Friday, June 17, 2005
Fake headstones turning heads in Blacksburg
A Virginia Tech project could help cemetery operators and average homeowners with their lawn care.
BLACKSBURG -- Mike Goatley had anticipated the questions from curious callers. After all, you can't create a graveyard overnight next to a well-traveled Blacksburg road without attracting attention.
Had Virginia Tech opened a pet cemetery? Could Hokie fanatics buy a burial plot on this near-sacred land just around the corner from Lane Stadium? Or were the simple, white headstones meant as a political statement?
In truth, the only thing planted in the soil of Goatley's Southgate Drive cemetery are grass seeds. But the Virginia Tech researcher believes the eventual findings of this eye-catching experiment into turf types could be of monumental interest to anyone who spends time tending a lawn in Southwest Virginia.
Goatley, a turf specialist with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, and his assistants are trying to figure out which grass types achieve the best look for the least amount of work. He then intends to convey his findings to cemetery owners, who devote countless hours to grounds maintenance.
"It truly is for cemeteries, although the data will apply to anyone," he said.
Goatley's graveyard at Virginia Tech's turf research farm is divided into 36 blocks, each containing three faux headstones. The 36 plots were each seeded with a different type of grass ranging from the most common store-bought varieties to lesser-known, specialized grasses that must be special ordered.
In an ideal world, grass would only need mowing once a year -- if that often -- and would stay green and weed-free all year through drought or flood.
Such a perfect grass seed is unlikely to be discovered or invented any time soon. In the meantime, Goatley said there are dramatic variations in seed commercially available today.
To prove his point, Goatley pointed out the differences between two squares in his turf grass cemetery. One yellowish-green square contained a tall fescue known as "Kentucky 31," which is among the most common types of seed available at many home improvement stores and big-box retailers.
Kentucky 31 is inexpensive and relatively hardy, which would explain why it can be found in countless yards throughout the region. But it requires frequent, even weekly cutting.
The plot above featured a hard fescue grass known as Reliant II, which has a deep-green shade and a softer look but takes considerably more time and money to buy and sow. Goatley said this plot has only been mowed once in months.
"If you will make the commitment up front ... over the long term, the maintenance costs are going to be reduced," Goatley said.
Some plots were thick with grass, while others barely had any grass showing. Goatley said while some of the slower-germinating grasses may look bad now, he expects several of them to be among the best performers over the long term.
But why the headstones?
Goatley explained that the wooden markers actually serve several purposes.
To test each grass variety's resistance to weeds, each plot was divided into three stripes. Goatley and Shawn Askew, a turf weed science specialist at Tech, are treating one stripe with herbicide before seeding, treating a second stripe before and after seeding and leaving the last stripe untreated.
The headstones help delineate the different treatment areas. Goatley's research team also painted lines two inches from the headstones' base to determine when the grass needs mowing.
Lastly, they're a good way to get the public interested in the research. Goatley set up a similar fake cemetery at Mississippi State University, his former employer, and got plenty of attention.
"It's visible, but being visible also has its drawbacks," Goatley said. "As the [Halloween] season approaches, people think, 'I'd like to have that for my yard.' "
Moments later, the tactic proved its merit when Blacksburg retiree and Tech alumnus Bob "Dutch" van Luyn pulled his SUV into the turf farm to find out what in the world was happening.
Goatley, van Luyn and Askew laughed as they discussed ideas to dress up the cemetery: Painting the names of Tech's ACC rivals on the headstones, or even the names of the other team's all-stars. Sell plots to alumni.
Goatley, who is conducting the research on his own without grants, has already contacted the Virginia Cemetery Association, whose members are cemetery owners and operators. Ann Marie Samuel, president of the association, said she is excited to hear the results.
Some graveyards are so large that, by the time you finish mowing, "you're back to the beginning again," Samuel said. Finding out which grasses grow best in each region of the state and under different light and moisture conditions could greatly benefit cemetery caretakers, she said.
Samuel hopes Goatley's research will identify a grass that grows well in shade. Williamsburg Memorial Park where Samuel works has a problem with large oak trees that cast long shadows on the ground.
"The family wants to see grass," Samuel said. "They don't want to see clover. They don't want to see anything else. They want to see grass."