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A shady future?

AURORA — As the Willamette Valley's suburban population has grown, housing subdivisions have become increasingly compact. To make the most efficient use of available land, larger homes are going on smaller lots. However, lawns often suffer as a result.

"In my past experience in the landscape industry, one problem I always identified is that ryegrass tends to shade out in winter or in shady areas, so I was always repairing it," said Richard Anderson, general manager of the Grower Direct sod farm and nursery in Aurora. "The yards tend to get less sunlight because the houses are blocking each other off and creating shade. We see a lot more shade problems."

Sensing there might be a market for turf that thrives in insufficient sunshine, in 2005 Anderson planted 400,000 square feet of Water Warden, a blend of shade-tolerant tall fescue varieties sold by the Bailey Seed Co. in nearby Salem.

As it turns out, his instincts were on target: Demand was so strong that Anderson has increased his Water Warden sod operation to more than 2 million square feet.

"We've had a great reaction to it," he said. "Our first field we planted, we had people actually on a waiting list for it."

Aside from being able to maintain photosynthesis under lower light intensity, the Water Warden mix requires 25 percent less water than ryegrass during the dry season, said Steve Johnson, research director of the DLF International Seeds research station in Philomath, which developed the varieties.

"It has such an extensive root system that it can stay greener much longer in the summer," he said.

DLF's tall fescue varieties can go up to three weeks longer than ryegrass without irrigation before drying out. Although tall fescue turf has long been popular in the Southeast and Midwest, the species never caught on in the Northwest because it wasn't well adapted to the climate; the grass didn't stand up well to weeds or disease pressure during the colder months.

Homeowners had similar problems in Europe, a major market for DLF's seed products, so the company decided to breed tall fescue varieties that continued growing during winter. By avoiding dormancy, the plants are better able to ward off pathogens and rival species. That is also an advantage for growers, who can reduce fungicide applications, Johnson said.

Tall fescue varieties are less susceptible to stem rust, their stands are more persistent, and they generate up to 20 percent more seed yield depending on soil type. However, ryegrass typically commands higher prices and doesn't take as long to establish itself, he said.

Among consumers, conserving water seems to be a higher priority than sowing a quickly developing lawn, said Tony Ralston, sales manager for Bailey Seeds. "We just forewarn people it takes longer to get established," he said.

Since he introduced the Water Warden blend five years ago, Ralston said, he has seen sales of the brand increase about 100 percent annually. The seed is grown in the Willamette Valley, and most of it goes to homeowners, contractors and municipalities in Western Oregon and Washington.

"We were looking for a niche in the market to differentiate ourselves from the other sod farms," he said. "It takes me a little longer to produce Water Warden than ryegrass, which is why some of our competitors have stayed away from it."

Richard Anderson, general manager of the Grower Direct sod farm and nursery in Aurora, holds some sod. He grows more than 2 million square feet of Water Warden, a blend of shade-tolerant tall fescue to meet the growing demand. - AP