By KRISTI MAROHN, Minnesota Public Radio News
FALCON HEIGHTS, Minnesota (AP) – As elsewhere in the state, rain has been sparse this summer at the University of Minnesota’s Turfgrass Research, Outreach and Education Center, making it an ideal year to study how well the grass can survive a drought.
University extension educator Maggie Reiter checks out a science experiment that looks more like a large patchwork quilt. She inspects a few dozen squares of grass varying in color from bright green to dark brown, all planted with different combinations of green seeds.
One particularly stunted area is completely brown, with weeds crawling along the edge. It is Kentucky bluegrass, the dominant grass in most lawns in Minnesota.
“It’s what we’ve used historically, as long as we’ve been able to fertilize and give it enough water,” Reiter said. “But now we’re at that point where we need to start conserving the resources we use on lawns. “
Reiter points to a different square planted with a seed called hard fescue, which is in a class of perennial grasses known as fine fescues, Minnesota Public Radio reported.
“It’s completely green, (and has) maintained a great density,” she said. “No weeds in this patch at all.”
Minnesota has more than 780,000 acres of sod, Reiter said. These are mostly residential lawns, but it’s also common in parks, golf courses, athletic fields, cemeteries, and along roadsides. All of this grass requires a lot of water, fertilizer, and mowing.
The university’s sod team researches and promotes different types of sod that require less water and chemicals to thrive.
Research is getting more attention this year when water is scarce. Cities in Minnesota have passed outright restrictions or bans on watering lawns.
This has been difficult for Kentucky bluegrass lawns, which require a lot of water and can go dormant quickly in drought conditions.
“It’s something we’ve seen a lot this year,” Reiter said. “I think it has made people consider more of what they have in their lawns and what is needed to keep it up to the expectations they have.”
Fine fescues are better able to tolerate variations in precipitation, which climatologists say Minnesota is likely to experience more in the future.
And although water has historically been an abundant resource in Minnesota, there are fears that increased irrigation of crops and lawns could deplete underground aquifers faster than they replenish.
“I would say that we hope 2021 is kind of a wake-up call for home lawn owners in Minnesota,” said Shane Evans, lawn water conservation educator with the Turf Research Group. .
Evans said it was important for homeowners to continue their efforts this summer to reduce their water use, even in years with sufficient rain.
“If you can kind of keep that ‘I have to be more efficient’ or ‘I have to hold onto a little more’ mindset, that will help you years later,” he said.
Through a funding partnership with the Metropolitan Council, college educators have tried to spread the word about better ways to plant and manage grass. They visited over a dozen communities, held field days, and talked to people at the Minnesota State Fair.
This summer, it was easy to get people to talk about their lawns, Reiter said.
“I said, ‘How’s your lawn this year? ” “, did she say. “And that’s a lot of, ‘Oh, so terrible,’ or ‘It’s completely dead.’ “
Reiter suggests that when it’s time to reseed or repair their lawns, people should consider using fine fescues because of their many benefits.
As well as requiring less water and fertilizer, they are also more shade and salt tolerant, and grow slower, so they don’t need to be mowed as often.
But old habits can be hard to change. Fine fescue seeds can be more difficult to find, especially in turf, which city codes often require in new residential developments.
One of the biggest hurdles is the cultural norm that the grass should be perfectly green and neat, regardless of the cost, Reiter said.
“We need to change our expectations of what a lawn is,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be lush green grass all summer long. A little browning is OK. In many cases, the grass simply goes dormant.
Reseeding with more drought tolerant grass this fall could be a way for homeowners to keep their lawns a little greener for years to come without being greedy.
The sod team also works to educate homeowners on more water-efficient ways to manage their lawns, such as raising their mower height to at least 3 inches and watering less frequently, which helps promote deeper root growth.
“A lot of people don’t understand that having a strong root system is probably the best thing for your lawn, especially in these times of drought,” Evans said.
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