Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES - If it seems like the grass is always just a little greener in your neighbor's yard, a New Mexico State University scientist now has a new way of helping you decide on the best turf for your side of the fence.
Thirty-two different grasses are being tested statewide in side-by-side trials for hardiness, cold tolerance and water use. The 5-by-5 foot plots look like a giant checkerboard when viewed from above.
"We wanted to make them big enough so that a person could get an good idea how a particular grass would look in their backyard," said Bernhard Leinauer, a turfgrass specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "But our program isn't designed for us to pick the best turf grass for you - it's for you to pick what you think is the best grass for your backyard."
The trials began last year at NMSU's agricultural science centers in Artesia and Tucumcari and the Fabian Garcia Research Center in Las Cruces. "It's been quite a drawing card to get people out to the station," said Rex Kirksey, superintendent of NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari.
This season, NMSU is adding several new locations, including the Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas and two golf courses in Gallup and Albuquerque. "We're particularly interested in how some of these new salt-tolerant grasses do at this altitude," said Todd Huslig, superintendent of the Twin Warriors Golf Course at the Santa Ana Pueblo near Albuquerque.
Construction of a new subsurface-irrigation research study will also force the relocation of the existing turf grass test plot to a new location at the Fabian Garcia center this year.
Turf grasses, which must be regularly mowed and maintained, are the grasses people walk, run and play on.
"It's important to have choices on the appearance and level of maintenance we're willing to provide for that grass," said Curtis Smith, an Albuquerque-based horticulture specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "We now have new grasses that look really good but use a lot less water. People will be very interested seeing these plots."
The research focuses on how well these grasses grow, if they can survive New Mexico's winters, and how they differ in water use. In Leinauer's experiment, warm season grasses are watered twice a week for an annual total of 32 inches. The thirstier cool season selections like fescue are irrigated daily and get a total of 54 inches annually.
Two broad categories of grass grow in New Mexico: warm and cool season grasses. Warm season grasses are easily identifiable in winter months, since they turn brown and go dormant. Warm season grasses need less water and are often more salt tolerant than cool season varieties, which means they can withstand poor quality water, like that from effluent ponds.
But warm season grasses are vulnerable to the state's winters. Temperatures north of Socorro are nippy enough to kill or damage warm season grasses, even though they've slipped into dormancy.
Cool season grasses, known for their year-round green color, originated in much cooler climates with more precipitation, meaning they need substantial amounts of water to do well in New Mexico, he said.
While lush, cool season grasses must be irrigated heavily in the summer, they're an example of how New Mexico's climate often puts the state's turf growers in a tough
spot. The average temperature almost anywhere in New Mexico is cool enough, even in summer, for cool season grasses because night temperatures normally drop into the mid-60s.
"But looking at the water situation, especially with the drought now, we shouldn't be growing cool season grasses even if nature and climate allows us to do so," he said. "They use too much water."
Instead, Leinauer recommends looking at new grasses that have been introduced to the market in the last five to 10 years, including much-improved cold- and salt-tolerant warm season grasses. New cool season grasses with drought and alkaline tolerance features are also available.
"People just don't know much about these new grasses, which is one reason why we're developing these statewide turf grass trials," he said.
NMSU researchers are particularly interested in the results of the Gallup municipal golf course trials because of the use of effluent water for irrigation. The objective is not only to find out how well the grasses will grow, but also how well they can stand the salt load from the effluent water, Leinauer said. "In the past, we haven't found many that can withstand that sort of treatment," he said.
In addition, northwestern New Mexico is a good testing ground in terms of sheer temperature variations. "Not many people know this, but Gallup is one of the coldest locations in
the continental United States during the winter," he said. "Even in early June you have night temperatures in the high teens and daytime temperatures in the 70s. Regardless of the water issues, that sort of wide fluctuation is a problem."
The cost of the trials is borne largely by the NMSU science centers and the golf courses that agreed to irrigate and maintain the plots. Commercial seed producers donated the seed.
Meanwhile, the NMSU turf team is broadening its research base, constructing a new 50,000 sq. ft. subsurface-irrigation research facility at the Fabian center to better examine irrigation uniformity. The land is being prepared now, and the grass will be planted in October.
"When a sprinkler pops up on a windy day, you're often watering everything but what you're aiming for," Leinauer said. "Wind drift is one reason why we are looking so closely at the use of sub-irrigation because you actually get the water where you want it."
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