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New variety of Kentucky Bluegrass could conserve water

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 20 2011 12:09 p.m. MDT

Tanner Oberle and Luke Jensen, right, carry pieces of sod as they and other workers from Biograss Sod Farms install a new hybrid vegetative grass called Bella bluegrass Monday, Sept. 19, 2011 at a home in Salt Lake City. The grass is formulated to be drought resistant and better for Utah's climate.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — News flash: Kentucky bluegrass is not always from Kentucky and it's not always blue or even blue-green.

A case in point is a new kind of dark green Kentucky bluegrass from Nebraska. It's making its way into lawns in Utah as part of a trend toward voluntary water conservation brought on by years of drought.

Landscapers at the University of Utah have been experimenting with it along with several other kinds of drought-resistant grasses. The new variety called Bella bluegrass was installed last year on a hillside where spectators sit to watch competitions at a new track & field facility.

A decade ago, Bella bluegrass was discovered growing wild on the relatively dry plains of Nebraska. Scientists at the University of Nebraska tested the new variety and patented it. It's just beginning to reach the marketplace in Utah where proponents believe it will help conserve water in a state that ranks near the top in per capita water use. It also is purported to need far less mowing.

Salt Lake City resident Layne Wilcock is having $2,000 worth of Bella bluegrass installed at his home to replace a lawn he was dissatisfied with. He believes the new lawn will grow more slowly than most people's grass and will use a lot less water.

"It will be a lot of savings, both in water and paying someone to mow my lawn," Wilcock said. "Plus, it's environmentally green."

The first company to grow Bella Bluegrass commercially in Utah is Biograss Sod Farms. Walking in a field of green, company president Warren Bell praised its low water usage and slow growth pace.

"The other thing," Bell said, "is it doesn't require anywhere near the fertilizer, yet has the fabulous deep, dark green color."

Bell claims it will use 30 to 50 percent less water than traditional varieties of Kentucky bluegrass that are in widespread use in Utah.

Bella is one of more than 200 Kentucky bluegrass varieties that have been discovered all over the world and studied at Utah State University. Associate professor Paul Johnson in USU's Department of Plants, Soils & Climate said Kentucky bluegrass has adapted to many different climates.

"It's a native all around the world, we think, and originated in Europe," Johnson said. "Most research has been in the eastern half of the country. Our conditions are obviously very different. What's drought-tolerant in the east is not always drought-tolerant here."

One competitor, however, said he's skeptical of the water savings claim for Bella bluegrass. His company sells a low-water sod called Xerilawn that University of Utah landscapers are also experimenting with. 

The competition reflects a hot new trend. More and more consumers want drought-resistant lawns.

"The conservation ethic is there," Bell said. "I think people get it. We have to use less water. The population is growing. The water supply isn't growing. We have to be more efficient in how we use the resource."

Bell said the trend doesn't seem to have been slowed by Utah's astonishingly wet period last winter. "That's very unusual," Bell said. "I don't think anybody is thinking that's going to become the normal."

The ideal, of course, would be to find a wild variety of grass, or breed a new one, that will make a dense, lush lawn but won't need any more water than what naturally falls from the sky in Utah. Johnson said he believes such a goal is unachievable.

But Bell is more optimistic.

"Right now those plants have not been discovered," Bell said. "Are they out there? Perhaps, but we don't know."

A University of Utah landscaping official said the jury is still out on whether the new Bella bluegrass will live up to its promises of water savings. And so far, there have not been enough crowds at track meets to test how it will stand up to punishment. Durability under heavy foot traffic is considered a key marketing element, at least for some uses of lawn grasses.

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com

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