University of Minnesota researcher pushes for drought-resistant grasses on campus

WCCO TV in Minneapolis reports, “Drought isn’t just a concern in California, other states have seen conditions reach a concerning level. Sam Bauer, a turfgrass expert at the University of Minnesota envisions an extreme make- over at the University. He’s hoping to eventually replace all 200 acres of campus grass with drought-resistant grass.

“With our typical species like blue grass or rye grass, you might be using 30 million gallons or more to maintain that in a year,” said Bauer. So to cut way down on water usage, Bauer is putting his stock in fescues. Namely, “tall fescue grass.” Tall fescues look similar to Kentucky Blue Grass, which is what you see on most Minnesota lawns, but the University recommends tall fescues because of their deeper root system.

“Tall fescue has a bigger reservoir to draw water from thanks to that deeper root system,” said Bauer.

WCCO reported that you can already find the grass growing on parts of campus. In fact, Bauer said last summer, patches of tall fescues only needed to be watered once. Tall fescue grass seed has only been on the market for about three years, but it’s quickly gaining popularity.

“If you went to these tall fescues, maybe you would be watering them once a month,” Bauer said. “So there’s big potential there to save 30,000 gallons in a month.” And Bauer thinks a drought-ridden state like California could benefit from the type of grass they grow in the lab, especially in Northern California.

At the university’s turfgrass research center, fescues have been put through an extreme test. An automated rainout shelter imitates a drought. And it keeps water off the grass for weeks, yet fescues remain green.

Even “fine fescue grass,” which is a combination of five grasses mixed together, is becoming the grass of choice at many Minnesota golf courses. Fine fescue has a shorter root system, but they don’t require much water in order to thrive. “These fine fescues can really provide firm and fast conditions,” Bauer said. “That’s what we are seeing at a lot of our major golf tournaments, which are now being held on fine fescues.” They’re also becoming more available to property owners. Three years ago there weren’t any fine fescue sod farms in Minnesota. Now there are five.

Bauer said you may pay more for fescue seed, but you’ll save money and your lawn down the road. “I would say you can certainly reduce your usage to a half, to even a quarter, of what you are currently working with,” Bauer said. He stated the U of M currently has 50 different turfgrass studies going on at the research center. He said within five years there will be at least two new types of grass seed that will require even less water than fescues.