Planting for the Future

May 1, 2002

Bent grass, fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, perennial rye: Selecting the right turfgrass seed can be either a simple or a complicated matter, depending on the turf’s intended use, cost factors, site location, and site owner’s personal preference.

Think of large expanses of grass–parks and golf courses first come to mind; however, the nation’s highways constitute a huge greenbelt as well. Although many states now plant wildflowers along roadsides, various grasses remain the predominant form of vegetation, and most state departments of transportation prefer a simple protocol to choose their seed.

Seeding by the Specs

“We have a set selection,” says Randy Morris, Ohio Department of Transportation (DOT) construction soils and drainage engineer. “We don’t select seed each year. Designers choose their seed according to the slope and the site’s topography.”

Choosing that seed isn’t on the designer’s whim, however. Ohio DOT has investigated and approved a variety of seed mixes for use on state projects. “Lawn mix, roadside mix, slope mix, low-growing native grass mix, annual and perennial wildflower mix–we must have 20 different types,” Morris continues. “We buy them through our contracts, whoever is the low bidder. Of course, no matter what the price, the seed must conform to our specifications.”

Whether the seed is applied by broadcast, hydroseeding, or terraseeding, most of the work is contracted out. “We put out contracts about every two weeks. The contractor can pick from the preapproved seed mixes, or we may specify a mix, depending upon the site. Contractors obtain the seed from an approved grass seed dealer or grower. We don’t stockpile the seed,” Morris adds.

Michigan DOT has a similar seed selection protocol. “All work on new construction is done by the contractor, who receives a manual that lists our approved seed mixes and vendors. We specify varieties because there’s a lot of junk seed out there,” says Resource Analyst Darwin Heme. “We used to stockpile seeds in our warehouse when we used a lot; we now purchase very little seed ourselves, perhaps no more than a couple thousand pounds a year. We don’t use as much as residential turf and golf courses use, so seed companies don’t solicit much feedback from us.”

Old Standards or “Standouts”

Once a mix is chosen, it’s usually changed very little, unless a remarkable “new and improved” item becomes available. “We make a few changes, perhaps moving to updated varieties, but we still look for low-maintenance grasses that can withstand roadside conditions. New ‘low-grow’ varieties are coming out–grass that doesn’t have to be mowed as much–and that’s why we’re using a lot of fescue, so we don’t get as much height. We use a couple different salt-resistant grasses for specific sites. For the most part, we’re still using cold-season grasses, but we may be adding some warm,” Heme concludes.

Depending on the project, private contractors, such as Indianapolis’s Manley Finish Grading and Hydroseed, may be able to choose their own seed, but many prefer to return to tried-and-true mixes. “It depends on the job. Both clients and I can specify seed selection,” John Manley reports. “I use two different mixes for this area, which I buy from a local seeder I’ve used for about 20 years. One of the mixes I use for sites that won’t get as much TLC comprises 65% fescue, which includes 15% SR-8600, 15% SR-8200, and 10% turf-type tall fescue. This mix also contains 20% perennial rye ‘Penguin,’ and 13% Kentucky bluegrass. For residential lawns I use a 60/40 mix of perennial rye/Kentucky blue–all hybrid grasses.

“I get seed mixes because they’re economical. These mixes are my mainstays. Of course, for special jobs I order whatever’s specified. For my own mixes, I look for quality first, and I always get name variety. You pay a little more, but it’s pennies when, like I do, you use 120,000 to 150,000 pounds of seed a year,” he says.

Manley is seeing increased demand for different grasses. “If the client wants less mowing, I have two dwarf varieties in my fescue that don’t have to be mowed a lot. For a more engineered site you might get an order for bluestem, which needs less mowing. I usually put bluestem in during spring, so it can produce seed and have more growing time. I get more and more calls for prairie grasses–stuff clients don’t have to mow. Shame is, you can’t go out and buy a bulk of this kind of seed; it’s extremely expensive. It might cost $10,000 to cover 12 acres in prairie grass.”

Ironically enough, for a wild grass, prairie grass is not only expensive but also a bit fussy about its planting protocol. “Prairie grasses usually go into a Truax drill, then I have to straw-mulch it,” Manley explains. “With other grasses, I use hydroseeding, or for overseeding and warranty work, I use a slice seeder.” Seed Solutions of Indiana, located in nearby Elwood, has served Manley’s needs for two decades. “Anytime I have a problem, they research it for me,” Manley reports. “Price isn’t everything; you need service.”

Do seed producers solicit feedback from their customers and end users to develop new varieties? “We use enough, you’d think they would, but they don’t,” Manley says. Indeed, unlike companies that produce consumer products and solicit feedback from end users at every opportunity, many seed producers appear to market from the top down. “Contractors get their specs from the architects, who get their recommendations from the seed companies,” says Seed Solutions’s Stan Morris.

Reproducible Results?

1. Leaf blades infected by Ascochyta usually start dying back from the tips.
2. The dollar-spot lesion has an hourglass appearance.
3. Close-up of a grass blade and rust pustules.
4. Gray-snow mold is caused by fungi able to grow at temperatures at or below 00C.
5. Pink snow mold shows in water-soaked patches of brown or yellow-brown grass.
6. Deep snow cover provides insulation and humidity favorable to development of snow mold fungi, prolonging the attack.

So what’s a seed buyer to do? It’s imperative to select good seed to ensure the best results and to eliminate the need for “go-backs.” Cheap seed might be just that: Turfgrass seed that also contains weed seed quickly causes problems for contractors. Most purchasers specify a cultivar seed so they’re ensured a certain amount of proven results. But when selecting seed varieties, can one merely depend on a seed producer’s promotional material–or must one submit to a costly trial-and-error method of determining good seed? By the same token, is it prudent to keep buying an “old faithful” seed variety year after year? With increased demands to reduce costs and chemical use, might a newly engineered cultivar perform better?

Thankfully, seed purchasers can, and do, rely on the objective data collected by the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP). A cooperative effort between the nonprofit National Turfgrass Federation Inc. and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), NTEP develops and coordinates uniform evaluation trials of turfgrass varieties and “promising selections.”

“Although we use USDA facilities, NTEP is a self-supporting, nonprofit program,” says Kevin Morris, NTEP’s executive director. “We charge seed producers to test each grass. These fees constitute 95% of our funding. We organize the tests, make the seed packets, and send them to researchers at universities, and they conduct the actual tests. We work with 50 to 60 land-grant universities; we’re running tests in 40 states and five Canadian provinces. We also do some onsite testing on golf courses and, occasionally, roadsides. With so many locations, we get lots of results.”

NTEP collects a wealth of information on each grass it tests: turfgrass quality, color, and density; resistance to diseases and insects; and heat, cold, drought, and traffic tolerance. The resulting data are collected, summarized, and made available each year, although for the most relevant results, one should review the data collected during the entire testing period (most cycles are four years; Kentucky bluegrass is tested for five years).

Put to the Test for Years

Four- to five-year testing exposes grasses to a variety of climate conditions, which allows NTEP to collect more varied data. “Concerning the recent three-year drought–1999 was particularly bad–we [had to] deal with problems. We want to have problems so we have information on how each grass cultivar handles them. Turfgrass is a perennial crop–not like corn, which can be tested each year,” Morris says. “The cool-season grasses are distributed in summer for fall planting. Warm-season grasses go out in spring. We sent Bermuda, zoysia, St. Augustine, and buffalo grasses out this spring.”

Test plots are not babied; NTEP prefers to have seeds planted in native ground. “However, we sometimes encourage testers to fumigate a new plot to give everything a new start,” he adds.

“We plan several years in a row which species we will test,” Morris says. “And seed companies tend to submit their new cultivars for testing. We test whatever companies want to send us; we don’t lock out any cultivars. Sometimes we test vegetatively propagated grasses, then companies send plugs, or we will create some in our greenhouses.”

NTEP has staged tests since 1981, so it’s compiled considerable data on grasses, much of which is available on its Web site ( “We don’t interpret the data. The summarized results are public information. For those without Internet access, we also publish a booklet. We’re currently working on our Web site to make it easier to use, and we’re considering listing results by region.”

Currently available on NTEP’s Web site are final reports on buffalo grass, St. Augustinegrass, zoysia grass, tall fescue, and low- and medium-high Kentucky bluegrass. “Seed companies will put our results on tech sheets for marketing to the trade, golf course managers, and the like,” Morris says. “They don’t use this information to market to the homeowner. But that doesn’t mean we won’t give these data to the public. I get e-mails or calls from homeowners every once in a while. Our data don’t answer all the questions users have, but it helps. We give them information to make a better decision.”

BMOC (Big Monocots on Campus)

In addition to participating in NTEP’s studies, many US universities conduct their own turfgrass research:

  • University of Arizona seeks ways to optimize southwestern turfgrass management practices.
  • An Iowa State project concerns transgenic control of leaf-spot symptoms.
  • University of Maryland investigates the use of native grasses and wildflowers.
  • University of Missouri (Columbia) is working to combat dollar spot, pythium, brown patch, and nematodes; other research includes zoysia grass cold hardiness, mixing cool-season species, and perennial ryegrass summer stress resistance.
  • Among Purdue University’s dozens of research projects, new studies include using temperature and moisture data to predict dollar-spot and brown-patch outbreaks and assessing new chemical controls for white grubs.
  • Rutgers’s Center for Turfgrass Science hosts a variety of studies, including biocontrol of white grubs and summer patch and developing grasses with better stress tolerance and pest resistance.
  • A Utah State University project involves growing turfgrass in low light, such as in closed and retractable-dome stadiums.
  • In addition to turfgrass studies, the University of Wisconsin’s O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility evaluates prairie and ornamental grasses.

As well as its involvement in NTEP studies, Pennsylvania State University’s Valentine Center focuses on high-maintenance turfgrass, such as golf course putting greens. Penn State’s Peter Landschoot, an associate professor of turfgrass science and a PSU extension officer, readily acknowledges the need for more seed information. “I’m always being called by landscape architects about grass seed,” he says. “They don’t always get all the latest information on turf seed. Of course, now there’s so much variety in a single species.”

Landschoot hears what most landscapers want. “They’re looking for grasses that better tolerate traffic, heat, and other stresses. Those who want low maintenance ask about slow-growing grasses; however, slow-growers might sacrifice recovery potential during droughts, and they might be more prone to disease and pests. So, yes, you get a little advantage, but you still have to mow them. Some state crews just put growth regulator on roadsides, to lessen mowing.”

What’s the future for grasses? “Our Dave Huff is developing an annual bluegrass that could be used for golf course greens,” Landschoot says. “Also, there’s a Roundup-ready creeping bent grass that makes weed control easier. The next big thing for grasses is transgenic plants, with manipulated DNA.”

Don’t start pestering your seed supplier for these varieties just yet. John Bosser, spokesman for The Scotts Company, says, “The Roundup-ready creeping bent grass is being developed for the golf course industry, but it won’t be ready for a couple years. While much of the research is complete, it must undergo stringent regulatory review. As for the transgenic plants, which we’ve developed to be slower growing and need less pesticides, water, and maintenance, they’re at least five to seven years from the distribution stage.”

Good Grass Is Green, Not Pink or Brown

Grass problems often stem from moisture–too much or not enough–and the University of Massachusetts is investigating both ends of that spectrum. Professor and Turfgrass Pathologist Gail Schumann is conducting a study on snow mold.

“There are two basic forms, pink and gray,” she says. “Although they’re often seen with snow cover, the molds are also linked to the problem of losing grass under leaves. Gray snow mold isn’t really much of a problem. Gray snow mold eats the grass leaves, but it usually doesn’t kill the plants; once the snow melts, it won’t be active anymore, so you shouldn’t bother treating it.”

To aid golf course superintendents around New England who want to use less fungicide, Schumann is concentrating on the pink snow mold form. She’s trying to uncover any variation in the mold in different areas of the region. “The problem starts when snow comes early in the year,” she explains. “However, pink snow mold can stay active even when there’s no more snow but the ground is cold and wet. When mowing every day, on golf courses for example, you can streak the pink mold all over the lawn, infecting even more areas.”

A decade ago, mercury was considered pink mold’s “cure”; until a true cure is found, Schumann suggests prevention. “Pink mold likes a higher pH. When lye is applied to a lawn in the fall, that offers the mold a prime breeding ground. If you have to lye, it’s better to wait until spring. Also, make sure you don’t apply nitrogen too late in the fall. Although the feeding will make the grass healthier, it will also spur the grass to keep growing instead of going into dormancy–making it prime food for pink mold. And keep mowing into the fall–no long, shaggy grass, which will mat down and retain more moisture.”

Mold is no problem for Scott Ebdon, an assistant professor in turfgrass management who’s working on cultivar adaptations that will resist environmental stress–specifically drought. “UMass participates in NTEP’s trials, but we have found their data may not be perfect for predicting future performance,” Ebdon says. “In my particular study on drought resistance, I’m testing 12 varieties of bluegrass: six low- and six high-water-need varieties. The project has ‘been in the ground’ a couple years; we’re starting the greenhouse study now, which will better allow us to control the exact amounts of moisture each test plot receives. We’re hoping to discover which components of drought resistance are the most important to provide superior quality. In general, plants with low evaporation rates and large root systems are more likely to retain water. As cool-season grasses vary in their root systems, so does their drought resistance.”

With all the studies nationwide, there’s an underlying goal: “We’d like to be better able to predict future turfgrass performance,” Ebdon concludes.

About the Author

Janis Keating

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