"What are you doing growing that weed?"
That was the kind of reaction from fellow turf companies and greenkeepers when Muzz Ryan, of Northcoast Turf, in Ruakaka, decided to grow kikuyu for his instant turf business about seven years ago.
The former greenkeeper and qualified sports field manager said while his company was the first, many others have followed suit as the characteristics of kikuyu make it a successful plant for instant lawns.
Kikuyu grass is originally from eastern Africa and was introduced to New Zealand in 1936. The aggressive perennial grass spreads by rhizomes below the ground, long runners above ground and it also sets seed.
While the subtropical grass tends to die back in winter, it is often the only surviving grass in summer in northern parts of New Zealand, making it a vital pasture component for farmers and landowners in Northland. Northland farmers have learned how to manage kikuyu and Ryan realised that other landowners could as well.
"There is plenty of goodness in kikuyu if it is managed well, and it makes a great lawn for coastal areas."
Ryan uses three types of kikuyu that perform well in the toughest Northland soils and conditions.
The Whittet variety is chosen for its rapid summer growth, drought tolerance and suppression of undesirable weeds.
Acacia Plateau is a fast-establishing forage kikuyu with improved cold tolerance.
Regal StayGreen is a turf-type kikuyu that has a darker-green colour and finer leaf texture and is also more cold tolerant and is used for golf course fairways and sports fields.
"New hybrids are being developed to be even better looking and denser,'' he said.
Ryan has two blocks of leased land in the Ruakaka area to give a total of 6ha.
Turf crops are grown using a mix of kikuyu and New Zealand hybrid ryegrass to give year-round lawn coverage.
The grass is established using the technique of stolonisation, where clumps are planted about 300mm apart and allowed to spread to fill in the gaps.
"We prefer stolonisation rather than seed as it is a lot easier to control the purity of the grass. Other grasses tend to pop up if we grow from seed,'' he said.
"We get a good rate of growth from kikuyu so it doesn't take too long to establish. The stolonising is all done by hand.''
Ryan employs three permanent staff as well as others who have been down on their luck and need help with employment.
"I take in high school kids who have been expelled from school and ex-convicts. I find if you give them trust they will become good workers because they are trying to get their lives back on track and to better themselves.''
He is also a keen sponsor of local sport clubs.
The grass crops take about nine months to grow so forward planning for orders is essential.
A harvesting machine undercuts the grass into strips with a small layer of soil. The strips are then rolled by hand with the grass facing inside and stacked up.
"These are perishable goods. The rolls have to be laid within 36 hours,'' Ryan said.
Northcoast Turf operates all over Northland and as far south as the North Shore of Auckland.
"We have taken truckloads of turf to Waiheke Island before. One of our biggest jobs was for a 1.2ha instant lawn at a mansion at Helena Bay.''
Ryan said as soon as the grass has been cut it was constantly under stress and it was important to maintain its moisture content.
"In some places the rolls are filled with ice to keep the grass from cooking.''
Ryan said the main challenges of growing grass were nematodes and keeping the soil in good condition for every crop. This entailed an intensive regime of fertilisers such as seaweed and molasses as well as a top dressing of crushed oyster shells.
"We have to maintain the soil well so we can keep producing grass. Sometimes we rest a paddock and plant regenerative plants like mustard or lupins to replenish the soil.
"We try to keep it as organic as possible as we are near tidal drains.''