One key aspect to the long-term viability of natural grass sports turf management is the continued development of new and improved turfgrass varieties. One of the experts on the forefront of this process is Sod Solutions Director of Research Roberto Gurgel, a turfgrass breeder and researcher who developed Empire zoysiagrass.

SFM recently spoke with Gurgel about what goes into developing new turfgrass varieties:

“First of all, it’s a very long process,” Gurgel explains. “It takes about seven to nine years, from start to finish. You start with [a turfgrass variety] that’s good and try to incorporate other characteristics into it. Or, you start with two parents that aren’t so great, but each one has a desirable characteristic.

“Let’s say one is very disease- resistant and the other has a very fine texture. You hope the newer generation will have a very fine texture and also be disease resistant. That’s not always the case, though. You start selecting the parents and then making the crosses. After you do the crosses, a huge task is evaluating the seedlings; sometimes you have thousands and thousands to screen. After this first generation is screened, you collect a few hundred individuals to move forward, and you try to make evaluations you may not have been able to see on the first screen.

“For instance, consider shade tolerance – you can’t screen for this with thousands and thousands of seedlings. You can do it with a more restricted number, though. You continue screening, almost like going through a funnel. It takes time. The end user, like an athletic field manager, also has to evaluate it. And you have to keep in mind that this turfgrass will be produced at a sod farm. So, it has to be consistently able to be made into large rolls. It also needs to regrow well after it’s harvested.

“This is a very meticulous process.”

Sod Solutions — headquartered in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina — has been identifying, testing and introducing improved turfgrass selections since 1994.