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University of Minnesota

In search of 'greener' grass

October 24, 2012

An example of fine fescue grass growing on a lawn.

The fine fescues generally have narrower blades than our conventional grasses and tend to lie down a bit more. But they can reduce the need for inputs—namely, water and fertilizer—significantly.

Photo: courtesy Sam Bauer

Research led by U scientists could result in more sustainable and drought-resistant grass options

By Rick Moore

The summer and fall of 2012 have not been kind to grass.

That’s not much of a news bulletin for anyone who looks out his or her window and sees brown grass lying flat or, worse yet, flat-lining grass. Which makes the following bulletin more newsworthy.

A new research project led by University of Minnesota scientists could lead to more sustainable and drought-resistant turf grasses—both for home lawns and public spaces—that also require less effort and “inputs” (water and fertilizer) to maintain.

The five-year project is funded by a $2.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is part of a national effort to improve specialty crops.

A vast majority of the grass seed sold and planted in Minnesota is either Kentucky bluegrass or perennial ryegrass, says Eric Watkins, associate professor of horticultural science at the U and the lead investigator for the project.

The grasses being studied are “fine fescues,” a group of five species that are available at some nurseries and superstores, but much harder to find than the current mainstays.

The fine fescues generally have much narrower blades than our conventional grasses, Watkins says, and they tend to lie down a bit more—especially when mowing heights are raised—“so they might not be quite as uniform and upright as a typical lawn would be.”

But they have a lot of great attributes. First and perhaps foremost, they don’t grow very fast, “so you don’t have to mow nearly as much,” he says. In addition, they’re pretty drought tolerant; they stay greener much longer when precipitation is scarce. And they’re fairly resistant to disease.

“They just have a lot of nice low-input attributes,” Watkins says.

However, the fine fescues do have some less desirable characteristics. They have low heat tolerance, so they don’t fare particularly well in triple-digit temperatures, especially if recently mowed. They also don’t tolerate a ton of foot traffic and are more susceptible to snow mold—an annual occurrence in Minnesota.

Watkins says the researchers hope to breed fine fescues with better characteristics, “so that we can release varieties that have all these good things that are present now, but then are even better [because] we’ve overcome the other negatives.”

Changing habits

The project also includes components of outreach (U of M Extension will work to deliver information on these grasses more effectively), marketing, and social science.

As Watkins points out, a big issue is that people are used to buying Kentucky bluegrass, and the public needs to be informed of its other options.

“I think if consumers were demanding more low-input grasses—such as these fine fescues—then the seed companies would sell them [more readily],” he says. But “getting people to switch means we really need to take care of these other deficiencies.”

Once that happens, consumers will still be able to have green lawns while knowing they’re contributing to a greater, greener good. Just think of the sheer number of lawns in the metropolitan area alone.

“Let’s say you reduce mowing by one-third on those lawns, or you reduce fertilizer use by a third. That’s a huge reduction in inputs,” he says. “Just small changes in species use can make big impacts down the road.”

Which could make the grass greener on your side of the street.

Along with Watkins’ team at the University of Minnesota, researchers from Rutgers University and the University of Wisconsin–Madison are also involved in the project.

Tags: College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences