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Grass Seed: Turf Wars

Separating Fact from Filler

Grass-seed manufacturers introduced products over the past 3 years that are designed to conserve water, grow anywhere and require less maintenance than ever before. But it’s unclear whether these claims are accurate, and it’s difficult to tell what types of grass seed that you’re purchasing.

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Scott Pietrok, who is a father of three in Portland, Ore., wants his house to be surrounded by a thick, lush lawn. It’s just that simple.

But navigating the lawn-care aisle? That isn’t so simple. Pietrok tells us that he finds it overwhelming to select an appropriate grass seed for his lawn at his local big-box store, because the products are packed with a mix of buzz phrases such as “grows anywhere,” “sun and shade” and “water conserving.”

Eager to find the simplest solution, Pietrok has tried several of the newest products that are on the market—so-called all-in-one products that contain grass seed that has a water-absorbing coating, fertilizer and mulch. Manufacturers claim that all-in-one products are more convenient than is applying fertilizer and mulch separately. But Pietrok has had varied success in the past 3 years and frequently finds himself back in the grass-seed aisle every 6 months, still perplexed.

We suffered similar confusion. During a recent trip to The Home Depot, we found roughly 40 different grass-seed products. All of the bags had a picture of an immaculate lawn on the front and a seed-analysis panel on the back that was filled with unfamiliar seed-variety names and seed-purity percentages. We believe that you just about need a degree in turfgrass breeding to determine which seed varieties would work best in your yard. (See “Reading the Panel,” page 31.)

Grass-seed manufacturers admit that the seed-analysis panels are confusing, but—alarmingly—it seems that they would prefer to keep consumers focused on the marketing slogans that are on the front of the bag.

“If people [have] to read the label, I haven’t done my job on the front of the bag to describe the benefits of the product,” says John Sass of Scotts Miracle-Gro, which is one of the largest grass-seed producers in the United States. “My hope is that people don’t have to turn over the back of the bag to read the seed-analysis panel, because that’s a lot of complexity.”

But the seed-analysis panel—required by the Federal Seed Act of 1939 and state laws—includes critical information about the quality of the seed that’s inside of every bag, says Michael Richardson, who is a horticulture professor and turfgrass expert at University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. It’s essential if you want a lush lawn.

“You can’t just look at the shiny pictures on the front,” Richardson says. “You have to turn the bag over and look at the grasses in there.”

Reading the Panel

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The problem is that in the past 40 years of turfgrass breeding, researchers created hundreds of grass-seed varieties that have a different blade shape, color, resistance to disease and tolerance to drought. And almost all grass-seed products—most notably the sun-and-shade blends that are supposed to grow in or out of direct sunlight—contain mixtures of at least two different grass-seed species as well as varieties of those species.

“The idea behind a typical sun-and-shade mix is a shotgun approach—put five or six varieties in a bag, and something should grow everywhere,” says Rodney St. John, who is a turfgrass specialist at Kansas State University.

However, different varieties of grass seed will produce different colors, results and textures in your lawn. Therefore, although multivariety products might provide whole-lawn coverage, they will make your yard look more like a patchwork quilt than a uniform blanket.

COMBINATION CLAIMS. All-in-one products, which Pietrok tried with little success, are the latest trend in grass seed. Pennington and Scotts, which control roughly 60 percent of the market, started to sell these products in 2009 for about $30 for a 10-pound bag.

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