PULLMAN — Researchers at Washington State University are trampling, trampling and uprooting experimental grass fields to find the toughest living turf for future sports fields.
Working in parks and schools across the state, crop scientist Michael Neff and stormwater ecologist Kate Krzyzewski launched a two-year effort this fall to identify and breed a robust mix of grasses that can withstand heavy, sustained erosion.
“We have to figure out a way to make real grass resilient enough to handle the impact that comes with sports,” said Neff, a professor and head of WSU’s turf breeding program.
With support from the Washington State Grass Seed Association and $695,000 in funding from the state of Washington, Neff and his colleagues will seed grass fields next spring in Puyallup, Mount Vernon, Wenatchee, Othello, Prosser and Pullman, Wash., with grass mixtures. They were selected for their ability to survive and self-repair under punishment.
With some American cities limiting the use of artificial turf, Neff and Krzyzewski want to improve and enhance living areas.
“As communities become urban and we use public spaces more frequently, we need turf to keep up with the demands we put on it,” Krzyzewski said. “Grass can help our park playgrounds work harder for our entertainment and for our environment.”
Putting grass to the test
Heavy use damages grass fields, as many flat feet tear up the grass and destroy the roots. This damage is exacerbated by environmental pressures that differ on both sides of the falls.
To solve the challenges, Nev grows a mixture of herbs with different powers. For example, Kentucky bluegrass grows well in the Inland West and can repair itself from rhizomes, its underground network of roots and stems.
The research team will examine how well and quickly the grass grows back after simulated wear, as well as its playability: how firm, thick and safe it is to play on. More resilient varieties will be incorporated into WSU’s turf breeding program.
To test the blends, scientists at WSU’s Permaculture and Ecology Farm in Pullman rolled out an array of specialized equipment that simulates heavy use: among them, an “ground gun” that drops a metal probe to measure soil compaction, a perforated device that measures the torque needed to tear up grass, and a tractor-cut cylinder studded with hundreds of metal bolts.
“You can drag it across the field at a certain speed a certain number of times, and it simulates the wear on the 50-yard line after a football game,” Neff said.
Kraszewski, an assistant professor in the College of Design and Construction, studies how strong turf paving can protect water quality in plazas and parking lots. At a turf farm, you place heavy weights on the grass and measure how well it filters runoff rainwater.
“We still don’t know the full capabilities of grasses in the landscape,” she said. “I’m interested in grass as a friend of water. I collect data that helps planners and designers figure out which grasses can meet their needs.
Almost all of the Kentucky-grown bluegrass seed in the world is grown in the Interior Northwest. This new project creates research plots west of the Cascades, helping Washington State University scientists gain new insights into western Washington grasses.
“Washington is one of the largest producers of weed seeds in the world,” Kraszewski said. “We work closely with farmers to better serve our state and the nation as a whole, so we can keep our public spaces green and grassy.”
The researchers plan to partner with parks departments, schools and colleges across the state, to help the organizations get more out of their playgrounds and test their ideas on a larger scale.
“Grass is everywhere, but people rarely notice it,” Neff said. “I love working with grass, trying to solve community problems associated with grass and lawns, and elevating their importance in people’s minds.”