Environment-Friendly Grasses

They travel to Corsica and Inner Mongolia, to Ireland and Italy, digging up patches of grass with knives, placing them in plastic bags, and then storing them in coolers for safekeeping—all with the goal of producing environmentally friendly grasses for everywhere from the White House lawn to New York’s Central Park (and even your backyard).

Think of them as the Grass Hunters—the Rutgers turfgrass experts who are pioneers in transforming wild grasses from Europe, Asia, and Africa into the grass seed sold around the nation. “Our main objectives are to develop grasses that require lower inputs of energy, irrigation, and pesticides,” says Professor William Meyer (seen above), director of the Turfgrass Breeding Project at Rutgers’ Center for Turfgrass Science. “We want to reduce the use of all of those things.”

 

Through the work at Rutgers, grasses sold commercially in the United States now require less water, less pesticides, and less fertilizer. Given Americans’ love affair with lawns, meadows, and athletic fields, these advances are making a real difference to the nation’s environmental well-being.

Case in point: Grasses developed at Rutgers make it possible to reduce the use of fungicides on golf course fairways and putting greens from every two weeks to just twice a year. “We’re at the leading edge, and we’re trying to stay there,” says Meyer. “The real impact is when I go down to Lowe’s or Home Depot and I see the products from Rutgers in the elite packages [of high-end grasses]. That’s where you really find out you’ve had an impact.”

But why Inner Mongolia? Why Ireland, Morocco, Sicily, and other far-off destinations, where Rutgers turfgrass specialists, graduate students, and international partners often head out in vans or jeeps for expeditions of 1,000 kilometers or more, seeking out patches of grass in meadows and mountainsides? That’s the brainchild of Meyer, who realized the grasses in the United States could be improved by returning to the Old World.

There’s a fair amount of natural history in our lawns and meadows, it turns out. As it happens, most of the grasses growing on lawns, golf courses, and soccer fields in the United States are not native species; they were brought to the continent by European settlers hundreds of years ago. In essence, the genetic resources of North American grasses are limited to what the settlers brought here. To expand the genetic stock, with the aim of finding grasses with specific qualities—resistant to certain diseases, say, or requiring less water—you need to travel to the Old World to locate different varieties of the grasses grown here, such as bent grass, tall fescue, and bluegrass.

“Just by using the inherent genetic traits in the grass, we can improve the species,” explains Stacy Bonos, a former Rutgers Ph.D. student who is now an assistant professor and turfgrass breeder at Rutgers.

Of course, the process is a complex and painstaking one, involving the production of seed in Holland, planting tens of thousands of grass plants at a Rutgers research farm in Adelphia (in Monmouth County), and working with partners in the turfgrass industry to bring new varieties of seed to the marketplace.

Given the periods of drought expected from global warming, as well as other factors—including government regulation of pesticides and the watering of golf courses and lawns—the development of environment-friendly grasses is essential. As Bonos puts it, “We’re trying to look ahead and develop grasses for the future.”