The Best Grass Seed
September 1st, 2005
Grass is grass, right?
You might think that’s the case, but if you’re constantly battling grubs, chinch bugs, crabgrass, dandelions, fungal diseases and assorted other lawn maladies, you might want to think again.
The truth is, all grass is NOT created equal.
If you doubt it, visit Penn State University’s Joseph Valentine Turfgrass Research Center sometime.
Much of these 17 acres — located just a few good punts north of Penn State’s Beaver Stadium — is devoted to trials of hundreds of different grass-seed varieties.
That’s right, hundreds. All of those little green blades might look alike, but there are infinite subtle but important differences from type to type.
“Would you want this one in your lawn or that one?” asks Dave Livingston, one of the center’s researchers, pointing to two 4-by-6-foot grass test plots.
It’s a no-brainer.
The perennial ryegrass block on the right is thick, deep green, uniform… in short, immaculate.
Immediately to the left is a slightly different variety of perennial ryegrass that’s pock-marked with brown patches.
“This one has a disease called dollar spot,” says Livingston. “Both blocks were treated the same way. The only difference is the variety.”
Some 5 acres of the trial grounds are devoted to nothing more than block after block of the big four types of grass used in Pennsylvania lawns — perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue and fine fescue.
Even a 4-year-old could walk these fields and point out the good stuff from the dogs. The differences are that striking.
Yet even though superior grass varieties are already known and available to those who look hard enough, the vast majority of lawns are still being planted with, excuse the term, crappy old types.
“It’s the same as corn,” says Livingston. “Old corn varieties are nothing like the new ones.”
Just as in Penn State’s tests, our wimpy old grasses are the ones most prone to bugs and disease and most likely to melt out in heat and drought in our home lawns, opening the door to opportunistic weeds and “junk” grasses such as crabgrass, orchardgrass and quackgrass.
Livingston figures this is a situation that boils down to economics and education.
As you might guess, the newer and improved grasses are significantly more expensive than the older types.
Since most people aren’t aware there are so many different kinds of grasses — much less their performance differences — most go with whatever’s cheapest. Building contractors, who do most of the new-lawn seeding, do the same.
Until consumers realize the difference among varieties and show they’re willing to pay for it, seed companies figure it’s futile to put high-priced premium brands on the shelves — especially at discount-oriented, big-box retailers where so much home-lawn seed is sold.
“If you’re lucky, a seed company might put 10 percent of a good variety in its mix with the rest being junk varieties,” says Livingston.
If half your lawn dies, then the stores and companies are happy to sell you more seed next fall… and the fall after that.
Penn State is just one site doing this kind of testing nationwide. Results from all over are compiled under the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program and posted online at www.ntep.org.
You can visit that site yourself, hit the “State Data” and “Pennsylvania” buttons, and see the exact ratings for practically any type of grass seed listed on retail bags.
Or better yet, check the ratings first and then seek out the best varieties. (See the list below for the current top 10 performers in each of the four main grass types for Pennsylvania.)
Livingston says the latter approach is probably going to mean contacting seed companies yourself (the NTEP listings name company producers for some varieties) and either ordering directly or hooking up with their closest distributor.
Another option is buying from mail-order and online grass-seed dealers. Here are three to get you started:
* Seed Super Store, Buffalo, N.Y., 716-683-0683, www.seedsuperstore.com.
* Seedland, Wellborn, Fla., 1-888-820-2080, www.lawngrasses.com.
* Turf-Seed Inc., Hubbard, Ore., 1-800-247-6910, www.turf-seed.com.
Livingston says the most effective way to deal with a chronically trouble-prone lawn is to kill it off, improve the soil and start over, using high-quality seed.
Since most people aren’t going to do that, he says the next best thing is to overseed quality grass seed into existing thin lawns each year. That way you’re at least making a little gradual progress instead of replacing bad with bad.
Whether you’re starting over or overseeding, September is the best month of the year to do either in the Harrisburg area.
The conventional approach for lawn seeding is to use a blend of perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass and fine fescue, with the mix of each varying depending on the amount of sun or shade.
Livingston, however, likes the more uniform look of going with just a single type of grass, but using two or three varieties of the best varieties of that type.
In sunny spots, his favorite is 100 percent perennial ryegrass, using a mix of the varieties Applaud, Jet and Integra. His second choice is 100 percent of a Kentucky bluegrass blend.
In shady spots, he suggests 100 percent of a fine-fescue blend.
In high-traffic areas, turf-type tall fescue can take the most pounding but also has a noticeably coarser look.
Good seed alone won’t solve all your lawn problems overnight, but Livingston says it’s the area that’ll give you the most bang for your lawn-care buck.
“If I’m going to spend more money on my lawn, the first thing I’d spend it on is good seed,” he says.
The top 10 grass-seed varieties for Pennsylvania’s four main types of lawn grass, according to the most current testing done at Penn State University’s Turfgrass Research Center:
* Perennial ryegrass
1.) Mach 1
2.) All Star 2
6.) Gator 3
7.) SR 4220
* Kentucky bluegrass
1.) Midnight II
8.) Blue Velvet
10.) Nu Destiny
* Fine fescue
2.) Reliant IV
4.) IS-FL 28
5.) Pick HF 2
6.) SR 3000
* Tall fescue
2.) Houndog 6
8.) Falcon IV
9.) Greenkeeper WAF
— Source: National Turfgrass Evaluation Program