Keeping Minnesota’s roadsides green is about more than just aesthetics—healthy turfgrass can improve water quality, reduce erosion and road noise, and provide animal habitat. However, harsh conditions such as heat, drought, and salt use can make it difficult for roadside turfgrass to thrive.
In 2014, as part of a study funded by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board (LRRB), researchers in the Department of Horticultural Science identified a new salt-tolerant turfgrass mixture that could be used on Minnesota roadsides. But, when the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) began using the mixture, called MNST-12, the agency experienced a series of installation failures.
Now, led by Professor Eric Watkins, the research team has identified new best management practices for installing and establishing this type of salt-tolerant turfgrass. The study, funded by the LRRB, specifically focused on watering practices, soil amendments, and planting date for both seed and sod.
“Newer improved seed or sod mixes like MNST-12 may have differing requirements for successful establishment compared to other species or cultivars that contractors and other turf professionals are more familiar with,” Watkins says. “Since all of these management practices are prescribed—or not prescribed—in the MnDOT specifications, generating data that can inform future specifications is a valuable outcome of this work.”
The study, which was conducted over several years, included experiments on how water should be applied to new MNST-12 turfgrass installations, the use of soil amendments at the time of establishment, and the effect of the seeding or sodding date on the success of a new planting.
Based on their findings, the researchers recommend these changes to MnDOT specifications:
- No soil amendments are necessary, but adequate seedbed preparation is important.
- Seeding is preferred to sodding between August 15 and September 15.
- Sodding can be permitted throughout the year, but only if the installer is able to supply frequent irrigation.
- When watering in sod, attention should be given to the species being used and local rates of evapotranspiration (evaporation from both the soil and plant leaves). Sod installers can anticipate using between 100,000 and 170,000 gallons of water per acre to ensure a successful establishment.
- Sod can be mowed as soon as sufficient root growth prevents an operator from manually pulling up pieces by hand, but it should not be mowed if wilting from heat or drought.
Currently, the researchers are using the results of this project to develop methods for educating and training stakeholders, including turfgrass installers, on these best management practices. They are also developing systems that could be used by installers in the field to help maximize the success rate of turfgrass installations.
“These best management practices can help limit installation failures and reduce maintenance inputs for future installations, providing both an economic and environmental benefit,” Watkins says.
"The knowledge and improved specifications we gained through this research will allow us to make our contractors more successful, which makes MnDOT successful,” says Dwayne Stenlund, MnDOT erosion control specialist. Because local agencies often rely on these MnDOT specifications as a guide for their projects, they will also benefit from the improved practices.
Stenlund also says the new specifications—especially those related to watering requirements—could allow for a clearer understanding of the true cost and value of turfgrass installation and maintenance work, which could ultimately improve the accuracy of the project bidding process.
In another project, the research team is exploring other turfgrass stresses, such as ice cover and heat. They are also testing additional turfgrass species and mixtures in an effort to continue improving MnDOT specifications for roadside turfgrass installations.