Americans seem to have a love-hate relationship with their ever-present green lawns.
People love the beautiful green of Kentucky bluegrass, but they get tired of watering and mowing it.
“‘Give me a grass I don't have to mow!'” people demand, said Tracy Dougher, horticulture professor at Montana State University.
MSU researchers have been looking for some time for a grass that needs less watering and less mowing. Americans spend billions and considerable energy on their lawns.
At the Bozeman Area Research and Teaching Farm south of the Tech Park, Dougher showed a plot of Kentucky bluegrass that professor David Sands and retired professor George Evans bred to grow shorter.
Dougher is experimenting with a different idea – native grasses.
This summer she's growing a plot with 11 varieties of fine fescue grass, mown at different heights, to see how well they perform.
What's wrong with Kentucky bluegrass? It may have been given an American name by Thomas Jefferson, but it actually came from Europe. Fine fescues are native American plants, she said, and they need less water than Kentucky bluegrass.
“All grasses grow,” she said. “But with fine fescues, you can mow it twice in the spring and let it go the rest of the summer.”
The plot of native grass isn't a deep green like the nearby strip of Kentucky bluegrass, but for Dougher that's part of its charm. It looks like it belongs in the Montana landscape.
“I like it because of its sense of place,” she said. And the fine fescue will hold its lighter green color longer than Kentucky bluegrass.
Fine fescue will probably never replace Kentucky bluegrass, she said, but it may find a niche – like covering larger lots.
Dougher said she worked with Springhill Sod Farm on a research project to see if native grasses could be sold commercially as sod. Kentucky bluegrass is great at knitting together a root system that allows it to be harvested, rolled up in big rolls and sold for instant lawns. The sod farm was able to cut up the native grass plot and sell it, she said.
“Some sod farms are picking up on that,” she said.
Doing research with Dougher this summer is Joe Bradshaw, a Bozeman High School biology teacher, thanks to an M.J. Murdock Foundation grant to get high school teachers involved in scientific research.
Bradshaw is working on the other aspect of Dougher's research – investigating 34 native species of flowering perennials in an effort to get more native plants on the market and into people's gardens. Arrowleaf balsamroot, for example, produces showy yellow flowers all over the Montana hillsides in spring, but it's tricky to transplant and takes seven years to flower.
“Our next project is to see what we can do to hasten flowering,” Dougher said.
Dougher started out in college earning a math degree, but by her senior year realized she missed the gardening she had grown up with in Illinois. The oldest of nine kids, she came from a family that depended on the fruits and vegetables raised in its garden.
She switched to horticulture, did research and even got to help with growing plants for NASA on the Space Station. Now she gets to work outside in the summer and learn more about growing Montana's native plants.
“I get to do my hobby,” she said. “I enjoy it.”
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.