Two Big Ten Universities Work to Develop Environmentally Friendly Lawns

Many homeowners strive to have the picture-perfect green lawn. But how can that be achieved in an environment where water in parts of the country is becoming scarce and the use of pesticides and fertilizer is being discouraged?

Researchers from two Big Ten universities hope that they will be able to find an answer. Scientists from Rutgers University and the University of Minnesota, both members of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation – an academic consortium of Big Ten universities – will be working together over the next five years to develop an environmentally friendly grass that is more resistant to disease and drought and a better economical choice for homeowners.

The scientists have received a $2.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find a way to make fine fescue, a highly drought-tolerant grass native to Europe and used throughout the world in grazing pastures, ornamental landscaping and home lawns less susceptible to disease and wear.

“We’re trying to make the low-maintenance grass less vulnerable to disease and more wear-tolerant for homeowners’ lawns,” said Austin Grimshaw, a research technician at the Center for Turfgrass Science in Rutgers’ New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, who is working with colleagues Stacy Bonos and William Meyer on researching fine fescue.

“Tall fescue is very common on lawns,” said Bonos, an associate professor of plant biology and pathology in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. “Tall fescue uses more water than fine fescue, and it requires more fertilizer to maintain green color. Fine fescues maintain density and stay green with almost no water or fertilizer.”

Besides making fine fescue tougher and less dependent on fungicides and fertilizers, better for the environment and more economical for homeowners, Bonos said researchers also need to gain a better understanding of what homeowners and groundskeepers want in a lawn and how best to market the grass.

To do this, Rutgers researchers invited 101 homeowners to visit their Horticultural Farm in New Brunswick to examine examples of fine fescue, tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass and others varieties of turfgrass. They used Facebook, newspaper ads, the Cook campus listserv, and visits to a local farmers’ market to get homeowners interested in the project.

“We let them look at the plots, touch them, walk barefoot on them if they wanted,” Grimshaw said. The Minnesota team offered a similar touch-and-feel survey and sent questionnaires to about 1,000 people asking them what they wanted in their lawn and what they would be willing to pay to get it.

“The fact is, fine fescue isn’t often included among grasses being sold in places like Home Depot and Lowe’s,” Bonos said. “It’s a bit more expensive than the grasses that are being sold, so what we want to know is, how much more are people willing to pay up front to avoid having to pay as much for things like fertilizer and water?”

Rutgers scientists say the new research on fine fescue is only a small part of a breeding program that includes thousands of lines of grass collected and analyzed each year.

“We take grasses with the desirable fine-fescue traits, like color, texture and drought tolerance and then put them together with grasses that are a little more resistant to wear and disease, and year after year hope for improvement,” said Grishaw.

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