Seeding: Success Is All in the Techniques

Jan. 1, 2002

Want to be rich beyond your wildest dreams? Using instant mashed potatoes as your guide, merely invent the ideal grass–”Just add water!”–and the world will beat a path to your door!

For most applications (commercial, golf courses, residential, roadsides), people want grass right away, so various techniques have been devised to accelerate the process. What’s the best way to seed? According to many experts, that answer depends less on your application or site, and more on your preferences and cost parameters.

Grasses Cool and Warm

Different applications favor different grasses; in addition, your United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) zone will dictate which grass varieties are best for your site.

Most cool-season grasses originated in northern Europe and parts of Asia. These species thrive in cool, moist climates and are generally winter-hardy, retaining most of their green throughout the year. As their designation implies, cool-season grasses don’t flourish in hot, dry conditions; they’ll go dormant and turn brown. Cool-season grasses include bent grasses, Kentucky bluegrasses, fescue, and rye grasses.

Warm-season grasses originated in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. For optimum growth, they require warm temperatures, and they can tolerate some drought conditions. When temperatures drop in the fall, warm-season grasses go dormant and turn brown, and in northern areas it’s late spring/early summer before the grass will green-up. Warm-season grasses include Bahia grass, Bermuda grass, Saint Augustine grass, and zoysia.

In general, the “dividing line” for grass types cuts across the US from east to west, from North Carolina across Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. South of that line, warm-season grasses prevail.

That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, however; in many areas, especially the “transition” zones, warm- and cool-season grasses are used or overseeded to compensate for both the cold winters and the hot, humid summers. In these areas, the cool/warm grass mixture allows for a longer period of green and a certain amount of heat and drought tolerance.

In addition, southern golf courses and athletic fields often use a warm/cool mixture for the same reason, albeit in reverse. Florida’s golfers don’t think January is too cold, but warm-season grasses do; overseeding with cool-season grasses allows golf courses to stay green and open for business.

Sod Jump-Starts a Lawn

After taking your hardiness zone and site usage into account, it’s time to plant your chosen grass species. How to proceed? For “instant” grass, there’s nothing like sod. “Sod gives an immediate effect–instant gratification,” says Dave Johnson, president of WindScapes in Minnesota, whose landscape clients sometimes request it. “Sod creates a lawn quicker, with minimum impact,” agrees Bill Foster, president of Chesapeake Sod Farm in Cordova, MD. “A sodded space contains less weeds, so you don’t have to put down herbicides.”

Foster readily admits that sod costs more, but he notes, “After 10 days to two weeks, it’s taken root; the lawn is there. Sod gives you a solid piece of grass, just as long as it’s maintained, and it doesn’t take as much water as some think. I’ve seen garden centers lay it out on concrete or asphalt, and it will grow just as long as it’s watered.”

Used mainly for residential or commercial applications, sod is generally not a viable option for large projects, such as a golf courses. The price of the sod itself, the manpower needed to set the sod, and the required irrigation make sod too cost-prohibitive.

Sod should be stringently tested to ensure it’s weed-free. “We use certified grass seed, usually from Oregon or Washington, although some of our fescue is grown in Georgia and Alabama,” Foster says. “The seed we use goes through Maryland’s USDA office, then we put it through another test to make sure it has no weeds. We choose our seed varieties carefully; if there’s less disease resistance in one bluegrass, we have other varieties we can use.”

Seed: Get It Wet?

Starting from seed is obviously the most cost-effective way to vegetate a site. As for the application of that seed, many contractors divide into two major “camps”: the hydraulic seeders and the terraseeders. (Broadcast application has shown a marked decline, except for agricultural or residential do-it-yourself projects.) Both methods offer ease of application; the seeder units allow contractors to quickly spray an area with seed, compost, fertilizers, and other amendments while using less manpower than manual seeding methods. With their high-powered blowers, both hydro- and terraseeding units can seed difficult, hard-to-reach areas, such as slopes, in an amazingly short amount of time.

For more than 30 years, the Bridgeville, DE—based company Easy Lawn has manufactured and sold hydroseeding equipment worldwide. “We also train people in using our hydraulic seeders,” says President Bob Lisle. “Saving labor costs is the biggest factor that draws people to hydroseeding, but germination ranks up there too. The water is there in the seed mix, creating a higher rate of germination. The process also allows you to add fertilizer and whatever else you need–a tackifier; lime, perhaps; hydromulch to hold the moisture and help control erosion; or dye.”

Dye? “The hydromulch, which is paper or wood fiber, is sometimes dyed green, serving a dual purpose. First, it gives the area a nice green appearance before the grass sprouts. Second, the dye makes it obvious where you’ve sprayed,” Lisle explains. “The mulch breaks down quickly. The paper biodegrades in about six weeks, the wood in about six months, but by then you have grass.”

As good as it is, the hydroseeding process can’t always do everything, “There’s a variety of types of hydroseeding–suiting the application to the requirements of the site, using different techniques or application rates, for example,” Lisle reports. “If you’re trying to grow grass [under] adverse the conditions, you might have to use a blanket or add fiber or a bonded fiber matrix, which will rot away as the grass comes up through it.”

Lisle realizes that the equipment is only as good as the seed that goes in it. “We do tests on seeding and get a lot of feedback from customers. If there are any problems with a seed or a type of site, we come up with a system to solve this.”

Seed: Apply It Dry?

Brian Madden, who oversees the blower-seeder division for Madden Brothers in Cleveland, OH, has “seed it all,” including terraseeding, hydroseeding, seed-and-straw methods. “But we try to promote terraseeding the most. Because it combines organic materials with seed and fertilizer, the process helps seed germination. Terraseeding’s better for erosion control; if it rains right after seeding, the compost holds the seed mixture to the ground.

“For residential work we prefer terraseeding, because we guarantee all our lawns,” Madden continues. “There have been times when we’ve had to go back and redo hydroseeding. Part of the problem is that the hydroseeding mulch is only an eighth of an inch thick, and it’s only paper; if the homeowner doesn’t water it, it dries out and doesn’t germinate well. With terraseeding, we add compost with the seed, and it doesn’t have to be watered as much. Plus, most new-home owners have a clay soil, and you can’t put a lawn on that without some amendment.”

The Madden Brothers’ terraseeding crew is sometimes called out to correct others’ hydroseeding. On one project, Madden recalls, “the client’s landscaper had hydroseeded a new lawn for them the previous year. Over winter, the lawn settled. It was all uneven. We blew the terraseed mix about 2 inches thick and leveled the whole lawn. Because they had no irrigation system, the client’s neighbor said theirs would never look like his golf-course-type ‘perfect’ lawn. But in July, even with drought conditions, the lawn we put in was still green and had to be cut–just like the neighbor’s!”

When terraseeding in northern Ohio, Madden uses 60% specific Kentucky bluegrass and 40% specific perennial rye. “We don’t use anything with less than a 90% germination rate, and our mix contains minimal inert matter. We use eight to 10 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet. For shady locations in a yard, we use red fescues. Some homeowners want wildflower areas; we blow those in too.”

Although terraseeding comprises about 90% of Madden Brothers’s business, the firm still gets calls for other methods. “We blow in crown vetch for roadsides, using perennial rye as a carrier, because vetch takes so long to grow. However, for a large commercial area, or if the Ohio Department of Transportation calls for it, we will hydroseed.

“Sometimes we use PennMulch–hydroseed put in pellet form. The water expands the pellets, which create a protective sheet atop the seeds. We’ll also do seed-straw for rough grade construction, or for new street construction, in that strip 50 feet from the right of way. Seed-straw remains the most cost-effective method for temporary seeding.”

In the Minneapolis—St. Paul area, WindScapes, which has offered full-service landscaping and seeding/erosion control for more than 17 years, makes full use of its blower rigs. The units are not only used for terraseeding but also to blow down compost before adding sod.

“We’ve done it the old fashioned way–Brillion seeding, using a hopper with disk, seeding with straw. Hydroseeding is acceptable, but with terraseeding we have improved our service for a little bit of cost,” states WindScapes’s Johnson. “Terraseeding does it all in one application–soil and seed put down at the same time, with compost as the carrying agent. The beauty of this is that it makes a nice seed bed, it holds moisture, and it requires less fertilizing.

“We sod or terraseed most of our jobs,” he adds. “For a lot of home sites, we’ll sod around the house, but the remaining three-fourths of the yard we will seed.” WindScapes uses Kentucky blue, some perennial rye, and a little red creeping fescue in its mix, with some annual rye for “instant” green.

Although the soil around the rivers is a sandy loam, most of the area’s soil is clay. “When sodding in heavy clay, we put compost down before sodding. If the soil’s really terrible, we’ll till the compost in. Otherwise we’ll blow the compost on, making the site sod-ready with little or no raking. Blowing compost on takes some training, though, to ensure you get a good, uniform depth,” Johnson says.

Because his firm offers a variety of services, Johnson can easily tell clients the pros and cons of each grassing technique. “Sod is twice the cost. Ours is locally grown, so we can accommodate the soil to the site conditions. However, the sod is grown in a sunny area, so on a shady lot we have to make adjustments.

“When terraseeding, we can put in shade mix where it’s needed; the seed mix is self-contained [from the truck], so we can add different seed mixes in one trip.

“We don’t hydroseed much anymore,” he continues. “We’ve probably reseeded 20 hydroseeded lawns–sometimes the seed washes off; sometimes it grows, sometimes it doesn’t. With our terraseeder, we correct the problems. As we blow compost with the seed, our seed is planted, rather than exposed. We don’t get any voids in coverage–the only time I have to go back and fix things is when there’s an unusual rain right after application, or around downspouts’ wash. Three-fourths of an inch of compost is as high as I apply here; any higher and I need to mix in sand, to eliminate ‘squishiness’ or the mess left by excavators.”

Customers are often amazed at terraseeding’s results. “In three to four days they’ll see growth. In about two weeks they’ll have a lawn that needs mowing. Customers will call and say, ‘I can’t believe it!’” In Minnesota, Johnson finds that fall seeding (August 1 through the third week of September) works best, although seeding is also successful from the second week of May until the first or second week of June.

Put a Sock on It!

WindScapes also offers erosion control services. “We use 2 inches of compost on hillsides, eliminating conventional excelsior netting or blankets and replacing silt fences.” WindScapes also has been working with a new product, Filtrexx FilterSocks. “We blow compost inside a cloth/nylon mesh ‘sock,’ which then replaces silt fence, hay bales, and the like. The FilterSock holds the compost in place and allows it to filter the water as it passes through. You can also inject the FilterSocks with seed while filling them. We’re using them in wetland applications around ponds. The socks are 8, 12, or 18 inches in diameter; wildlife can easily get through, as opposed to a silt fence, a ‘wall’ 36 inches high! Construction workers can also drive over FilterSocks–but not over silt fence.”

Filtrexx’s creator, Rod Tyler, owner of Green Horizons in Grafton, OH, notes that the made-on-site berm created by the sock costs less to ship than many other erosion control materials. “It allows compost to be used where it formerly wasn’t, like streambank restorations or inlet protection, to respond to new Phase II regulations. FilterSocks allow for chemical, physical, and biological filtration, which is a step above conventional physical filtration offered by standard products like silt fence.” The sock can be left in place and will eventually blend into the landscape. “When it sprouts, it looks like a giant Chia Pet,” says Tyler.

A University of Georgia test compared FilterSocks, in combination with compost blankets, to silt fences for sediment control. “The FilterSocks and blankets yielded a nondetect for sediment, while the silt fences had a full 5-gallon bucket,” reports Tyler.

Roots Solve the Problem

A newer method of grass planting, sprigging is gaining acceptance around the US. Sprigging accelerates the grass sowing process, as the roots are “already there.” This method has been used in the Southwest and on the Hawaiian Islands for some time and is now making its way into the mainland South as far north as the transition zones (USDA zones 6-7).

KPA Enviro Green International of Snohomish, WA, uses a variation of hydroseeding called hydrosprigging. In this process, hybrid Bermuda sprigs or stolons are sprayed, along with wood-fiber mulch and optional fertilizer, onto the site. According to KPA Enviro Green, an average of six to 12 bushels of stolons are applied per 1,000 ft.2 One caveat: because they’re alive, sprigs must be used quickly; however, refrigerating causes sprigs to go into dormancy, which can extend their use.

grassMasters Sod Farm in Oakland City, IN, uses a dry process. “We grow it all ourselves,” says Owner Joe Bammer. “We buy our sprig diggers but build our own sprig planters because we found we can build better than we can buy.”

“Sprigging provides renovation work for a whole lot less money,” he remarks. “For a golf course conversion, we sprig into existing turf, planting Bermuda or zoysia into existing material. Cool-season grasses can be sprigged, but no one does it; the process uses warm-season grasses. Many golf courses are converting to Bermuda grass because bluegrasses and rye experience disease patterns. Courses not only save money on fungicides and herbicides by converting to Bermuda, but it’s also good at holding up the golf ball.”

The company’s services include row-plant sprigging, in which the machine cuts 0.5-in.-wide by 2-in.-deep grooves into existing grass. Sprigs are pressed into the groove, and a roller follows behind and presses the groove closed. “You don’t have to tear up the field,” Bammer says.

On new acreage (not renovations), grassMasters often performs broadcast sprigging, in which grass rhizomes are spread over loose ground. For plots that need a good, level, “nontrip” surface, grassMasters offers high-flotation athletic field sprigging; the sprigging equipment is equipped with high tires that won’t leave indentations in the field.

Most of grassMasters’s work is performed in Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky. “Although the process has been known longer in the South, more facilities in transition zones are now sprigging,” notes Bammer. “We recently worked on the Cincinnati Bengals’s training fields in Georgetown, Kentucky. We put in Bermuda grass, sodding one field and sprigging the other.

“Sprigging takes a lot of water, just like sod does,” he says. “But you still get great results for less cost.”

About the Author

Janis Keating

Janis Keating is a frequent contributor to Forester Media, Inc. publications.