By Dr. Eric Watkins, Associate Professor, Turfgrass Breeding and Genetics
It is soon time to begin thinking about purchasing grass seed for fall lawn seeding projects. If you walk into most places that sell grass seed, you might think there are only two options: Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. These grasses can do well depending on the environment in which they are used. In the last several years, we have conducted research on turfgrasses for low-input lawns in Minnesota (Developing Fine Fescues for Low Input Lawns, In Search of “Greener” Grass). These grasses, primarily the fine fescue species, require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides than a higher input grass such as Kentucky bluegrass, and they can be maintained with less mowing.
Whenever I give a talk on lower-input turfgrass options for homeowners, the first questions I receive afterwards go something like this: “Where can I get these grasses?” There are a few places to find fine fescues, or mixtures with high percentages of fine fescues. I have noticed some availability in big-box retailers; however, selection is quite limited. The best places to find the fine fescues are local greenhouses and farm co-ops. Some local seed sales companies have also been selling these products at smaller retail outlets such as hardware stores. During the next few weeks, we will be updating the new Purchasing Turfgrass Seed page with information on where to purchase high quality grass seed for home lawns in Minnesota.
A few things to keep in mind when shopping for grass seed:
1. You get what you pay for. Low-cost seed results in a poor lawn. Grasses that make better lawns are almost always more expensive. This is because these grasses have lower seed production potential than the lower-quality grasses; lower seed yields on a seed farm result in higher prices for consumers. A popular way to sell some of this low-cost seed is in a bulk bin. I have yet to see a high quality grass seed product sold in a bulk bin. A lawn should last several years, so a small increase in cost during establishment will pay off in the end.
2. Make sure you are paying for grass seed. When you buy a bag of seed, it contains much more than grass seed. The bag contains inert material (chaff, dust, etc.), weed seeds, seed that won’t germinate, and other crop seed. Additionally, several companies are now mixing high percentages of germination and establishment aids in with the seed. These additives can help during establishment, however, when present, they leave little room in the bag for actual seed. If you want to buy grass seed, make sure you are buying grass seed.
3. Decide which species you will use. This is very important. Some grasses do well in sun, some in shade, and some can thrive in both. Some grasses require moderate amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, some very little. Grass is often sold as a mixture of different species, which will allow you to select a combination of species that will fit the needs for your site. For more information on grass species for Minnesota, you can view this video from our Virtual Field Day: Turfgrasses for Minnesota Lawns.
4. Consult local data. Once you have decided which grass species to use, you can look up variety performance on our cultivars evaluation webpage (Cultivar Evaluation Results). If we don’t have the data you are looking for, check out the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP).
5. Look for variety names. Seed is sometimes sold as ‘variety not stated’. You should not purchase this type of seed, though you may be tempted to based on a reduced price. On the seed label, each grass species that is in the bag will be listed on a separate line. Along with the species there will be a variety name, or it will say ‘variety not stated’. Be sure you always see a variety name that goes along with each component of the mixture you are purchasing.
6. Avoid the dogs. There are a few grasses that are commonly mixed in home lawn mixtures due to their low cost. A few that you should look out for are ‘Linn’ perennial ryegrass, ‘Nui’ perennial ryegrass, annual ryegrass, Italian ryegrass, and ‘common creeper’. All of these will result in very poor turf. Annual ryegrass is often included in quick repair mixtures; I doubt very few purchasers of these mixes really hope to have an annual lawn. In Minnesota, you should also avoid using rough bluegrass (Poa trivialis), unless your site is shady and very moist.
Of course, finding and purchasing the best seed is only a first step. For more information on establishing a new lawn or converting an existing lawn to a new species, check out these resources:
Repairing or renovating an existing lawn (UMN Extension Publication)
Establishing a new lawn to achieve sustainability (UMN Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series)
Renovating an existing lawn to achieve sustainability (UMN Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series)