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Turfgrass farm debuts grasses of tomorrow with inaugural field day

Various plots of bluegrass in a turfgrass research field.
Irrigated research plots comparing different, diverse types of bluegrass. Most Kentucky bluegrass seed is grown in the Inland Northwest.

Growing tall just east of Pullman, experimental grasses have the potential to produce seed prolifically, save water, and become beautiful additions to Northwest landscapes.

Grass seed producers and members of the public get their first chance to see these trials and tour Washington State University’s new Perennial Grass Breeding and Ecology Farm in a field day, 9 a.m. to noon Thursday, June 9, at Pullman.

“It’s the first time we’re going live,” said Michael Neff, head of WSU’s turfgrass research and education program. “We built this entire farm during COVID.”

The new farm replaces the program’s previous home on Fairway Road, now under commercial development. It gives scientists a place to breed and study improved varieties of Kentucky bluegrass and other promising grasses in service to seed producers in eastern Washington and northern Idaho. The best performers could wind up in lawns, sports fields, highway margins, and land reclaimed from industrial use or natural disasters, worldwide.

Michael Neff

“About 90% of the bluegrass seed used in the world is grown in the Inland Northwest,” said Neff, a professor with WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “With our cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers, we have an ideal climate for high quality seed production.”

The WSU breeding program prioritizes seed germination and yield: grasses need to be able to consistently produce a good crop of seed. After that, Neff seeks desirable qualities such as a great appearance, low maintenance and water needs, and tolerance for drought, acidic, or salty soils. Kentucky bluegrass needs a significant spate of cold winter weather to properly flower, so an exciting development for Neff’s program is bluegrass that can flower in milder conditions. That could help farmers facing warmer winters.

Scientists are also looking at the use of plant hormones to repair damaged turf, such as heavily used sports fields, and studying several native grasses for use on reclaimed land or highway margins. One, Prairie Junegrass, can grow in a desert thanks to its very low water needs.

“It’s also stunningly beautiful,” Neff said. 

The field day gives Neff, students, and colleagues a venue to “show the phenomenal amount of diversity in Kentucky bluegrass,” while showing their ongoing breeding and turf management efforts. “WSU is in the turf business—we’re working to support seed producers and the end users of those seeds.”

Grass instead of pavement

During the tour, Professor Ian Burke will discuss weed management in turfgrass for seed production, while Kate Kraszewski, stormwater ecologist in WSU’s Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, will show research plots testing hardworking grasses that could replace pavement in urban landscapes.

“Parking lots require a lot of carbon, but they don’t sink any of it,” she said. “Grass pavers do.”

Kate Kraszewski

At the farm, she’s been testing different grass blends to see which are the most resilient. Future experiments will examine how pavers made with living grasses can handle vehicle traffic and capture road runoff.

“Ultimately, grass can provide a healthy alternative to traditional parking lots,” Kraszewski said.

The Field Day is sponsored by the Washington Turfgrass Seed Commission, which funds grass breeding and research at WSU.

Visitors will be welcomed at 9 a.m. Tours begin at 10 a.m., examining studies of vernalization genes and flowering in Kentucky bluegrass; weed management in turfgrass for seed; turfgrass design for residential and urban landscapes; and performance of grass pavers for stormwater infiltration and traffic stress A sponsored lunch will be held at noon, with the Seed Commission meeting to follow.

The farm is located just off Terre View Drive north of the Pullman-Moscow Highway intersection.

All are invited to attend. RSVP to Prof. Michael Neff by emailing to mmneff@wsu.edu.

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