A cool-season bluegrass called Poa supina might literally fill a niche on northern athletic fields. Like many grasses, supine bluegrass spreads with aboveground shoots called stolons. But because its stolon growth is faster and more tenacious than Kentucky bluegrass's or ryegrass's, it can infiltrate worn areas in front of goal cages and in midfield that normally have to be patched with sod or reseeded. And traffic won't keep it down: In studies simulating playing-field wear and tear, supine bluegrass out-competed Kentucky bluegrass, spreading from 5 to 50 percent of the field area in just one year. After three years, it covered 95 percent of test plots.
But for every advantage a certain grass offers, there are drawbacks. Supine bluegrass, for example, may not be green enough for some grass connoisseurs. "Americans have the idea that if it's light green, it isn't healthy," says Kevin Morris, president of the National Turfgrass Federation in Beltsville, Maryland.
That's where breeding comes in. By repeatedly crossing plants with the darkest color, turf breeders can improve the appearance of a grass like Poa supina in just a few generations. A fine-leafed standard called tall fescue, for example, has so benefited from decades of breeding that it scarcely resembles its ancestor, a coarse-leafed pasture grass. To get resilient grasses, turf specialists sometimes let nature do the breeding for them, combing cemeteries, parks, roadsides, and old estates for strains that may have survived decades of abuse or neglect. One of Brede's colleagues found Idaho bent grass on a Superfund site upstate. He says its tolerance of heavy-metal contamination may suit it for mine-reclamation projects.
Seeds from new or newfound varieties can be sent to the Turfgrass Federation for inclusion in the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program, which distributes hundreds of cultivars a year to land-grant universities in the United States and Canada. Participating institutions test each subject with methods such as pH shocking, trampling, drought simulations, mowing trials, and weed invasions. Only the strongest survive, and test results are posted on the federation's Web site.
Meanwhile, agrochemical companies like Scotts and Monsanto are going straight to the grass genome to get results. Genetically modified turf might produce its own pesticides, flourish in the winter, or grow more slowly, reducing the need for mowing. These projects have already drawn fire from activists who see grass as the obvious target for a not-in-my-backyard backlash against genetically modified crops. Conventional turf breeders have also expressed skepticism about the promise of genetic engineering. Unlike other commercial crops, Brede points out, grass is a perennial. So genetically modified lawns are going to be harder to contain than such seasonal crops as genetically modified corn, and the economic exchanges involved are going to be trickier than a farmer's yearly outlay for seed.
"No one's figured out whether home- owners would be willing to send in a check every year for the privilege of having a genetically modified lawn," he says. "I doubt that they would."
But stranger things have probably transpired in the quest for the ideal lawn. In that regard, turf breeders, agrochemical companies, and obsessed homeowners might agree: The grass could always be greener.
For a smorgasbord of links to educational and commercial turf Web sites, visit www.turf.uiuc.edu/turflinks/tl-1.html.