Jack Payne: Phillip Hisey waters thousands of lawns with science.

November 1, 2018

Phillip Hisey waters thousands of lawns with science. He also contributes to discovery by making the landscaping and lawns he oversees into gardens where science can grow.

During his 13 years as landscape superintendent of On Top of the World in Ocala, he has opened the 10,000-home community for scientists to conduct numerous experiments on soil compaction and landscape pests.

From a scientist’s point of view, explains Eban Bean of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, On Top of the World is an expansive field lab. The gates to it would essentially be closed to researchers were it not for Hisey.

Hisey chairs the FNGLA Landscape Division Leaders, and he was sufficiently alarmed by the Water 2070 report that he helped establish FNGLA’s Landscape Irrigation Committee, with its mission to maximize irrigation efficiency and achieve water savings.

Hisey knows the success of that mission depends on discovery, so he has served as a bridge between scientists and On Top of the World residents. Homeowners know and trust Hisey. I’m not so sure that same trust would extend to a stranger who knocks on a door and explains he’s from the university and he’s here to help. UF/IFAS scientists certainly wouldn’t have access to dozens of lots at a time without a community leader to open the door.

UF/IFAS Marion County Extension Director David Holmes values Hisey so much that he appointed him to the county’s Extension Service Advisory Committee. And Holmes nominated Hisey for the Florida Association of County Agricultural Agents agriculturalist of the year award, which he bestowed on Hisey at a conference in August.

Hisey long ago absorbed the “right plant, right place” mantra of UF/IFAS scientists promoting Florida Friendly Landscaping™ practices. Now, by cooperating with Bean and others, he’s supporting attempts to make the right place even better.

For nearly two years, Bean has been visiting On Top of the World to study the effectiveness of incorporating compost into the top six inches of the compacted soils of new home sites. The uniform conditions in a large development make it a great place to test a single variable such as the addition of compost.

Bean wants to know if the compost increases what he calls “plant available water,” a measure of the capacity of the soil to make water available to the roots it surrounds. If that answer turns out to be yes, as he hypothesizes, it could lead to great reductions in the amount of water required as well as increase plants’ absorption of nutrients.

That would be a triple win. Landscape professionals would get more bang for the fertilizer buck. Homeowners would save on their water bills. Fewer nutrients would leach through soil or run off lawns and landscapes and into ponds and streams.

Hisey could also be a trusted champion of innovation. He’s the key to science directly reaching thousands of beneficiaries, namely homeowners.

Hisey has become such an expert in the field that UF/IFAS Extension calls upon him to teach. Hisey helps Extension run classes that landscape professionals take to get certified in green industry best management practices.

I don’t get to pick the agriculturalist of the year, but Holmes made an excellent nomination. Hisey is an example of a best practice in research – find a trusted community leader, ask him or her to serve as a bridge to the end user, and learn from him or her about how lab science plays out in the real world.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

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