on the courses Facebook page, Texas Tech Floral Design 2310, for parents and peers to view their accomplishments. These arrangements are made in lab, which is a portion of the student’s grade for the floral design course.

Throughout the semester, different cultures are discussed including Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Renaissances, and Flemish. Each culture module consists of learning the history of each culture. In lab, students are required to create floral arrangements to represent the culture and history of the different countries in different time periods. This gives students an extensive background in floral design.

“As much information as the students learn in the course, they can almost walk away being certified to teach the course,” said Plowman.

Floral design is a great course for agricultural education students to take as undergraduate students, as many of them will be required to teach floral design when they begin their career as agriculture education teachers. The information given throughout this course can lend a helping hand in not only teaching floral design but also coaching students to be successful in the FFA floral design CDE.

Finding a Place in the Department

Offering floral design as an art elective has increased enrollment in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. It has helped get students across campus to get involved enrolled in courses and organizations within the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. With floral design offered as an art credit, students have been given the opportunity to learn about floral arrangements and the art behind it whether they grew up around agriculture or not.

“Overall I just really enjoy getting to work with fresh flowers every week,” Reid said.

The department anticipates the program to continue to grow and offer more than one course each semester. The course is available as an art credit. Through the department, students have the opportunity for their friends, peers, and family to see their work around campus and Lubbock.

Floral design is an art.

As the petals on the flowers fall, the artistic skills learned in floral design will not fade. These skills can be used to teach others floral design skills, make professional arrangements or just create flower bouquets for themselves or friends.

“Floral design is an art,” Plowman said. “Now, it is becoming more and more recognized as an art.”

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