Heavy duty grasses could replace artificial turf on athletic fields

A research team kneeling beside a steel-studded traffic simulator behind a tractor.
Research team members Xin Xin, Jon Schnore, and Anna Hulbert at WSU's grass breeding farm use specialized tools, like this steel-studded traffic simulator, to test blends of grasses for heavy wear.

Researchers at Washington State University are stomping, poking, and gouging fields of experimental grasses to find the toughest living turf for future athletic fields.

Working at parks and schools around the state, crop scientist Michael Neff and stormwater ecologist Kate Kraszewski launched a two-year effort this fall to identify and breed hardy blends of grasses that can stand up to heavy, constant wear.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to make real turf resilient enough to deal with the impact that comes with sports,” said Neff, professor and head of WSU’s grass breeding program.

Backed by the Washington State Turfgrass Seed Association and supported by $695,000 in funding from the State of Washington, Neff and colleagues will plant sod fields next spring at Puyallup, Mount Vernon, Wenatchee, Othello, Prosser, and Pullman, Wash., with grass blends selected for their ability to survive and self-repair under punishment.

With some U.S. cities limiting use of artificial turf, Neff and Kraszewski want to improve and promote living fields.

“As communities become more urban and we use our public spaces more frequently, we need grass to keep up with the demands we put on it,” Kraszewski said. “Grass can help our parks playfields work harder for recreation and for our environment.”  

Scientists Kate Kraszewski and Michael Neff work at WSU's Perennial Grass Breeding and Ecology Farm. The two lead a new research effort to select hardy breeds of grasses that can replace artificial turf and serve on bust playfields and plazas.
Scientists Kate Kraszewski and Michael Neff work at WSU’s Perennial Grass Breeding and Ecology Farm. The two lead a new research effort to select hardy breeds of grasses that can replace artificial turf and serve on bust playfields and plazas.

Putting grass to the test

Heavy use damages grass fields, as many cleated feet rip up the sod and destroy the roots. That damage is compounded by environmental stresses that differ on either side of the Cascades.

To solve challenges, Neff plants blends of grass with different strengths. Kentucky bluegrass, for instance, grows well in the inland west and can repair itself from the rhizome, its network of roots and underground stems.

The research team will examine how well and quickly grass grows back after simulated wear, as well as its playability: how firm, thick, and safe it is to play on. The most resilient varieties will be incorporated in the WSU grass breeding program.

To test the blends, scientists at WSU’s Perennial Grass Breeding and Ecology Farm at Pullman roll out a menagerie of specialized equipment that simulates heavy use: among them, an “earth cannon” that drops a metal probe to measure soil compaction, a cleated device that gauges torque needed to tear up sod, and a tractor-towed cylinder studded with hundreds of metal bolts.

“You drag it across the field at a certain speed a certain number of times, and it mimics the wear on the 50-yard line after a football game,” Neff said.

An assistant professor in the School of Design and Construction, Kraszewski studies how hardy grass pavers can protect water quality in plazas and parking lot. At the turfgrass farm, she places heavy weights on grasses and gauges how well they filter an analogue of stormwater runoff.

“We’re still don’t know the full capabilities of grass in working landscapes,” she said. “I’m interested in grass as a friend to water. I gather data that helps planners and designers know what grasses can meet their needs.”

Nearly all Kentucky bluegrass seed sown in the world is grown in the Inland Northwest. This new project establishes research plots west of the Cascades, helping WSU scientists gain new insights into western Washington grasses.

“Washington is one of the largest producers of grass seed in the world,” Kraszweski said. “We’re working closely with the growers to better serve our state and the nation at large, so we can keep our public spaces green and grassy.”

The researchers plan to partner with parks departments, schools, and colleges across the state, helping organizations get more use out of their playfields and testing their ideas on a larger scale.

“Grass is everywhere, yet people rarely notice it,” Neff said. “I love working with grasses, trying to solve society’s problems associated with grasses and lawns, and elevating its importance in people’s minds.”

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