July 23, 2019 | 73° F

Rutgers researchers strive to produce environmentally friendly grass

From a farm on Cook Campus to the White House Lawn, grass Rutgers researchers produced has come a long way.

Researchers at the Center for Turfgrass Science at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station have been working to find more environmentally friendly breeds of grass.

Stacy Bonos, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, is one of these researchers.

“Our goal is to be able to provide home lawns or athletic fields or golf course turf that require less input,” Bonos said. “You want to be able to still have a green lawn to look at or to be able to play on that does not have those additional inputs.” 

The team, led by William Meyer, director of the Rutgers Turfgrass Breeding Project and a professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology, strives to breed grasses that are immune to diseases, he said. The aim of this project is to provide the public with grass that is easy to care for and still aesthetically appealing. 

Meyer’s team keeps a watchful eye on all the grasses, checking to see which ones possess desirable traits such as disease immunity and drought tolerance. These breeds are carefully selected and mated with breeds with other desirable traits. 

 “We incorporate all of those traits into the new varieties we develop so that the new grasses we develop don’t require as many inputs,” Bonos said.

The inputs required for the successful and healthy growth of grass, such as nitrogen and water, are becoming very difficult to come by across the nation. As a result, demand for what the researchers are producing has skyrocketed, Meyer said. 

To deal with this rising demand, the researchers send the seeds of their most successful grasses to seed companies to be mass-produced. These companies then sell them to consumers around the globe, Bonos said. 

“I guess the difference is when I started 30 years ago, nitrogen was much more reasonably priced, [and] there was plenty of water,” Meyer said. “We certainly have grasses that are improved with their performance and their appearance with less input.”

Grasses produced in New Jersey have a tendency to be more successful in other locations, Bonos said. Hot and humid summers put the grass under very stressful conditions, allowing only the strongest to survive. Of these, only the healthiest-looking grasses are then selected for further research.

The grasses are produced at one of two research farms: Horticulture Farm II off Ryders Lane on Cook Campus and a farm south of campus in Freehold, New Jersey, Bonos said.

“No one really realizes that we have probably one of the largest turf grass breeding programs in the world, and it’s right here in New Jersey.” Bonos said. “Our grasses are used in a lot of different places, but probably nobody really knows that.”

The grasses produced at Rutgers have traveled far and wide — from across the warm regions of the United States to all around Europe. The turf has been used in events like the Super Bowl and World Cup, as well as at Yankee Stadium and on the White House Lawn. 

The goal of the program has been to produce turf that is both environmentally friendly and visually appealing. 

Shyam Kalaria, a School of Engineering first-year student, said better grass would make it through long winters.

“It costs a lot more to treat grass now, normally,” Kalaria said. “Better grass would last longer through the winter, so you don’t have to worry about it.”

Harshel Patel

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