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UF turfgrass researchers release slow-grow, low-mow grass — and it’s pretty

By:
Mickie Anderson (352) 392-0400Source:
Russell Nagata nagata@ifas.ufl.edu, 561-993-1557

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Imagine life with fewer Saturday afternoons stuck behind a noisy lawn mower.

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has released a new slow-growing turfgrass that you may be able to buy as early as next year.

And you can put down that fertilizer bag: The new St. Augustinegrass variety’s finer leaf blade and dark green hue make for a prettier lawn and it’s far more resistant to sap-sucking, lawn-killing chinch bugs than current varieties.

“We are quite pleasantly surprised by this grass,” said Paul Grose, general manager of King Ranch, a company testing the grass in Belle Glade, Fla., and Texas. “It seems to have a lot of benefits. Besides being a chinch bug-resistant variety, it’s got real good color, good density and a good root system.

“And from what the consumer sees, we feel like it’s going to be a kind of grass that’s going to require less mowing,” he said.

Although IFAS officials recently approved the public release of the new grass, what’s now known as NUF-76 won’t be on the market until next year. The grass is being grown by 17 sod farmers and several homeowners around the state, including one in Gainesville. It’s expected to grow well in any subtropical climate.

Growers are quickly expanding acreage of NUF-76 to ensure there’s enough sod to create a buzz for the as-yet unnamed brand they hope will compete with Floratam, a turfgrass released by UF in the early 1970s that now covers some 750,000 acres around the state.

And where the turfgrass is being tested on residential lawns, it’s attracting envious neighbors’ attention, said Russell Nagata, a UF horticultural sciences associate professor who tested the new grass.

“They say ‘what’s that?’ And ‘where can we get some?’” he said.

Finding NUF-76 was part lucky break, part good observation, said Nagata, who began at UF in 1987 as a lettuce breeder. He began breeding turfgrass as well in 1997.

He was evaluating more than 100 varieties of St. Augustinegrass for darker green and finer leaf blades when chinch bugs—destructive insects that suck the juice and life from grass—moved in. Nagata consulted fellow IFAS researcher Ron Cherry about treating the grass to get rid of the pests, but the entomologist persuaded Nagata to let the infestation run its course.

After the chinch bugs were done, four grasses were intact, but only one of them had dark green, small leaves, Nagata said.

Wondering if the undamaged patch was some kind of mistake, Nagata said he thought to himself, “this might be interesting.”

“Everything around it was dead, but this one variety was still alive,” he said. “So we did lab tests to be sure, and it was actually resistant.”

In Nagata’s world, NUF-76 is merely one step closer to the perfect grass. To a breeder, perfect might mean a pest-proof variety that never needs mowing, water or fertilizer.

But to consumers, NUF-76 may be close enough because it’s attractive and doesn’t seem to need as much mowing or fertilizer as grasses now on the market.

“We can, with confidence, probably eliminate every other mowing,” Nagata said. Nagata likes the reduced environmental impact of less water, gas and chemicals being used for lawn maintenance.

“With more than 5 million acres of managed turfgrass around the state, if we can eliminate just one mowing per year, that could lead to substantial savings in fuel,” he said. “And it’s possible the darker green color will prevent some people from applying as much fertilizer.”

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