New tougher and greener grasses for a wider world

Posted: Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Grass, in the form of a closely trimmed sheet of green, is our most widely used form of landscaping. It is treasured and coddled like a national obsession, the amount spent on lawn care is tremendous.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

Fertilizers are presented with moss control, or as weed and feed, or winterizer, or with insect control or with crabgrass preventer or organic foods derived from poultry feathers or fish waste. Brand names proliferate. Every region has its favorite and as new conglomerates devour smaller producers, new mega-brands appear. The lawn care business is so powerful that organizations have focused on it as a growth area.

New niche markets are developed so special fertilizers can be sold. Spring treatments for each region are available or special fertilizers for home putting greens. There are ones for the meadow-lawn effect that blends low-growing herbs with clump-forming grasses, and ones with high iron content to keep the grass green without having it grow much.

Old seed blends are re-mixed with ever newer sounding names like "all-blue", "Alaska Hardy," "old traditional" and "golf." The big three cool season grasses, ryegrass, creeping fescue and bluegrass are still the basis of most of the blends we see in the northern tier, but each one is available in dozens of forms. The number of bluegrass varieties alone that are available on the market today is more than 200.

Seed breeding proceeds at a rapid pace too as geneticists race to develop resistance to fungus diseases that thrive in these well fed, well-irrigated, constantly juvenile plants of the lawn. Evolution is a dynamic force, and the millions of rich, green lawns we struggle to grow are an attractive haven for a wide variety of organisms. Most can be held back by some treatment, but the few that are resistant or immune can then thrive without competition. Their numbers get so great that some new treatment must be developed, or a new variety bred that will be unattractive to the predators.

The breeding of resistant varieties, or of using existing ones that have characteristics make them more desirable. Our local favorite, "nugget" bluegrass, is an example. It is derived from a wild bluegrass found growing on the beach at Nome. The characteristics that allowed it to live there; cold tolerance, salt spray tolerance and the ability to stay dormant during the long winters make it a great grass for us. Even though it is slow to establish and needs to be limed often, we gladly pay for its toughness and deep green quality.

The conditions this grass grew in naturally; loose soils with plenty of good drainage, describe the ideal setting for this grass in our lawns. We make lawn beds for these varieties by blending sand with heavier soils, or in the case of heavy use areas, by planting in pure sand. Many of the nicest local turf areas are growing in six inches of washed sand; they can be played on even during the heavy rains without turning to mud. But that is not the common situation here in Southeast.

Northern European areas such as Scotland, Sweden, Norway and Finland, have similar conditions to our own. They have similar grass species too; rough, tough, and able to thrive in sodden, heavy soils. One of these grasses, which we call Hairgrass, has been targeted as a new turf for our types of soils.

Our local species grows as a clump, we call it tufted hairgrass because it makes a round ball of foliage with tall flowering stalks in the late summer. The grass is so tough it can live frozen underwater for half the year, then thaw out and resume growth. A German company has developed a turf type of this species, which we will begin trialing this season.

If this turns out to be as good as the promotional literature, we will have a grass we can grow on the soils we have, without all the agony and with very minimal fertilizing.

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