St. Augustine Breeding Program at NCSU reports progress in many new lines

Turfgrass areas account for a large portion of urban and suburban landscapes, beautifying millions of home lawns and providing safe playing surfaces for hundreds of thousands of athletic fields, outdoor recreation facilities and golf courses around the country.

As the turfgrass industry continues to grow, there are issues that must be studied to ensure the long term benefits of turfgrass varieties such as water, fertilizer and pesticide use, erosion control, traffic tolerance and disease resistance.

Sod Solutions works with a number of universities and turf farms across the country on research to improve the performance and hardiness of turfgrass varieties. One research study now underway at North Carolina State University is the St. Augustine Breeding Program which seeks to identify a new line of St. Augustine grass that demonstrates improved disease resistance, turf quality and cold hardiness. The program, part of the Turf Research North Carolina partnership, is funded by Sod Solutions and the North Carolina Sod Producers Association. This research is coordinated by Dr. Susana Milla-Lewis of NCSU. New lines coming out of crossings made between selected parents are being tested at several locations, with many lines surviving recent winters at temperatures that would kill all commercially available cultivars.

In a recent interview, Dr. Milla-Lewis talked about the science and process of finding the next great turfgrass:

What is the focus of your current research program?

For St. Augustine grass, we are focusing on improving cold tolerance and aesthetics, and on increasing both chinch bug and gray leaf spot resistance.

Will you explain the breeding cycle of a new line?

From the start of a new line to the first cut for commercial use can take up to 12 years. During that time, we will work with hundreds of versions before the final one is selected. I’m confident that our farm and industry partnerships will continue to enhance these processes.

Your program has been in place for the past seven years. Do you think a new variety from NCSU is on the horizon?

We have a couple of lines that were entered in the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program this year. Ideally, I would have liked to have had two more years of data but since entry into the program is every five years, it was necessary for NCSU to enter in 2016. I’m confident that we will receive good data that will help determine if either line will be good for a release.

What trends to do you see in the industry?

I think the interest for low input grasses continues to grow. The industry overall takes stewardship of the environment very seriously and as a result, demands for grasses that maintain quality with less water and reduced pesticide use will continue to grow. Breeders are paying close attention to this and have renewed efforts in breeding for drought tolerance and pest resistance.