How would you feel if you bought a box of Raisin Bran cereal and later found it was filled of 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.
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 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, which is not the recommended species for lawns in upstate New York, 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 best way to create a thin, wide bladed lawn is to plant tall fescue. After several winters tall fescue suffers so much winter kill that the lawn thins out and the leaf blades of the surviving plants get coarser and coarser. Homeowners who overseed this mix into a typical bluegrass lawn are in for an unpleasant surprise.
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 the trash bin of questionable claims along with “RTF” tall fescue, which claimed 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.
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