UConn Researcher Develops Environmentally, Economically Friendly Turf Grass Varieties

These genetically improved grasses have reduced mowing, fertilizer, and irrigation needs, reducing lawn grasses' impact on the environment and producing financial savings

Yi Li has developed novel grasses that reduce maintenance needs like mowing, fertilization, and irrigation. (Pixabay)

A lush emerald lawn has long been an icon of suburban America. But these lawns have significant costs for the environment and homeowners’ energy and wallets.

Yi Li, a professor of horticultural plant biology in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, has created novel lawn grasses that offer several benefits over traditional lawn grasses, including a significant reduction in effort required for lawn care.

Typically, lawn grasses demand extensive maintenance, such as mowing, irrigation, and fertilization.

In the United States, the 40 million acres of land covered by lawn or turf grasses necessitate 800 million gallons of gas to power lawn mowers and other landscaping equipment. Moreover, these lawns require three million tons of fertilizer annually, which release harmful chemicals into the environment.  Further, lawns can have significant irrigation needs, especially in drier climates and during droughts.

The maintenance of lawns, including mowing, irrigation, and fertilization, also leads to the production of significant quantities of greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and nitrous oxide. Some studies indicate that the greenhouse gas emissions linked to lawn care surpass the amount of CO2 absorbed by lawn grasses.

Li’s new grass varieties reduce the amount of mowing required to only three or four times per year in Connecticut, as opposed to more than 20 times a year, which will drastically reduce gasoline use as well as manpower to mow lawn grasses.

The new lawn grasses need minimal or no fertilizer, which is a significant cause of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution that contaminate waterways. Nitrogen fertilizers also contribute to the release of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than CO2 in terms of global warming.

“Our new lawn grasses, which require less mowing, fertilizer, and irrigation, are well-suited for various applications such as residential lawns, athletic fields, highways’ sides, and as cover crops in orchards and corn fields,” Li says. “Moreover, our lawn grasses are particularly well-suited for electric and robotic mowers, presenting significant opportunities to enhance the market presence and competitive advantage of these automated mowing technologies.”

The Li Lab is currently developing drought-resistant and other beneficial traits for lawn grasses.

To create these desirable traits, Li’s lab uses traditional breeding and genome editing technologies.

When the genetic code for a desirable trait is unknown, Li uses a traditional breeding approach, which has been utilized for decades. However, if the gene responsible for a certain trait is identified, Li prefers to use modern genome editing technology.

“For example, if we know the gene responsible for controlling the grasses’ tolerance to drought, we could use genome editing to create the desirable drought tolerant genotype” Li says. “If we don’t know which gene is responsible for this trait, we breed the plants traditionally. Genome editing can be much more efficient, much faster, However, that requires our knowledge of the gene function or the associated phenotype. So, we’re using both approaches.”

Li’s lawn grasses allow people to continue to have and enjoy traditional lawns while greatly reducing the harm they cause to the environment and making maintenance more affordable.

While some individuals contend that green lawns ought to be eradicated because they are not eco-friendly, others argue that they are an essential component of American culture. Nevertheless, with the advent of novel types of lawn grasses developed by Li’s lab, it is possible to curtail the energy and monetary resources required for upkeep, as well as significantly diminishing the greenhouse gas emissions related to lawn maintenance.