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Better Grasses Grow with Better Science

y2kogo2.gif (3632 bytes)This story is another in a weekly series called "Planting the Seed: Science for the New Millennium." These stories feature ideas and advances in agricultural and environmental sciences with implications for the future.

Efficiency is the key to success, even in designer grasses.

"The new grasses are all being developed with the goal of maintaining turf quality with less input of water, pesticides and, to some degree, fertilizer," said Wayne Hanna, a U.S. Department of Agriculture turf grass breeder.

Hanna, working closely with the University of Georgia Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton, Ga., helped usher in some of the most successful new Bermuda grasses and centipede grasses. Most of the triploid hybrid Bermuda grasses used world-wide were developed in Tifton.

On the Market

Two of Hanna's Bermuda grasses already on the market include TifEagle and TifSport. TifEagle is a super dwarf Bermuda grass for golf course greens. TifSport is a more cold-hardy grass for sports fields. Parts of more than 300 golf courses throughout the South planted TifEagle in 1999.

TifEagle was in testing for eight years before it was released. TifSport took 11 years.

"We genetically incorporate the genes that will give resistance to the major pests and drought,and maintain acceptable turfgrass quality under less water," Hanna says.

"Most of our screening and breeding is conducted under conditions of minimum fertility," he said. "We select genotypes that will eventually become cultivars to produce an acceptable quality turf with less fertilizer. We need grasses that more efficiently use the nutrients."

UGA Turf Team

Hanna's work is part of the turfgrass program conducted by 14 scientists in UGA's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. The turf team develops new varieties, screens current varieties for tolerance to environmental stresses and studies insects and diseases.

These scientists are studying a long list of potential new grasses and turf. It includes 132 tall fescues, 30 Zoysia grasses, 20 buffalo grasses and 32 Bermuda grasses.

The Georgia Experiment Station in Griffin focuses on screening turfgrasses for tolerance in high-stress situations in the Southeast. They include high soil acidity, high soil bulk density, heavy clay soils and high heat and extreme drought stresses. They have screened more than 500 cultivars representing most turfgrass species grown throughout the world.

In 1992 Ronny Duncan, a turfgrass breeder in Griffin, set up the only breeding program in the world for seashore paspalum. He has released two paspalum grasses: Sea Isle I, for golf fairways, tees and sports turf, was developed from genetic material found in Argentina; Sea Isle 2000, for golf course greens, originated from genetic material collected on the west coast of Florida.

Unique Studies

"These grasses are unique," says Gil Landry, a UGA extension turf specialist. "Nobody else in the world is dealing with paspalum. They tolerate much higher levels of salt (up to ocean level salts -- 34,400 ppm) in soil and water. The paspalum turfgrasses are native to coastal areas in similar climates throughout the world."

The grasses are scheduled to be released in the summer of 2000. A book titled "Seashore Paspalum - The Environmental Turfgrass" by Duncan will be available in February 2000. This book contains scientific facts about the grass and management information, including irrigation with sea water. The book will be available from Ann Arbor Press, Chelsea, Mich.

A few months ago, Duncan released a new fall fescue adapted to Georgia's growing conditions. It should be available to the public in a few years.

New grass varieties must thrive under the same conditions homeowners face to maintain a healthy lawn.

"I'm trying to take my own advice," Hanna says. "We need to learn how to use less water and less pesticides in the future. It's not if we want to, it's that we will have to."

Duncan agrees.

"Seashore paspalum will add a new dimension in that all types of alternative water resources (effluent from wastewater and recycled water, brackish water or sea water) can be used for irrigation. This turfgrass tolerates wet, boggy areas. And, yet with good management, it has excellent drought tolerance. This grass will require minimal pesticides and fertilizer so it will be very environmentally friendly," Duncan says.

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