SOUTH FEATURES


Zoysia's Future Arrives

Researchers focus on the environmental attributes of the turf species
By Stacie Zinn Roberts



Attendees at the field day at Bladerunner Farms, Poteet, Texas, get up close and personal with a sample of L1F zoysiagrass. There is significant variability among cultivars.
"We believe that zoysia is the grass of the future," says David Doguet, president of Bladerunner Farms. Dr. Milt Engelke echoed Doguet's comments. "This species, I think, is the best environmental grass we have. It can survive with little or no maintenance." Not that he's biased or anything after having spent 32 years as a turf breeder specializing in zoysia at Texas A&M University.

Many of the attendees at the turfgrass field day this past fall at Bladerunner farms, Poteet, Texas, seemed to agree. Zoysia has a reputation for low maintenance and low fertilizer requirements, drought tolerance, and its ability to grow in high or low pH soils. Sod farmers, golf course superintendents, university researchers and turf industry representatives from as far away as China and Hawaii traveled to the field day to survey the thousands of unique zoysia accessions in development at the Bladerunner facility. Bladerunner Farms specializes in producing many of current varieties of zoysia on the market today. Popular improved cultivars include Zeon, JaMur (originally developed by the late Jack Murray) and Y2.

Zoysia is a vegetatively propagated warm-season turfgrass that, in general, requires significantly fewer inputs of fertilizer and water when compared to other warm-season grasses such as bermudagrass or St. Augustine. Ken Mangum, golf course superintendent at Atlanta Athletic Club, and one of the speakers at the field day, says he puts as little as .75 pound of nitrogen on his zoysiagrass fairways per year. By comparison, bermudgrass fairways could require that much nitrogen or more per month in the growing season. "It's not even a contest," Mangum says.

Differences in individual cultivars dictate variations in leaf texture, from fine-bladed grasses suitable for use on golf courses, to medium textures more suited for home lawns. Differences in the cultivars can also vary in the speed of growth, color, density and many other attributes. To help discover the cultivars with the best characteristics for golf, sports field or lawn use, be it home lawns or commercial properties, Doguet enlists the help of turf researchers such as Dr. Brian Schwartz, a turf breeder at University of Georgia.


David Doguet of Bladerunner Farms explains how 33 varieties of zoysiagrass were sprigged every six inches to evaluate their grow-in speed.
At the field day, Schwartz, standing in a field of some 40 varieties he had newly plugged into 10-foot-square plots on the farm, remarks that these are the best of the cultivars culled from an original group of 4,000 accessions. Some had been crossed while others were selected; the goal of both processes is to find cultivars with the best drought tolerance, nematode resistance, infrequent mowing requirements or other desirable features.

Doguet explains that even if one of these grasses were to "make the cut" it would still take years to bring it to market. Taking material from a test plot, and then expanding it into enough acreage to sell to sod farms as breeder stock, could take another three to five. It takes that long to grow enough material for release, Doguet says. Bladerunner also collaborates with turf researchers at Purdue University in central Indiana.

"When you develop something in Poteet, Texas, you want to know if it will also work in Hawaii or Atlanta. So you have to move material around to test in different locations. That's why collaboration with universities is so important," Doguet says.

For all of the grasses' many benefits, Engelke says zoysia will become a greater force in the turf marketplace because of its ability to survive through a drought. "The real issue is going to be water," he says. "A lot of cities have water restrictions. Some of these zoysias will hold their color for a whole lot longer than other species."

Schwartz agrees. He says, "I really believe the drought response is huge."

Stacie Zinn Roberts is the president of What's Your Avocado?, a writing and marketing firm based in Mount Vernon, Wash. Reach her at Stacie@whatsyouravocado.com.