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Doing Turf Seed Right

By James Culley, Stover Seed Company

Grass seed is filling the space around a recently-planted palm in this view. Hand-casting is usually sufficient for small applications like this; be sure to mix the seed into the soil with a rake or other tool to ensure good-seed-soil contact.
Photos by Erik Skindrud

Decades of experimentation have gone into the creation of today's turfgrass hybrids. Much of the incentive for this hard work comes from the golf and athletic turf industry, but contractors also reap the benefits when installing grass at residential and commercial properties.

The new, scientifically-bred strains are more tolerant of heat, cold and drought, enhancing your chance of basking in the glow of a green, thick, durable lawn.

The beauty of a good ryegrass mix is the speed with which results appear. It's hard to tell that this palm is recently-planted just three weeks after planting, fertilizing and seeding. Planning for hand watering in the absence of automated irrigation is an often-neglected step in the process.

In the past, we were limited to either common or hybrid Bermudagrass, a few perennial ryegrasses and Kentucky bluegrass. In the past 15 years, there have been many new introductions and research done on the turfgrasses that we can customize for the client a blend or mixture as varied as each situation.

This article will deal with many of them and their varied uses. At the end, hopefully you can use the information and apply it towards your situation.

The perennial ryegrasses have probably seen the most varied research and introductions done of all the others available. This is due to many factors. Since ryegrasses are used throughout the United States from the production fields in Oregon to the Northeast down to the Florida peninsula and back to California, it uses are many.

1. This is the "before" photo. It looks dauntingly rocky here, but the crew working on this job removed three-trash-bags worth of stones before taking this photo. The workers soaked the site with water and spread ryegrass seed.

2. Be patient when waiting for results. No sprouts were observed on this site until 10 days after seeding, when this photo was taken. Don't give up. Keep the soil moist as any drying can kill seeds that are already moving in the right direction.

3. This photo was taken on day 12, two days after the previous image. Despite the poor soil conditions, this lawn is off and running. The fact that it's rocky is less important than the fact that pH is near-neutral here.

4. This view was taken on day 20, and the job is starting to pay off with a lush, lawn look. It's important to observe the site every few days. With water and fertilizer, weed species may invade the site; kneeling on a board when pulling them can prevent damage to the growing lawn.

5. It's a lawn! Workers can mow most grasses for the first time when blades are about a third higher than their recommended mowing height. This photo was taken 30 days after the initial seeding.

The emergence of gray leaf spot, which kills ryegrasses, has led to the development of resistant varieties. The use of effluent water has created a market for saline condition types. The need to maintain turf that withstands greater uses has led to wear tolerance and sheer strength tested varieties. All of these factors plus the desire by user groups to have consistently better looking turf has definitely put a strain on those of us involved in turf management.

Slit seeders like this Turfco product help contractors and groundskeepers achieve results reseeding or topseeding. The blades open slits in the turf and drop seed in, ensuring seed-soil contact and positive results.

The tall fescues have also seen a great deal of research and introductions done over the past years. Like the ryegrasses, the Tall Fescues have to handle diseases, insects, salts and other issues while being promoted as the best cool season grass for drought tolerance because of it's ability to root deeply. In Southern California, they account for about 85 percent of the turf market on a commercial/residential level. In many other parts of the country, it may not be the dominant turfgrass but is a close second. The use by the sports turf and golf industry has been somewhat limited in the past but that has begun to change. There is a baseball outfield at a high school in Central California that's a perfect stand. The golf use has been for rough areas where some shade, salts and tree roots are an issue.

Turfgrass seed is versatile enough to seed a new lawn or fill in bare spots on an existing one. Here a member of the Southern New Hampshire Flying Eagles casts seed on the club's air strip for radio-controlled model aircraft.

The bluegrasses, while being the standard against which the others are measured visually, has not benefited as much from development but that has changed a great deal the past few years. Testing for wear strength and sheer density has helped them develop a niche in the sports turf market. The development of the "hybrids" (like crosses of Kentucky bluegrass and Texas bluegrass) have created a niche for use in the warmer areas of the United States where bluegrasses have been traditionally overshadowed by others.

There are golf courses in Southern California where the hybrids are used either in a mixture with Tall Fescue for roughs or in a couple of cases, will be the sole component for the roughs. The Kentucky bluegrasses are also being used for sports turf applications on some high profile venues.

This view underlines the importance of good seed-soil contact. Mulch is more abundant to the left of this view--where grass seed is already sprouting. The mulch holds moisture and guarantees good contact. At right there is less mulch and individual kernels of ryegrass seed can be seen on the surface, where they have dried out.
Photos by Erik Skindrud

Even though the cool season grasses have received greater acceptance, it's the warm season grasses which are the staple for sports turf and golf applications in the Southern United States from coast to coast. Bermudagrass has been the dominating turf in this capacity and has therefore received the most research.

Improved common types and hybrids have been coming to market that exhibit turf qualities far superior to their predecessors. The need to provide a quality playing surface with less inputs has assured that it will continue to enjoy it's dominance. The improved common types have become so good looking as to rival the older hybrids while the new hybrids have provided even finer and denser turf for play than there was 10 years ago.

Seashore paspalum has recently emerged as a grass with promise. While there may have been only a couple of varieties offered just a few years ago, the availability has increased dramatically. The development of a seeded form has been available for a couple of years with new ones coming to market shortly.

The last warm season grass to talk about is actually a noxious weed. Kikuyugrass is a registered weed and therefore cannot be spread or propagated legally without permits. While it is a dominant turfgrass along the California Coast, it's uses as a desired turfgrass are relatively recent. There are a couple of seeded forms available within certain counties of California, Arizona and Hawaii. Permitting is required everywhere. It has mainly been used for golf courses but recently has been used for sports turf due to its ability to withstand traffic and varied growing conditions.

Preparation is the key to gratifying results like these. Spending time on soil preparation will ensure the nutrients and balanced pH that will boost seeds into growth. Growing from seed is more labor intensive but more economical than planting a sod lawn.

The research and new introductions have been the main topic of this article. Where do you find the research? Where do you find the new introductions? These questions are also as varied as the grasses. Research is provided by many universities throughout the country, some specializing in just a couple of grasses.

There is also independent research/testing done like the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program,, and others. All the data is valuable and somewhat daunting but it will educate you on selecting the turfgrass(es) best suited for your situation. The turfgrasses themselves are available either by local distributors in a few cases directly from the seed company. The advantage of the local distributor is that they will carry turfgrasses from a number of seed companies thus providing you with a better selection plus expertise in making that choice. The seed companies can provide more updated research/experiences from around the country that is also beneficial.

In the end, the term "got seed" is not that simple but doesn't need to be difficult to understand.

Step-By-Step: A Guide to Lawn-Seed Success

The best time to start a new lawn, or repair an existing lawn, is in the spring or early fall when the days are cool and moist and the weeds are less likely to be a threat.

The first step in starting a lawn from seed is to properly prepare the soil. Part of preparing the soil is understanding the makeup of your soil. In order to know what the pH level is in your soil, you may purchase a test kit from your local landscaping company or have your counties extension service test it for a small fee. It's important that you add nutrients to your soil until the pH level is between 6.0 and 7.0.

If your pH level is too low, apply limestone at a rate of 50 pounds per 1,000 square feet. If you need to lower your pH, powdered sulfur will do the trick. Failure to adequately prepare your soil will result in a slow start and grassless patches. It will also cause you additional work and expense in the long run. This is an extremely important step and should not be skipped for any reason.

To continue the preparation of your soil, you should till it to a four-inch depth. If you need to add topsoil or sphagnum peat to improve the condition of your soil, add four to six inches of the top product, then till the additives to the existing soil. Be sure and mix all thoroughly.

After you've tilled the soil, remove any debris such as stones or twigs and rake the surface as level as possible. If you need to add lime, make sure you add it prior to leveling the soil.

Next, apply a lawn fertilizer at the rate of 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. After all the above steps are completed, water the entire area thoroughly with a gentle spray and allow the soil to settle. Now you're ready to seed.

Spread the seed with a mechanical spreader at the rate recommended by the chosen manufacturer. Be careful not to overseed because it will cause the tiny grass plants to choke each other out. When spreading the seeds, apply one-half of the seeds in one direction and the second half at right angles to the first. Rake the entire area lightly to barely cover the seeds with soil. You may also want to roll the seedbed to guarantee that all the seed comes in contact with the soil. As a preventative measure to keep birds out of the seed, you may cover lightly with straw.

Once the seed is planted, water gently, but deeply everyday. It may take up to three weeks for all the grass to germinate. Once the grass has grown to a height of 2 to 2 1/2 inches, you may mow. However, remember to never take more than 1/3 of the grass height when mowing.

--Adapted from:

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October 17, 2019, 9:19 am PDT

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