Bella Bluegrass brings sprigging to cool-season turf farms

Photos Courtesy of Sod Solutions.
In September 2008, Bella Bluegrass was sprigged at Graff’s Turf Farms in Fort Morgan, Colo. The seedless, cool-season grass is rhizomous and propagates vegetatively, therefore requiringa different production approach than the sod farm is accustomed to.

It’s not every day that a sod farm takes delivery of sod, but last September, Graff’s Turf Farms (www.graffsturffarms.com) in Fort Morgan, Colo., welcomed in a truck full of Bella Bluegrass. Bella Bluegrass is a rare, seedless variety of bluegrass that propagates vegetatively. Graff’s is one of a dozen or so sod farms around the country that have been licensed by Sod Solutions (www.sodsolutions.com), based in South Carolina, to grow this new variety of grass.

James Graff says, “We were intrigued to be in control of our own stock, and to be able to service our own expansion needs. The seed industry is very important to us, and they’ve done a great job of responding to the many challenges they been faced with. Bella Bluegrass just brings an added component to our farm because it means that one of our varieties doesn’t depend on seed. It helps us spread our wings a little bit.”

Graff’s had no vegetatively propagated grasses under production before it began experimenting with Bella Bluegrass. The farm had tried, unsuccessfully, plugging a buffalograss once in the past, but Graff says the sprigging of Bella Bluegrass was a new experience. “We got the sod in big rolls, and the sprigging machine grinds the turf up and evenly distributes it back on the ground. It looks sort of like clumps of wool, initially; it gave much better coverage than plugging. It was an interesting process, and a learning process.”

Bella offers a distinctive “alpine green” color, and it requires less fertilization than a typical bluegrass. It is a slow-growing grass that, depending on fertilization and irrigation practices, should require less frequent mowing. It also offers a consistency that ever-evolving seeded bluegrass blends can’t match.

Bella Bluegrass was originally developed at the University of Nebraska, where researchers had identified a dark green grass with a dense canopy that didn’t require much fertilization. “They thought they had a winner on their hands, but then it went to seed production and it didn’t produce any seed. That’s like a cow that doesn’t milk,” explains Christian Broucqsault, vice president of marketing with Sod Solutions.

The grass was then put out of site and mind. However, Wayne Thorson at Todd Valley Farms (www.toddvalleyfarms.com) in Mead, Neb., who had been involved in the original research, kept some of it in a greenhouse for nearly a decade. A past president of Turfgrass Producers International who has experience with innovative turf varieties such as buffalograss, Thorson gradually noticed that Bella Bluegrass was rhizomous. “He started wondering if the grass would propagate itself vegetatively and began toying with it and started plugging it and working with sprigs,” says Broucqsault. Eventually, Thorson contacted Sod Solutions, which specializes in researching, developing and marketing warm-season turfgrasses.

Sod Solutions spent several years examining techniques to propagate the Bella Bluegrass vegetatively. “We worked with a new technology called GP [grass plantlettes], we considered hydro, and so on. Then we thought, ‘Have we overlooked the most obvious option: plain old sprigging?’” Broucqsault recalls. “We weren’t aware of anyone who had successfully sprigged bluegrass before, so it was very much on the cutting edge.”

Sod Solutions worked with Sprigger’s Choice (www.spriggerschoice.com), a manufacturer of sprigging equipment, to make slight modifications to a unit for use with bluegrass.

Bella Bluegrass offers a distinctive green color, dense canopy and low-growingcharacteristics, which promise maintenance and fertilization savings.
 
Bella Bluegrass was used on a green roof project in New York City. Because the grasspropagates vegetatively, it could be established using plugs and then filled, rather thanhaving to transport huge rolls of heavy sod to the top of the building.

The next question was if there be a market among turf producers for the grass. Broucqsault says that sod producers are facing increased costs for seed, and are always at risk of demand outpacing supply. Plus, seed blends are different from year to year, leading to some uncertainty about each crop. So, it’s not surprising that Bella Bluegrass has been attracting the interest of producers.

“We explain that they can eliminate their seed costs and that, once they plant out their first 2 or 3 acres, they can nurture that as their ‘foundation’ or ‘mother stock.’ As long as they take care of that and keep it pristine—a perfect stand with no weeds—they’ll have it forever and always be in control of it,” he says.

Not only does such a system provide producers with a greater sense of control with fewer variables, it ensures the genetic integrity of the grass.

There are other advantages for producers, as well. “The business model between warm-season and cool-season grasses is very different,” Broucqsault explains. “In the seed business, you sell the seed and collect the royalty on the front end. There is some marketing, but it doesn’t last long, because in any given year there are three or four dozen bluegrass mixes available, and there’s a finite amount. With Bella Bluegrass, sod farms pay a royalty when they sell the grass and collect the money. It improves their cash flow, and it gives us [Sod Solutions] an incentive to help them grow and market the grass.”

The arrangement also provides producers of Bella Bluegrass a chance to build long-term brand equity. “All the marketing dollars that are spent now can still be paying off in 2025. Most cool-season sod farms market themselves, their own quality, rather than a specific branded grass. That’s because, with typical bluegrasses, producers can’t spend much on marketing because in three or four years they’ll be marketing something else,” says Broucqsault. “With Bella, we can market it and build brand awareness, and the producer gets to be part of it long-term.”

There are drawbacks for cool-season turf producers accustomed to working with seed. For starters, it requires the purchase of a sprigging machine and learning a new way of doing things. “We take sprigging knowledge for granted here in the Southeast, but in other areas of the country it’s a completely new thing. In most cases, we’ve had people on-site when the big rolls of Bella arrive at the farm to help direct and teach the people at the sod farm. We walk them through the process,” Broucqsault says.

It also means different bookkeeping because of the “monthly acreage reports” that must be submitted, with payments based on the square footage of Bella Bluegrass sold that month. There is also a licensing fee (which helps support marketing and technical assistance) paid upfront to grow Bella, something not typically done when using seed.

Graff says that after sprigging there hasn’t been much difference in managing the Bella field versus a traditional seeded crop. “Right after sprigging, you have to water, water, water,” he says. “You have to keep it wet, keep it fertilized, and keep it from blowing away, which is just the process we go through with seed.” He expects about the same amount of water and mowing to be required as for other bluegrasses during production. “The goal is to push the grass along—to get it to market as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality. It shouldn’t be much different from what we normally do.”

The initial crop of Bella Bluegrass is expected to take about 14 months after sprigging to produce salable sod. Graff’s isn’t expecting the first crop to reach the marketplace until late 2009 or early 2010. Currently, there are about one dozen farms—in Canada, California, Utah, Wyoming, Indiana, Rhode Island, Nevada, Colorado, New York, Idaho, Nebraska and Montana—growing Bella.

Due to the nature of propagative vegetation, it will take time for the supply of Bella Bluegrass sod to grow large enough to supply all the producers who want to license the grass. Still, Sod Solutions expects to add another dozen or so farms to the production list in 2009.

Once Bella Bluegrass reaches customers, it will resemble any other bluegrass sod. The only noticeable differences should be the important characteristics Bella offers: low vertical growth for reduced mowing, a deep green color allowing reduced fertilization, strong resistance to wear, etc. Plus, points out Broucqsault, if one area of the lawn is ever damaged in the future, it will fill in with exactly the same grass. “It’s going to repair itself,” he explains. “Or, if you had a really large area that was damaged, you could purchase plugs; that would give you an exact match for the grass rather than the patchwork look that results when you reseed an area with a bluegrass that is ‘close’ to the rest of the lawn.”

Graff says, “We’re excited to see where it can be used, how well it recovers from wear, whether it can save water, and just how versatile it can be. There are still a lot of unknowns, but there has been some good research done to indicate it will be a quality turfgrass that can be used in a variety of venues.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.