Turf grasses: A New Jersey specialty

Mildred Pierce/Flickr

Mildred Pierce/Flickr

September is prime time for starting or renovating lawns and it may be the only time homeowners give lawn grass a second thought.

Oh, sure, we want it green and neat but rarely do we think about grass with the specificity we devote to other plants we grow. What type and variety is it? Who knows? It’s just there, a carpet of green that’s mostly treated as background unless something goes wrong. That’s a typical but narrow point of view.      

Turf grass actually is big – really big. A NASA study of the continental U.S. released last year puts the total area devoted to turf grass at 63,000 square miles, three times larger than any other irrigated crop. Noticed or not, grass is everywhere. It follows that there’s an enormous market out there for durable, good-looking grass around homes and at sports fields, campuses, parks and golf courses.

True, there’s debate these days about the value of lawns and their environmental impact. Certainly, it’s encouraging that more people are turning portions of their properties into rain gardens, food-producing plots and stands of native plants that serve the needs of wildlife and pollinators. Those trends are endorsed by every group devoted to environmental and wildlife causes.

But lawns aren’t going away soon. They do prevent erosion, cool the air and make swaths of our backyards hospitable to foot traffic and child’s play. There are, it follows, real benefits to producing grass strains that require less irrigation, less fertilizer and a reduced need for chemical treatments to remain healthy.  

New Jersey has stepped up, claiming a nationally prominent role in designing new grass varieties for temperate climates around the world. The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station maintains several sites where turf grass is grown, managed and studied. Under the direction of William Meyer, director of the Turfgrass Breeding Program, 440 distinct new varieties have been introduced in the past 20 years in cooperation with 20 commercial grass seed companies.

The introductions have generated average of $3 million a year in royalties for campus research programs over the past 20 years – not bad when you consider that before it took the leap into the Big Ten, Rutgers’ football program ran mostly in the red over the same period.

Researchers aim for new and improved traits – disease resistance, high seed production and rich color, for instance. They also are working on drought resistance, using an automated cover to deprive selected varieties of moisture from rain and dew. Since the future may bring more widespread use of waste water for irrigation, tolerance to salts and other pollutants also is tested.

The program has also produced improved strains of ryegrass, developed fescues suitable for lawns and identified endophytes – fungi and bacteria – that live within grasses and offer protection from many diseases.  Rutgers consistently excels in National Turfgrass Evaluation Trials, producing as many as 90 percent of the top 30 fescue and ryegrass varieties and 50 percent of the top 25 bluegrass cultivars in many recent years.

Lawn grass seeds                                          Matt Levin/Flickr

Lawn grass seeds                                          Matt Levin/Flickr

Grasses generated at Rutgers have enjoyed long popularity with homeowners and landscapers, too  – ‘Manhattan’ ryegrass,  ‘Midnight’ bluegrass and ‘Rebel’ fescue might ring bells. These grasses and other Rutgers introductions can be found growing in such prestigious places as Yankee Stadium, the Augusta National Golf Course, Manhattan’s Central Park and the White House, to name a few.

Most homeowners are aiming for practical, not perfect, in their lawn care regimes. The soundest advice comes from the people at the Center for Turfgrass Science in New Brunswick, who have made turf management their life’s study.

You can share the fruits of their research in free fact sheets distributed by the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service. See publications online at the Rutgers website or visit your county extension office.

James Murphy, lead researcher at the center and a professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology, offers these quick pointers:

·         1. Buy quality seed and choose the right grass variety for your site. Tall and fine fescues tolerate shade. Bluegrass does poorly in sandy soils without regular irrigation and fertilization. Perennial ryegrasses germinate quickly but are not low maintenance.

·         2. Have soil tested and correct the level of acidity with lime if necessary. (“If the pH balance is off, sod grasses can’t access nutrients,” Murphy says.) Top dress established lawns with organic material (compost, humus) to give them a boost.

·         3. Mow correctly and leave grass about three inches high to thicken turf and shade roots. Many homeowners mow too low, leaving lawns vulnerable to weed invasion.

         4. Fertilize in accordance with New Jersey’s 2011 fertilizer law, which bans phosphorus and prohibits fertilization from November 15 to March 1, when lawns aren’t actively growing. If you fertilize only once a year, do it between August and October.

        5. Have patience when establishing a new lawn. It takes two or three seasons to grow a thick and uniform turf. This is especially true of the lower-maintenance fescues, which spread more slowly than rye or bluegrass.