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Let's Talk Turfgrass and Lawn Care

Students on grass on Northrop Mall

Eric Watkins, Horticulture Director of Graduate Studies, Shares His Tips

Eric Watkins came to the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate interested in plant breeding. His first real job was working with Dr. Nancy Ehlke in a turfgrass breeding program. He was so fascinated by the subject that he worked there every summer and during the school year. He went on to earn his PhD at Rutgers University before returning to the U of M to teach.

Eric Watkins head shot

What appeals to you about turfgrass breeding?

I just thought it was really interesting, the ways that people could improve plants. There's this kind of subjective evaluation that goes on with turfgrasses as a breeder: does it look good? It's not always things you can easily measure like yield.

So we think about what do you, as someone who takes care of a lawn, what do you want in a grass and what are you willing to pay for? So yes, we are using genetics to improve the plants, but you also have to think about the users, and I really like that combination of things and that's playing out in my research program.

Tell us more about the main focus of your research.

We want to develop a grass that you can plant, get established, and then mow very infrequently and not have to do a lot to. We've got projects on how grasses can suppress weeds, on improving shade tolerance and drought tolerance. The ultimate goal is to provide an aesthetically pleasing, functional lawn. We aren't necessarily trying to produce grasses that look perfect all the time. We want grasses that look good and do what they're supposed to do without needing a lot of inputs.

What are you looking forward to as Director of Graduate Studies?

Golf course

I was undergraduate coordinator of the Plant Science major for several years. I was very involved with undergraduate education my whole time advising and teaching, but I've always had MPS students in my classes, and I've always been impressed with their abilities.

The MPS is really well suited for people who want to make a career change, and it's really exciting to see people that develop these passions for horticulture a little bit later in life, after they've had their first job or first career. I think it's a program that should continue to grow. When I meet with students, they really are very excited to be in the program, which is great to see.

Why should someone get a degree in horticulture?

There are so many different things you can do. I think there might be this thought that you can only go work at a nursery, but there’s a myriad of places you can go and work. There are a lot of examples on the website of recent MPS grads with really neat jobs, like the grounds manager at the soccer stadium. So I think you can be creative about horticulture jobs. I've had conversations with people with computer science backgrounds that are interested in applying their skills to horticulture. It's not just about you growing the plant, it's about a lot of other things.

Top Tips for Lawn Care

  1. Keep the mowing height pretty high. The higher the mowing height, the less you have to mow, the fewer weeds.
  2. Don't mow your lawn when it's stressed, when it's hot or dry.
  3. Use the right grass for your lawn. Most people when they go to buy grass seed they're not informed about what the different options are, so they end up purchasing based on the marketing on the bag.
  4. Don’t over-water. If you have an irrigation system it's better to just keep it off and turn it on when you need it. Or make sure you've got the right technology to make sure the water is applied at the right time and the right amount.