Nobody has ever accused me of being the sharpest knife in the drawer... being the dullest is more debatable. How it is that I miss some of the simplest concepts in pursuit of deeper insights? I hold onto hope that I’m not the only one. Some call my malady, “looking beyond the mark” or say that I’m “unable to see the forest for the trees.” Sometimes the secret to complex problems aren’t in the obscure but in the obvious places.
Learning how grass grows won’t likely spark fire in the heart of the intellectual. However, appreciating this simple process can help us understand principles of both grazing management and lawn care more entirely. Regardless of what its use it to us, grass is still grass.
We will skip some details, but grass growth has two forms: the creation of new cells and the enlargement of existing cells. New cells are produced in specific growing points called meristems. It’s a little different for a new seedling but a perennial grass (same plant grows back year after year) initiates growth from buds on the root crown. This is essentially at the soil surface. Once a bud has initiated new growth it is called a tiller. This tiller has limited places or meristems where new cells can be formed. When the tiller is young, all these meristems are very close to the soil surface. As new cells form, we see them as grass blades as they grow upward, fueled by cell division near the soil surface. The energy to initiate this growth comes from stored reserves. Once the first grass blades are established, photosynthesis creates enough energy for additional growth and development.
Early in the year, most growth is from this new cell creation by the meristem tissue. Once photosynthesis has replenished reserves, the grass can be cut or grazed frequently if adequate leaf tissue is left on the tiller to maintain photosynthesis. The meristems are near the soil surface and are therefore protected from removal. As the season progresses there is a shift from the balance of growth being from new cells to the elongation of existing cells. When this occurs, the growing points are pushed upward and become elevated and, therefore, at risk of being removed. The grass plant does this in preparation to form a seed head.
There are applications to both grazing and lawn care in this. First, you must allow perennial grasses resources in the fall to create healthy grass buds for next year’s first tillers. Second, once grass starts to grow in the spring, let it photosynthesize for a while to restore reserve energy. Third, grazing/cutting doesn’t damage grasses, and even helps them as it helps encourage additional tillers to develop IF sufficient leaf area is maintained. Fourth, once grasses begin to elongate (essentially form a stem in preparation for a seed head) the meristem becomes elevated and may be removed. If this occurs, new cell formation is not possible for that tiller and reserves must be used to initiate a new bud at the soil surface to start a new tiller. This will occur in grazing and mowing lawns, but impacts can be minimized if care is taken in maintaining healthy grass reserves via fertilizer, water, and NOT repeatedly depleting reserves through removal of meristems without regard for storage replacement.