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Spring 2000

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 00 > Article

"Boot Camp" for Turf
by Janet I. Rodekohr

Only the best hybrids survive the training.

Nurturing a new turf hybrid onto the market requires years of searching, testing, breeding and comparing.

But "nurturing" may not be the most accurate word.

"I try to kill 99 percent of the plants," said Ronny Duncan, a turf grass breeder in Griffin. "The 1 percent that survives is the best of the best."

Duncan, an integral part of the UGA turf team, runs a hard-nosed boot camp for turf. In designing a new tall fescue turf grass for Georgia, Duncan's first step was to search for survivors in a hostile world.

"I went to farmers' pastures and collected it out of ditches. If it was within inches of highway asphalt and it was still growing, it was already adapted," Duncan said. "It's notbrain surgery -- just a down-to-earth approach."

But roadsides and pastures aren't the only source for good turf grasses. Duncan works closely with Rutgers University, which has a large germplasm bank of coldseason grasses. The current line of tall fescue hails from the New Jersey climate, "not designed for the shake-and-bake time of June, July and August in Georgia. Getting cool-season grasses just to survive and persist here is difficult," Duncan said. Water restrictions just escalate the process.

The UGA turf team is establishing a germplasm bank of warm-season grasses in Georgia, but for now the scientists rely on the Rutgers bank to supply them with grasses from which they can nurture traits for Georgia's climate. In return, scientists at Rutgers receive half the seed developed at UGA to further their own research in coolseason grasses.

The Georgia stress test would wilt the strongest competitor.

"I put them under low pH conditions, below 4 [which is highly acidic], to get more drought stress," Duncan said. "I use our own wonderful red Georgia clay with a good slope so the rainruns off. Fescue should normally be mowed to about three inches so I mow it down to one inch or less for additional stress."

In spite of every effort to kill them, a few clones survive each test. So Duncan crossbreeds the survivors and submits them to more tests.

"The best germplasm pool has risen to the top," Duncan said. "We've evaluated everything on the market, and the key material is shaking out."

The new tall fescue Duncan just released is called "Southeast" tall fescue, aptly named because it is the first tall fescue designed to grow well throughout the entire region.

The seed will be available to the public in 2001. The Landmark Seed Company of Spokane, Wash., has set up seed production and will market Southeast tall fescue. Duncan also will design a Web page for growers to check on maintenance advice, report problems and collect data.

Already Duncan is seeing a lot of interest in the new grass.

"Tall fescue is the No. 1 grass in Atlanta because so many people are moving in from the North and they want the familiar green grass of fescue," he said. "Golf course superintendents are interested because they like to use fescue [when other warm-season grasses go dormant in cold weather] to frame their holes to highlight the greens. Southeast has beautiful cosmetic appeal, so they don't mind overseeding if it lasts two to three years."

The new hybrid has persistence beyond anything Duncan has ever seen before. And because of the stress tests in Duncan's boot camp, the UGA turf team is confident it will persist without too much supplemental water and with minimal maintenance.

Janet Rodekohr is a news editor for UGA's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. She also works with educational marketing and coordinates communication needs for the Cooperative Extension Service.

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