Grasses for a Greener World: Lawns and Fields Are Costly for Communities to Maintain, but Researchers Are Developing Alternatives

Article excerpt

The grass isn't always greener, as towns and cities across the globe are learning. Lawns and parks are under growing strain from a changing climate and increasing populations, resulting in dry spells, heat waves, surging foot traffic, and a range of other problems.

New grasses are now being developed to help cope with these challenges to urban greenery. Researchers in dozens of institutions have been breeding and genetically engineering new grass strains that stay healthy and green with less water, less maintenance, and minimal use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

"There's no perfect grass, but certainly with work and research, we can make a better grass. And hopefully save people money and hassle," says Brian Schwartz, assistant professor and turf breeder at the University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, one of many U.S. colleges that are researching improvements in turf grass.

The program's achievements in the last few years include the generation in 2009 of TifGrand, an improved version of Bermuda grass that is commonly sown in sports fields, public parks, and golf courses. TifGrand grows better in cool or shaded areas than the average Bermuda grass does and shows more resistance to insects and diseases. Additionally, it grows more slowly, so fewer gas-burning runs with the lawnmower are necessary.

Another, newer Bermuda grass strain called DT-1 could show even more durability to rough weather and shade. Schwartz and his colleagues are still working on this one and may release it to the marketplace in the next few years. They are also pursuing newer and better zoysia grasses--yet another grass strain that grows more slowly, is more shade-tolerant, and has a solid track record of surviving droughts.

Grasses that are better-suited for overused sports fields are another goal. These need to withstand much repeated foot traffic and to regrow quickly after athletes' shoes have torn them up. Schwartz and his colleagues are customizing some grass strains to improve durability.

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The science of engineering better grasses isn't new. Novel strains have been arising from turf facilities over the last four decades. Progress has picked up in the last Ocade, however, as breeders' technical capabilities improved and as the means to genetically modify the grass strains went into effect. Improvements include grasses that need less water due to longer roots, don't need to be mowed as often, are resistant to pests, and thrive in shade.

The last decade has also seen heightened interest among the customer base. The market was slow going in those earlier years, since the new grasses had higher price tags that consumers were reluctant to pay. Growing concerns about water shortages, gasoline consumption, and lawn chemical use have prompted customers to give the new grasses another look.

"A survey we did found a certain percentage of homeowners will pay more up front, for a new grass, given the option, knowing it would save them more in the long run," Schwartz says. …