New grasses are being used in new places and in new ways

FedExField, home of the Washington Redskins, was recently converted to Latitude 36 bermudagrass, a new turfgrass variety from the Oklahoma State University’s turfgrass breeding program.
Photo courtesy of Sod Solutions.

If you’ve been using the same type or even the same variety of turfgrass on your field for years, even decades, it may be time for a change. We checked in with some researchers, developers and suppliers to find out what new grasses they’re offering for sports field applications, and how some nontraditional turfgrasses are being used in new places and in new ways.

“We’ve recommended and we’ve been seeing more use of both our turf-type annual and turf-type intermediate [transitional] ryegrasses,” states Dr. Leah Brilman, director of research and technical services for Pickseed/Seed Research of Oregon (http://www.pickseed.com). “Both of them germinate faster than perennial ryegrasses, and they’ll come up under cooler soil conditions, so they’re good for repairs late in the season as part of, or in place of, a blend with perennial rye. So they’re very good for helping you keep cover, especially in fall and spring.”

In addition, she notes, these grasses are also good for those who have a bluegrass base and want to keep that. “Perennial ryegrass often tends to over-dominate bluegrass; but the turf-type annuals and the intermediates try to go away during the summer months, so your bluegrass can get stronger.” In other words, these grasses can get you through the fall and spring, while giving your bluegrass a chance to recover.

These grasses tend to be “bigger seeded,” which helps them germinate quickly, but in general they would be used at the same rates as a perennial rye, and they tend to be a little cheaper,” Brilman says. Some newer examples of turf – type ryegrasses include TXR (Pickseed), Candidame and Quickston (DLF International Seeds) and Annuity (Seed Research of Oregon). Examples of transitional ryegrasses include Transfix (Seed Research of Oregon) and Transist 2600 (Pickseed).

Barenbrug’s Turf Blue HGT is a quick-establishing, aggressive bluegrass. It is seen here at the Maryland Soccerplex.
Photo courtesy of Barenbrug USA.

“We’re also seeing a lot more interest in our turf-type tall fescues, which have been developed so they come up and establish much quicker than old types did. And they aggressively tiller more rapidly,” states Brilman. “This allows them to be used on lower-maintenance sports fields. They are almost as quick as a perennial rye from a seedling stage, and yet they tend to need lower inputs: they’re more drought tolerant, they need less nitrogen, and they just have a lot of stress tolerance.” These grasses can be used to establish a new field or to repair existing fields, she says. However, tall fescues stop germinating well earlier than perennial ryegrass does, so that’s another case where it might be good to do repairs with the turf-type annual ryegrasses, Brilman adds.

John Rector, turf product manager with Barenbrug USA (http://www.barusa.com), says a significant portion of the parent company’s research efforts in Holland have been focused on sports field grasses. “We’re looking at traffic tolerance and the ability to recover. Virtually everything we do in Europe and here in the United States is based on that premise,” he states. Regardless of the type of grass, it must exhibit these qualities, he stresses. “Obviously, it’s extremely important to the sports turf industry because of the amount of use our fields get; not so much on the professional level, but when you start talking high schools and parks and recreation the overuse is significant.”

Two of Barenbrug’s products in particular have recently gained attention in the sports turf market, reports Rector. The first is RPR, a “regenerating perennial ryegrass” whereby the plants form determinative stolons, making it distinctly different from other perennial ryegrasses. “Not only does it have the ability to regenerate itself with the stolons, we’ve also geared it toward great traffic tolerance,” Rector explains.

RPR is typically used as a permanent turf (and mixes well with Kentucky bluegrass) rather than as an overseeding option, but Rector says he’s seen it used for overseeding on baseball fields with great results. “Whereas a traditional ryegrass overseed would really start getting chewed up by spring baseball, this doesn’t; it gives you superior traffic tolerance.” Sports field managers who are trying this aren’t concerned that the persistent ryegrass doesn’t transition out because it’s so wear tolerant and can provide great field conditions before the bermudagrass has a chance to kick in.

Barenbrug’s HGT bluegrasses are also proving to be a popular choice, even across the transition zone from Oklahoma to North Carolina. “It has superior summer patch resistance, which is a devastating disease to bluegrasses, and it’s very aggressive,” says Rector. In addition, he notes that it can be established and played on very quickly.

While cold-tolerant bermudagrasses have been installed in northern parts of the transition zone in recent years, Rector thinks the improved characteristics of grasses like RPR and HGT will cause many sports turf managers in these areas – even those who may not have any experience with perennial ryegrass or bluegrass fields – to experiment with them.

“They are also extremely persistent and heat tolerant. We’ve been amazed to see them perform so well through the summers in the transition zone,” he says.

NorthBridge bermudagrass, developed by Oklahoma State University, is now being used by the Kansas City Royals.
Photo courtesy of Sod Solutions.

Zeon zoysia grass from Bladerunner Farms (http://www.bladerunnerfarms.com) has been used in a number of sports field applications at the high school level and also by the Texas Rangers, says David Doguet, company president. Other major league teams are also looking at converting their fields to zoysia, including Bladerunner’s L1F variety, he notes. “It’s been used mainly on baseball fields so far; it hasn’t been used much on soccer or football fields yet, but we see that coming,” states Doguet. “It has really good wear tolerance; the texture and the playability – it’s really opening the eyes of people. I believe in the future you’re going to see a lot more zoysia used on sports fields.”

Part of the challenge is just getting people to look at the advancements that have been made in zoysia with a grass like Zeon, says Doguet: “A lot of people have grown up with bermudagrass, so that’s all they think about, and it’s hard to get them to change. But now many people in the sports turf profession have been to our farm and some of our sites and they’re saying, ‘Why haven’t we been using zoysia all along?'”

Doguet says that, according to standard research charts, zoysia is comparable in water use to hybrid bermudagrass; but he says that zoysia needs far less water than those grasses when the goal is to achieve top-level playing conditions. “That’s the real question you need to ask: How much water do you need to get a quality playing surface?” he emphasizes.

Two other new grasses that are expanding options for sports field managers are Latitude 36 and NorthBridge, releases from Oklahoma State that are licensed by Sod Solutions (http://www.sodsolutions.com). “They’re very similar, with some subtle differences, and they’re really pushing that warm-season turfgrass line to the north,” says Justin Wallace, director of communications for Sod Solutions. He notes that both grasses are being grown at various sod farms in different parts of the country, and the choice between them often seems to come down to individual preferences. For example, the Washington Redskins went with Latitude 36, as has the University of Virginia and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Kansas City Chiefs and Royals both have NorthBridge, as do some minor league fields in Kentucky.

“They have a much better appearance, aesthetically, than Patriot (an earlier bermudagrass release),” says Wallace of one important characteristic the new grasses share. “They both have very fine texture, and the wear tolerance is very good, as well.”

He says there are some instances where cool-season turf fields are being removed and replaced with the new bermudagrasses. This extremely cold winter has been a big test for grasses pushing northward, “but so far, everything we’re seeing is coming out fine,” reports Wallace. “The next question is: How far north can we push these? There will be places where it’s just too cold, but they’re giving options to people who didn’t have them before, or who were afraid to go with a warm-season grass type.”

Latitude 36 and NorthBridge can also be used in hotter southern climates where bermudagrasses are more the norm. “They have a very similar color to 419 bermudagrass, so you can patch a field with these grasses very easily,” says Wallace, noting that it’s more difficult to do so with Celebration, another Sod Solutions bermudagrass, which has a distinctly darker color. These new grasses are also maintained more like 419 than the super-aggressive Celebration, he adds.

“We see a general trend back toward bluegrass here in the Midwest, and with that, drought tolerance and salt tolerance seem to be of high interest to a lot of sports field managers,” says Mark Grundman, senior technical manager with Jacklin Seed (http://www.simplot.com).

He says there are cases where park managers are being asked to mix effluent water with fresh water for irrigation; and with the dropping water levels due to drought conditions, well water has higher salt concentrations. Grundman adds that pH levels are continuing to increase, as are the calcium-to-magnesium ratios. “We’re seeing some serious problems with some water sources,” he states.

With that in mind, Jacklin has a series of bluegrasses designed to tolerate high salt levels and poor water quality. “Everest and Rugby II are two varieties that have done very well in these conditions,” says Grundman. In addition, there are two new grasses – still known by their test numbers, J1770 and 1853 – that will soon be released.

Sports field managers are also currently interested in lateral-spread ryegrass, especially salt-tolerant varieties, notes Grundman. “We have a new variety of perennial ryegrass called Sunrise that is extremely tolerant of salt and high-pH situations. And we have a newer variety called Monterey IV, which has proven to be one of the most winter-hardy varieties of ryegrasses that I’ve ever seen, and [it] also has an extremely high salt tolerance,” he says.

Grundman knows a number of sports turf managers who are mixing lateral-spread ryegrasses. Jacklin Seed offers a blend of two such grasses, called CSI-Rye. “When mixed with more aggressive type varieties of bluegrasses, like Rugby II, this seems to give extremely strong lateral spread capabilities and movement back into areas that have been damaged,” he observes. He says the mix is being used on new field installations and to repair existing fields.

Part of the challenge, says Grundman, is to get people to consider ryegrass in a new way. “When people think of ryegrass, they mostly think of a bunch-type grass. This is a completely different plant that actually sends out lateral stolons that will move in quite quickly after damage occurs, in goalmouth areas on soccer fields, for instance, or the areas in the outfield where outfielders stand, or the center of football fields,” he explains. “It’s becoming very popular to mix these lateral-spread ryegrasses in conjunction with some of the more aggressive bluegrasses.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. You can contact him at pwhite@meadowridgemedia.com.