Recognizing Quality Seed
The front label of a package of grass seed is not a reliable guide to its quality. For example, if the label says “Ecological Mixture”, it is not clear what it contains. Check the side panel or back of the package for a little analysis chart that lists the specific types of grass by type and/or variety as percentage of the total.
Each package of grass seed lists the percentages of various grass seed types or varieties it contains as pure seed and “other ingredients”. In the North look for generous percentages of one or more of the main seed types for cool climates --Kentucky bluegrass, tall turftype fescue or perennial rye. They should represent 90% or more of the contents of the package. Avoid seed mixtures that include annual rye grass.
The other ingredients listed are inert matter, other crop seed and weed seeds. While traces of these seeds are unavoidable, the higher the quality of the seed mixture, the lower the percentage of "other ingredients" it will have. Since 1993 packages of high quality grass seed have carried a special seal of the Lawn Institute that indicates that the seed meets certain minimum quality standards.
Get your lawn in shape with the right grass
We columnists can be a funny bunch. Take for example the feeling of omnipotence some of us secretly hold. To illustrate, if I wrote a column three years ago about buying grass seed, there develops an unstated assumption that there is no longer any need to cover that topic again -- everyone already knows what they need from that one column three years ago -- or so the illusion goes. So we columnists are constantly in stress trying to find fresh topics while our readers need to have refreshers on a bunch of important issues, such as buying grass seed, killing grubs, spreading fertilizer, and such.
So slamming me back to reality, let's talk grass seed. Spring is the time for repairing bad spots or overseeding part, or all of the lawn. To do these jobs, one needs some grass seed and what you should be buying can be a bit confusing.
The first question is quality, which translates into cost. Most grass seed companies have two quality lines, the most expensive gold seal line and the less expensive seed that is often on sale. Grass seed is one commodity where you can't take the inexpensive road. The cheap stuff was often bred more than 10 years ago, so it is behind in terms of disease and pest and insect resistance. The good stuff will have come from the breeders in the past few years. It will germinate more completely, have no weed seeds and be more drought resistant. The difference in cost is not great enough to not get the best quality seed.
For the average yardener, there is no longer any need for worrying about the species of grass seed you buy, whether it be Kentucky bluegrass, tall turf-type fescue or perennial ryegrass. The mixtures of grass seed species available these days have been tested for our area and will perform better in most cases than will a single species such as Kentucky bluegrass.
What you need to think about is sun vs. shade and normal use vs. tough use. The mixture for sun needs six or more hours to grow to its top potential. If you have an area getting less than six hours of full sun, then you use a mixture for the shade. Now here is the bad news. If you have any area of your lawn getting less than four hours of sun, even the grass mixtures for the shade will not do very well. Next week, I'll offer tips on how to deal with those shady areas that never seem to look wonderful.
If you have kids who are going to play actively on the lawn, then you want a mixture designed for heavy use. These always will be for full sun. There are no heavy use mixtures for the shade.
Recognizing Quality Sod
If your sod is installed by a professional landscaper or by a sod grower, they can provide you with all the information you need about the types of grass and the varieties of each type in your sod. However, managers of local home or garden centers may not know what kind of grasses are contained in the sod they sell. Generally, you can assume it is appropriate for full sun but can handle a modest amount of shade. To assure that you buy top quality sod check for these qualities:
Sod soil should be obviously moist and dark. Buy sod as soon as the store opens in the morning so it does not dry out any more than is necessary.
Sod grasses should be rooted in ½ to 1 inch of soil. The thicker it is, the longer it takes to get established in your soil, but it will not dry out as quickly between waterings during this time.
Sod should be freshly harvested. Professional installers aim to install it within 8 hours of harvest. Grass plants in sod that has been sitting around, have lower stored food reserves and less potential to develop an immediately aggressive root system. They are likely to be more vulnerable to disease. If sod has been sitting on a pallet at the store for more than two days, do not buy it.
Sod grass should be at least 1 inch tall. The taller the grass in the sod, the more efficiently it can photosynthesize the energy of sun immediately after installation and the less stressed it is.