Filed under: Uncategorized
On September 16, 2012 I concluded a two year trial of five tall fescue cultivars and one Kentucky bluegrass cultivar in my back yard in Buffalo NY to answer the question “Does tall fescue spread?”
The answer is yes and no, depending on how you define the word “spread”.
Tall fescue is known as a non-spreading species; often referred to as a bunch grass. Tall fescue plants produce tillers; leaf blades growing from the basal shoot of the mother plant. One tall fescue plant can produce many tillers. Thus tall fescue turf can grow denser over time but a pure stand of tall fescue is unlikely to spread or fill in dead spots with new plants.
Kentucky bluegrass is a spreading species. The bluegrass plant produces rhizomes, or underground lateral shoots, which extend out from the parent. New plants emerge from below ground at nodes on the rhizome. When these new plants mature they too can send out rhizomes, thus repairing damaged turf with new plants.
In the last decade Barenbrug Seed Company introduced Labarinth, the first spreading tall fescue. Labarinth is marketed as RTF (Rhizomatous Tall Fescue) and was initially sold as a component of Barenbrug USA’s WaterSaver seed mixture. To my knowledge Labarinth was never tested in the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) Tall Fescue trials.
Labarinth RTF led to the introduction of a rash of so-called spreading varieties. The marketing name for the spreading trait varies, but they all imply a tall fescue lawn that will spread and repair itself.
One marketer promoted varieties with SRP, Self Repair Potential. “The presence of rhizomes creates a self-repair potential for this species which can speed establishment, improve traffic tolerance, plus aid and increase recovery potential from damage” they claim.
Another marketer introduced “LS Technology” (Lateral Spread) which “on occasion…have also been observed to create rhizomes, which similar to bluegrass, form distinct new plants adjacent to the mother plant, again increasing stand density and hastening recuperation”.
Another company introduced a RZ version of one of its conventional tall fescue varieties, promising a “rhizomatous or spreading type tall fescue”.
Most impressively, one company touts a tall fescue variety where “nearly 100% of the plants are rhizomatous”. Unfortunately that variety was not in my test.
I’m a bit of a skeptic, especially when it comes to claims of changing the growth habit of a turfgrass species. I’m not saying it can’t or hasn’t been done. I just want to see it with my own eyes before I believe it.
In August 2010 I removed a 8’ by 12’ area of sod from my backyard lawn. I used Round-up to kill anything that grew back, levelled the area with bagged topsoil, and installed black lawn edging to segregate 6 plots from each other and the surrounding lawn.
On September 1, 2010 I planted five improved tall fescue varieties and Midnight Kentucky bluegrass. Three of the tall fescues claim to spread (3rd Millennium, Firecracker LS, and Rhambler) and two make no spreading claims to my knowledge (Faith and Tar Heel II).
I achieved excellent seeding establishment in all 6 plots and fertilized with 1 lb Actual N in fall of 2010.
In April 2011 I killed a circle of turf in the center of each plot by spraying Round-up into a 3 lb coffee can with both ends removed. My intent was to duplicate the turf damage frequently found on home lawns. After about a month I removed all the dead turf down to bare dirt inside the circles.
I fertilized with 1 lb Actual N/1000 three times in 2011 and two times in 2012.
I wanted to test the hypothesis that spreading tall fescues would fill in the coffee can area and the non-spreading varieties wouldn’t. Additionally, I wanted to benchmark tall fescue spreading against Midnight Kentucky bluegrass, a well known spreading variety.
After 2 years I observed the following:
- The Midnight plot completely healed and the killed area was populated with fine bladed bluegrass plants.
- None of the five tall fescue plots showed any evidence of rhizomes. I was able to gently lift up the tillers on the perimeter of the killed area and slide the 3 lb coffee can back in place. In all five plots the bare ground inside the edge of the coffee can was devoid of any grass plants.
- In the five tall fescue plots the plants on the circumference of the circle produced very wide-bladed tillers (4-5 times wider than typical leaf blades in the remainder of the plot). These coarse tillers extended to cover approximately 50% of the killed area.
- There was no obvious difference in the growth habit of any of the five tall fescue varieties.
As I said, the outcome of my non-scientific test hinges on the meaning of the word “spread”.
Turf type tall fescues have always “spread” by producing long, wide bladed tillers on the edge of a damaged area. The varieties I tested did just that. As far as I was able to observe, none of them extended a rhizome (underground lateral shoot) into the killed area during two growing seasons and none of them came close to the self healing properties of Midnight Kentucky bluegrass during that time.
I have read the spreading claims and seen complicated graphs showing how certain tall fescue varieties spread by rhizomes. It seems to me the seed marketers are measuring a distinction without a difference. When you talk to homeowners about spreading grass, they think of Kentucky bluegrass. It is clear from my trial that the term spreading with regard to tall fescue has a completely different meaning than spreading of Kentucky bluegrass.
This trial reinforced the value of tall fescue as a desirable lawn species for northern growing conditions. All five of the tall fescue cultivars had similar color and leaf texture compared to Midnight Kentucky bluegrass. All of them greened-up several weeks earlier than Midnight and stayed green longer under unusually hot summer weather in 2012.
I saw no winter damage in the tall fescues over two winters.
Based on this I will continue to recommend tall fescue as a reasonable alternative to Kentucky bluegrass in the Northeast and upper Mid-West.
If I was a buying tall fescue for my own lawn I would not allow my purchase decision to be influenced by unsubstantiated claims of rhizomes in tall fescue.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: drew kinder, intrigue chewings fescue, seedsuperstore.com, weed control
In August 2007 I posted a blog about Intrigue Chewings Fescue (Intrigue…a Natural Born Killer) that referred to research at Cornell University which was reported in the March 2007 edition of Science News.
The jist of the Science News article was that Intrigue has a natural ability to kill common lawn weeds. In the article Dr. Leslie Weston, at the time a Cornell weed scientist, was quoted as saying “Intrigue generally keeps a planted field 95% percent weedfree (sic) without use of supplemental herbicides”.
I was skeptical of this claim so in the spring of 2008 I began an informal test of Intrigue under heavy weed pressure with no herbicide or fertilizer use.
I have a neighbor in Buffalo, NY whose lawn is infested with a wide array of broadleaf weeds competing with a thin stand of fine bladed grasses. He believes in zero input lawn care and does nothing other than mow his lawn; no fertilizer, no herbicide, no water.
In May 2008, with his permission I overseeded Intrigue into a square patch of his lawn using my garden weasel. I didn’t skimp on the Intrigue seed and fortunately we had frequent rains for several weeks so I was able to get a good stand of Intrigue in that portion of the lawn.
I pretty much ignored the test in 2009, and in April 2010 I took this photo of the Intrigue (inside the yellow tape).
You can see that the lawn is pretty much infested with dandelions. The area with the Intrigue has somewhat fewer dandelions than other parts of the lawn, but it is certainly not weed free.
In June 2010, at the conclusion of an unusually wet spring, I went back for another look. I found the entire lawn, including the Intrigue test, completely over-run by clover and other dicot weeds.
My unscientific conclusion from this zero-input lawn is that Intrigue may show some weed suppression under laboratory conditions, but under severe weed pressure with no fertilization Intrigue did not keep common broadleaf weeds out of the lawn.
I still use Intrigue in the SS6000 shade mix at SeedSuperStore.com based on its performance in the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) Trials for overall turfgrass quality and dark green color, but I would caution against expectations that it will keep your lawn weed free without herbicide use.
Here are some really interesting seed mixes and blends created using the Seed Customizer program in the spring of 2008.
I do not intend to rank them. Every custom mix is as good as the next, so they are all tied for first place in my opinion. My policy is to never ship a seed mix that I would not plant on my own lawn, assuming I lived in the same zip code as the customer. If I do not like a mix, which is very rare, I will call the customer to discuss it. In the eight year history of SeedSuperStore.com I have never failed to reach agreement on a suitable custom mix.
Timothy J., Marquette Heights, IL ……..Shady but Spreading Mix
20% Brilliant Kentucky bluegrass
20% A-34 Kentucky bluegrass
20% Celestial creeping red fescue
20% Intrigue chewings fescue
20% RaZor creeping red fescue
I like this mix because Timothy combines scientific evaluation with old fashioned instinct to solve his shade problem.
Three of the components of his custom mix are improved cultivars of species with known shade tolerance (Celestial and Razor creeping red fescue and Intrigue chewings fescue). Kentucky bluegrass is not particularly shade tolerant, but Brilliant has the highest shade tolerance rating of any bluegrass, and it spreads.
Finally, Timothy added 20% A-34 Kentucky bluegrass to his “Shady but Spreading” Mix. A-34 is a legendary variety that predates the NTEP evaluation program, so we can’t statistically compare it to newer bluegrasses. A-34 was made famous by Warren’s Turf Nurseries in Illinois and many homeowners in the Chicago area have had great luck with it. I suspect Timothy is one of them, or the son of one of them.
Jonathan G, Roslyn, NY ………
Backyard Fescue Blend
60% Inferno tall fescue
20% Justice tall fescue
20% 2nd Millennium tall fescue
Front Lawn Bluegrass Blend
30% SS1100 Bluegrass blend
20% Midnight II Kentucky bluegrass
20% Moonlight Kentucky bluegrass
30% Bedazzled Kentucky bluegrass
April ’08 Maine Mix
20% Jasper II creeping red fescue
20% Longfellow II chewings fescue
40% Intrigue chewings fescue
20% Oxford hard fescue
As you can see, Jon is a great believer in the Seed Customizer program. The Maine Mix is for a lakeside cottage where he is limited in his use of fertilizer and herbicides.
Jon and I communicate by phone and email so frequently, I feel like I know his lawn as well as he does. Since his first order in the fall of ’07 we have exchanged over a dozen emails. We talk about weeds, spreading tall fescue, herbicide tolerance and just about anything that helps Jon create a perfect lawn.
Jon was nice enough to send me this photo of his front lawn 51 days after seeding with his custom bluegrass blend.
Jason D, Norman OK ……DixonKBGFY08 Blend
30% Bedazzled Kentucky bluegrass
30% NuDestiny Kentucky bluegrass
20% Midnight II Kentucky bluegrass
20% Fahrenheit 90 Hybrid bluegrass
Jason obviously studied up on bluegrass. His blend combines three great Kentucky bluegrasses with Fahrenheit 90, the new heat tolerant bluegrass, which is designed to tolerate hot summers in Oklahoma.
Jason S, De Pere WI …………Campground Mix II
20% Paragon GLR perennial ryegrass
20% Garnet creeping red fescue
30% Gotham hard fescue
30% Brilliant Kentucky bluegrass
Three of these components were added to our product list this spring and Jason wasted no time including them in a really superior shade mix for his campground.
Mark S, Marshalltown IA …….. Markie’s Customer Selected Shade Mix
20% Spartan II hard fescue
20% Longfellow II chewings fescue
20% Zodiac chewings fescue
20% America Kentucky bluegrass
10% Jasper II creeping red fescue
10% Oxford hard fescue
Mark even mentioned the type of trees (black walnut) this mix is planted under. He clearly subscribes to the theory of genetic diversity in his custom shade mix.
Daniel M, State College PA ….. NTEP Nuglade-Bluegrass-Fescue Mix
20% Award Kentucky bluegrass
30% Nuglade Kentucky bluegrass
10% Spartan hard fescue
20% Zodiac chewings fescue
20% Midnight Kentucky bluegrass
I include Dan’s mix because I share his view of the appropriateness of mixing fine fescue with Kentucky bluegrass. There are some self-appointed turfgrass experts on several internet lawn chat boards who decry this combination as ignorant. “Fine fescue and bluegrass don’t mix”, they say.
I disagree, and so does Dan. In a yard with variable sun/shade conditions, the fine fescue component of the mix may prevent a bare spot in the shadiest areas. In the full sun areas, the three Kentucky bluegrass cultivars will be so lush and rich during the growing season, you probably won’t notice the fine bladed hard and chewings fescue.
Years ago I planted a test plot of every turfgrass variety we sold at Kinder Seed Company in Buffalo. One thing I learned from that plot is how much earlier the fine fescues break winter dormancy and green up compared to the elite Kentucky bluegrasses. I suspect Dan’s lawn in State College will green up earlier than his neighbors who have 100% bluegrass sod.
Ken K, Hartford WI ……… Ken’s Special Red Thread Blend
50% Dynamo Kentucky bluegrass
50% Bedazzled Kentucky bluegrass
Ken did his homework to select two Kentucky bluegrass cultivars with above average red thread disease resistance. After Ken created this custom blend we added Brilliant Kentucky bluegrass to our product list. Brilliant has even higher red thread resistance than Dynamo and Bedazzled, so I suspect if Ken reorders next year his new custom blend will include Brilliant as well.
Mike E, Pittsfield MA …… Mike’s Backyard Blend
40% Moonlight Kentucky bluegrass
30% Bedazzled Kentucky bluegrass
20% Award Kentucky bluegrass
10% Blue Velvet Kentucky bluegrass
Mike is another serial custom mixer. He started with this mix and reordered several times this spring, finally settling on a 70% Moonlight/30% Award blend. It’s a shame Mike’s lawn is not visible from the street. It has to be one of the finest lawns in all of Pittsfield MA.
Michael L, Stillman Valley, IL ……. and every other customer who uses 10 different varieties in their custom mix.
Measuring out ten separate components and labeling a 10 pound custom mix is kind of a pain for me, but I love it when customers do it. It proves you are paying attention to the differences between varieties and taking full advantage of our extensive product selection.
Jim W, Medford NJ ……..
30% Jamestown V chewings fescue
20% Midnight II Kentucky bluegrass
50% SS8000 hard fescue blend
80% SS1001 Brown Patch Blend
10% Total Eclipse Kentucky bluegrass
10% Midnight II Kentucky bluegrass
Jim is a long time acquaintance from the 1980’s when he worked for Cornell Co-operative Extension in Rochester NY. In New Jersey he obviously has different growing conditions in his front and back lawns. His custom mixes combine our specialized blends with adapted varieties to solve problems and maximize the beauty of his entire yard.
I apologize for leaving out all the other really great custom mixes that have come across my laptop computer this spring. As I said, there is no such thing as a bad custom mix at SeedSuperStore.com. I just ran out of room to mention them all.
How would you feel if you bought a box of Raisin Bran cereal and later found it was filled with bite size Shredded Wheat?
That’s how I feel when I examine packages in the lawn seed departments at the large national brand stores in Buffalo, NY.
The lawn seed industry has lost its way. Some large seed companies focus almost entirely on beautiful packaging pronouncing outlandish claims of quality and performance. The result is an exercise in marketing that has almost no basis in fact.
How do I know this? After 28 years in the lawn seed business I know how the system works. More importantly, I know how it can be done differently, which is the way we do it at SeedSuperStore.com.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not begrudge the industry for selling inexpensive seed that satisfies the expectations of many customers. What I object to are the exaggerated quality claims used to convince homeowners they are buying seed that will produce the highest quality lawn.
Here is how it works:
At one end of the lawn seed pipeline are the plant breeders, a small and dedicated group of scientists who devote 7-10 years of their life selecting succeeding generations of the same grass seed plant to isolate a particular attribute, such as disease resistance, insect resistance, drought resistance, color, growth habit, etc.
At the culmination of that painstaking process the new plant is submitted to an independent body of plant breeders who confirm it is distinct, stable, and different from other varieties of the same species. Once cleared, the plant is registered by variety name, and in many cases is protected from unauthorized copying through a US government program called Plant Variety Protection or through a patent.
Next in line are the professional seed growers. These specialized farmers grow individual seed varieties on large irrigated fields free of all other vegetation. They carefully prevent contamination from the remnants of previous crops and aggressively remove weeds.
Most grass seed is grown in the US Pacific Northwest where winter temperatures are ideal for grass plants and summers are hot and dry. Dry weather is required for drying seed to proper harvest moisture without fear of rain, which can cause the seed to sprout on the stalk. Finally, after mid-summer harvest the seed is stored in sanitized storage facilities. This step is critical to preserve the identity of the variety, since seed varieties of the same species are indistinguishable to the naked eye.
Seed Certifying Agencies in the state where the seed is produced verify this process. These independent professionals visit the seed growers to verify the seed planted by the farmer is authentic foundation seed which was produced from a breeder seed plot maintained by the plant breeder. Seed certifiers also physically examine the fields for the presence of noxious weeds, contamination from previous seed crops, and isolation from other pollen sources of the same plant species.
The final quality step is field testing of commercial and experimental varieties in the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP), which compares the performance of seed varieties under diverse growing conditions in approximately 35 states. These plots are almost always located at state universities and are evaluated at regular intervals by trained, independent evaluators who are not aware of the identities of the varieties they are rating. These independent evaluations are published annually and posted on the internet at www.ntep.org.
Several things are clear from the NTEP trials;
- There are measurable quality differences between seed varieties
- Old seed varieties become obsolete and newer varieties almost always do better in the trials.
The other end of the turfgrass pipeline:
At the other end of the pipeline are the mass merchants and a handful of seed companies large enough to supply their massive volume requirements.
Genetic quality is not an issue here. In fact, at this end of the pipeline genetic differences in varieties might as well not exist. I know this because when I examine identical packages on the shelves, containing identical quality claims, I find different seed varieties in the bag (according to the seed label, which thankfully is required by law).
This leads me to the shredded wheat in the raisin bran box analogy. In one particularly egregious case, one seed company packs two entirely different seed mixes, containing different grass species, in identical “Expert Gardener” brand bags proclaiming “Perfect Seed” that “Grows Anywhere”. In the national chain store I visited, one size of this branded product contained 100% tall fescue and another size contained a mix of bluegrass, ryegrass and fine fescue. Unless the unsuspecting homeowner flipped the package over to find the small seed label on the back, he or she would never know the two identical bags produced dramatically different lawns.
Here is my top 10 list of lawn seed products to avoid in 2008:
1. Scotts “Heat Tolerant Blue”. A reasonable person who presumes this product is Kentucky bluegrass would be dead wrong. “Heat Tolerant Blue” is 90% tall fescue, and 10% Thermal hybrid bluegrass, which is a cross between Texas bluegrass and Kentucky bluegrass. Thermal is bred for summer survival in the south, not the relatively cool growing conditions we have in Buffalo.
2. Vigoro seed. Vigoro showed up in Buffalo for the first time this year at one of the large home improvement stores. Their two offerings, “Ultra Turf” brand Shady Lawn Mix and “Ultra Turf” brand Sun-Shade Lawn Mix, both contain Pantara Italian Rye which is an annual ryegrass. Annual ryegrass, as far as I know, has never been recommended for use on home lawns by any Cooperative Extension turfgrass expert in any state. It competes for water, air, and sunlight and then dies in winter, leaving a gap in the turf the follow spring.
3. Expert Gardener brand “Perfect Seed” that “Grows Anywhere”. See my comments above. Barenbrug Seed Company gets my award for chutzpa. They should change their claim from “Grows Anywhere” to “Grows Somewhere, depending on the components”.
4. Scotts Select Turf “Sun and Shade” (50% Boreal creeping red fescue, 35% Ragnar II perennial ryegrass, 15% Alene Kentucky bluegrass). Boreal is a fancy name for common creeping red fescue. Although it is adapted to shady growing conditions, Boral has none of the bred-in advantages of improved fine fescue varieties. Ragnar II, like all perennial ryegrasses, has no shade tolerance. Alene is a common type bluegrass that ranks at the bottom of the NTEP trials.
5. Pennington Sun and Shade (70% Integra Perennial Ryegrass). Why do they keep claiming shade tolerance for perennial ryegrass? It’s just not true.
6. Pennington Master Turf 3 way Kentucky bluegrass blend (50% Geronimo Kentucky bluegrass, 50% Kenblue Kentucky bluegrass). One plus one equals three at Pennington.
7. Front Lawn brand Shady Lawn Mix from Pennington (40% Airlie tall fescue, 30% Boreal creeping red fescue, 15% Annual rye, 15% perennial ryegrass). This is a strange mix. The perennial rye will die from lack of sun, the annual rye will die from winter kill, and what remains will be wide bladed tall fescue plants intermingled with very fine bladed creeping red fescue. This is one of those lawns that looks best from the street driving by at 30 miles an hour.
8. Scotts Reseed Supreme for Maximum Density (95% Tall Fescue and 5% Thermal hybrid bluegrass). In Buffalo the most common turfgrass combination in a home built in the last 25 years is 100% bluegrass sod in the front yard and a mixture of bluegrass, ryegrass and fine fescue in the back. Homeowners who overseed with Reseed Supreme may be adding a new species to their lawn plus a heat tolerant hybrid bluegrass which is not ideal for planting this far north. In my opinion, if your goal is “maximum density” Kentucky bluegrass is your best bet in this area due to its natural ability to spread and to thicken up over time.
9. Pennington “Smart Seed” with the “Myco Advantage”. I went to the Pennington website to learn more about the “Myco Advantage”. I found slick videos and strong claims of environmental friendliness, but no scientific proof to substantiate their claim of water savings (“up to 30% water savings”). I will give them the benefit of the doubt on this new product, but after several seasons I hope for some sort of independent verification of the claim. Otherwise, “Myco Advantage” ends up in my dust bin of exaggerated marketing claims along with “RTF” (Rhizomatous Tall Fescue), which questionably claims to spread and fill in damaged spots.
10. Scotts Turfbuilder Sun and Shade (45% Divine perennial rye, 35% Boreal creeping red fescue, 20% Kenblue Kentucky bluegrass). The bag says it is adapted for sites with “2 -10 hours a day” of sun. Give me a break. Perennial rye will not survive with only 2 hours of sun. What happens if this lawn gets 11 hours of sun? Does it self destruct? Kenblue is inferior. It has been around the seed business longer than I have and always ranks near the bottom of the NTEP trials. Boreal is common seed.
Remember, perfect lawns begin with improved seed genetics. When you plant second rate genetics, the time, effort and money you invest in your lawn will never be optimized.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: drew kinder, intrigue chewings fescue, seedsuperstore.com, weed control
In addition to its unusual ability to kill weeds, Intrigue also produces high quality turf. Based on the 1999-2002 National Fine Fescue test, we rate Intrigue “Very Good” for high, medium and low input conditions. It has a dark green color. (See the Intrigue Chewings Fescue “Stat Sheet” under the Products tab for more information.)
Jennifer W from Princeton NJ:
W_Back Mix: 20% each of Princeton 105 bluegrass, Total Eclipse bluegrass, Intrigue chewings fescue, Jasper II creeping red fescue, and Spartan II hard fescue.
This is a very interesting variation of our SS6000 shade mix, with much improved wear tolerance compared to SS6000, and nearly as good shade tolerance. I have a mental picture of Jennifer’s partially shaded back yard with several Great Danes romping on the grass.
Nathan R of Salt Lake City:
Backyard Blend: 40% Blue Velvet, 20% Award, 20% Midnight, 20% Rugby II bluegrass. Nathan obviously studied the NTEP trials, because all 4 of the bluegrasses in his blend were top performers in the Mountain West region where he lives.
Troy B of Huntingtown MD:
Queensbury Mix: 20% Jamestown V chewings fescue, 20% Celestial creeping red fescue, 20% Firefly hard fescue, 10% Brooklawn bluegrass, 10% Sabre III poa trivialis, 10% Supina bluegrass, 10% Dynamo bluegrass. This is another very interesting shade mix. Troy located just about everything in our warehouse that tolerates low light conditions. Poa Supina and Poa Trivialis add wear tolerance and moisture tolerance as well as shade tolerance. Firefly and Celestial are two superior new shade tolerant grasses we introduced this spring.
David W of Dayton OH:
Supreme Blue blend: 20% each of America, Bedazzled, Freedom III, Midnight II, and Total Eclipse. Watch out Dayton! This will be one heck of a front lawn!
Chris of Jefferson City, MO:
Steele Mix: 30% Justice Tall Fescue, 30% Inferno Tall Fescue, 20% Padre Tall Fescue, 20% Award Kentucky bluegrass. Chris identified three great tall fescues and then added Award bluegrass to fill in if the tall fescue fails. Award is rated Very Good in the Transition zone. Missouri is a challenging environment for tall fescue, with frequent summer fungal disease outbreaks. Award bluegrass should enhance Chris’ lawn over time.
Christopher from Naperville IL:
McKnight Sports Mix: 40% Chicago II, 40% Moonlight, 20% Rugby II bluegrass. Wow, that is one dark green lawn.
David M of Hollywood MD:
Shady Gunner Mix: 10% each of Zodiac, Longfellow II, Firefly, Oxford II, Spartan II, Razor, Shadow II, Minotar and 20% Celestial Creeping Red Fescue. David obviously believes in genetic diversity in his fine fescue lawn. If this mix won’t persist in the shade, nothing will!
Jeffrey F from West Hartford CT:
Bedazzled BenSun Blend: 70% Bedazzled, 30% A-34 BenSun. Jeffery combined one of the newest and best bluegrasses, Bedazzled, with A-34, a legendary bluegrass that has performed exceptionally well in the east and mid-west for over a generation. Our friends at Turf Merchants, Inc., the proprietor of these two varieties, would be pleased with Jeffery’s choices.
Although not custom mixes, all the orders we received for Intrigue chewings fescue following the publication of the Science News article on allelopathy (see my blog “Intrigue…a Natural Born Killer) reinforces my belief that homeowners want superior genetics for their lawn.
Around St. Patrick’s Day, 2007 I conducted a survey of the lawn seed being sold in my home town of Buffalo NY.
I limited my search to the national “Big Box” retailers to get a better idea of what is selling across the country. I visited three stores; megastore “WM”, home improvement store “HD” and home improvement store “L”. The names have been withheld to protect me from detection by some nefarious web crawler.
Home improvement store HD did not have a new supply of seed in stock as of March 3. I will circle back later to check their new offerings, but frankly, I will be surprised if they are materially different than WM or L’s.
In my survey I examined 27 different seed mixes in the two stores. Several identically branded products are sold in both stores, but they contain different seed varieties, so I counted them as different products.Grades:
Mechanical Quality A
Genetic Quality D
Agronomic Quality C-
The lawn seed department is spectacular. Standing straight on the shelf, the beautifully printed bags proclaim in bold colors the solution to all your lawn problems. Names like “Pure Premium”, “Dense Shade Mix” and “Ultra Fescue” shout to trusting shoppers. My personal favorite is “Perfect Seed” from the “Expert Gardener” brand, promising to be “the only seed you will ever need”. Based on packaging alone, one would expect to be buying the best possible lawn seed.
Mechanical quality is the measure of seed contaminants such as weeds and other crop seeds, as well as the germination rate.
I found the seed to be uniformly high in germination and low in weeds and other crop seeds. Scotts is particularly noteworthy for consistently offering seed with only .01% weeds, which is extremely low. Almost every product from every seed company had weeds at .05% or less, which is more than acceptable.
Germination was also very good; 85% or better for bluegrass and routinely 90% for other species.
In general, it is not possible to differentiate seed brands based on mechanical quantity. The large chains apparently demand clean, vigorous seed, and all the seed packagers comply.
Genetic quality is the bred-in ability of a seed to produce a beautiful, disease resistant lawn. Genetic quality comes from turfgrass plant breeders who carefully select and cross individual turfgrass plants for as long as 10 years to produce a distinct improved variety.
Genetic quality differs from mechanical quality. If you plant seed with great mechanical quality and very poor genetic quality, you will get a bad lawn 100% of the time. On the contrary, if you plant seed with great genetic quality and poor mechanical quality you can still produce a great lawn. You might have to use more seed to compensate for a low germination rate, or use extra weed control after the lawn is established, but the underlying lawn will be beautiful.
Bluegrass: Buffalo is in the heart of bluegrass growing country, which I roughly define as the area from Minneapolis down to Indianapolis across to mid-state New Jersey and up through Boston and back to Minneapolis again.
You would expect retailers to offer a fairly good genetic selection of Kentucky bluegrasses in Buffalo, but the opposite is the case.
Here are the primary bluegrass varieties I found;
• Abbey: This variety finished in the middle of the pack in the first National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) bluegrass trial more than 20 years ago. Abbey ranked significantly below Midnight and other well known older varieties in overall turfgrass quality.
• Park: Developed by the University of Minnesota in 1957, Park is described as an agricultural forage type bluegrass by Penn State University.
• Kenblue: This is another forage bluegrass popular with farmers and ranchers. Developed in the late 60’s by the University of Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station and the USDA, Kenblue is a standard entry in the NTEP bluegrass trials, where it consistently finishes at the bottom of the trial for turfgrass quality.
• Newport: Originally released in 1958, Newport is a non-proprietary variety that is widely used by seed growers in Washington State as a common type bluegrass.
• Blue Bonnet: This bluegrass variety is being used by both of the major seed companies supplying WM and L’s.
Fine Fescue: Growing grass in the shade is one of the greatest lawn challenges in Buffalo. The recommended species for planting in the shade are creeping red fescue, chewings fescue, and hard fescue.
The most commonly used fine fescue I found in shade mixes was creeping red fescue. Chewings fescue was used in only one mix, Pennington’s Sun& Shade, and hard fescue was not used in any mixes.
Boreal is the primary creeping red fescue being used. Boreal is synonymous with common, unimproved Canadian creeping red fescue.
I noticed a few more improved varieties of creeping red fescue are being used this season. These include Fenway, Aruba, and a newer variety named Lustrous.
Replacing Boreal with improved varieties is a step in the right direction, but unfortunately it is cancelled out by the inappropriate use of non-shade tolerant components in the same mixes. I have more to say about this under agronomic quality.
Tall Fescue: The good news about tall fescue is the chain stores seem to have pretty much discontinued selling K-31 tall fescue, which is a weed in my opinion. The bad news is that the improved tall fescue varieties that replaced it are not as good as they could be. With the exception of 30% Justice Tall Fescue in Pennington’s Ultra Fescue, and their Rebel Elite blend, the improved tall fescue varieties being offered are either low rated in the NTEP trials or have never been tested.
Agronomic Quality: I define Agronomic quality as providing the appropriate seed for the environment in which the grass is to be grown.
In my opinion, the most egregious failure in agronomic quality is Scott’s Pure Premium “Heat Tolerant Blue”.
I believe the average gardener in Buffalo who buys this product will believe he or she is purchasing Kentucky bluegrass seed. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Heat Tolerant Blue” contains 90% tall fescue by weight, and 10% Thermal hybrid bluegrass. Hybrid bluegrasses are a cross between Texas bluegrass (Poa arachnifera) and Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis). Hybrids are bred to survive climates too hot for Kentucky bluegrass, such as Georgia and Alabama (see Fahrenheit 90 hybrid bluegrass on our price list). When you cross Texas bluegrass with Kentucky bluegrass you gain heat tolerance but you lose a measure of turfgrass quality. Clearly, Buffalo, NY is an inappropriate place to plant heat tolerant bluegrass, even considering global warming. Furthermore, the unsuspecting homeowner who renovates or patches his beautiful bluegrass lawn with “Heat Tolerant Blue” will end up with a tall fescue and bluegrass succotash lawn.
Another agronomic disappointment is all the shady mixes that contain high percentages of perennial ryegrass or intermediate ryegrass. Perennial ryegrass has no shade tolerance, so any amount above 20% (for quick cover) reduces the effectiveness of the mix.
Intermediate rye packs a double whammy. Not only is it not shade tolerant, but it is not winter hardy either. What shade doesn’t kill, cold weather will. One really objectionable shade mix contained intermediate rye, Boreal creeping red fescue, and Kenblue Kentucky bluegrass. I almost gagged!
There are a number of ways to reduce seed costs. One is to use obsolete seed varieties for which no plant breeding royalty is collected.
A second way to reduce cost is to use varieties that produce a high seed yield. Seed growers are paid by the pound not by the acre, therefore they prefer to grow high yielding varieties and demand a premium to grow low yielding varieties. Improved varieties, especially elite Kentucky bluegrass varieties, sometimes produce fewer pounds of seed per acre than older common varieties and thus cost more.
The net result of these factors is a product selection where the ultimate quality of your lawn is secondary to the selling price of the seed.
I know I am preaching to the choir here, but if you really care about your lawn it is prudent to be cautious about the seed you purchase.