HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT GRASS SEED FOR A THRIVING LAWN
Lawns have a long history in the American imagination, and our relationship with our pristine carpets of green is more than just aesthetic.
Though they started as matters of prestige and markers of wealth, lawns today support families — homeowners — who spend time outdoors, especially in regions that experience distinct seasons.
Growing efforts directed toward cultivating a thriving lawn help build a growing awareness in new homeowners about the state of gardens and the importance of nurturing green spaces.
A thriving lawn can connect individuals, families, and encourage other gardening practices for homeowners who take pride in having a green thumb. But to cultivate a great lawn, you'll need to find the right type of turfgrass.
What's the right type of grass seed? It's one that aligns with your climate, your intended use, your property's unique geography, and how much shade you have.
This guide will teach you everything you need to know about choosing the right grass seed for your lawn. Here's what you can expect to learn:
READY TO GET STARTED? LET'S GO!
WHY CHOOSING THE RIGHT SEED IS ESSENTIAL
Do American homeowners have a green thumb?
Well, yes. And no.
Certainly, we place a lot of importance and emphasis on our lawn-care. Besides a brief spike in 2012-2013, we've been steadily increasing our average household expenditure from $363 to $503 for lawn care.
But it's the details of lawn care that still seem to elude many Americans.
A survey by Harria Group for the National Association of Landscape Professionals shows that, of the 3 in 4 U.S. adults who have a home with a lawn, 74% believe they know how to care for their lawn each season and 68% feel confident about their knowledge.
Despite these attitudes, the survey also revealed that:
- 64% falsely believe all grass need fertilization in the spring
- 31% admit to being unaware of how to grow a lush lawn
- 57% falsely believe that a lawn is not considered "healthy" unless it's green
- Overall, 69% say their lawn could "use improvement"<l/i>
The true picture these numbers paint is compelling: Our confidence far exceeds our knowledge.
Consider, for example, that many seed bags marketed as "quick repair mixtures" usually have annual ryegrass because it seems to revive your lawn so rapidly. That sounds great because your lawn will look good initially, but these annual ryegrasses tend to be a lighter green color, invasive if allowed to go to seed, and coarse-textured. Not to mention annual ryegrass will die out after the first season.
And that may not be the best thing for your lawn's health.
So choosing the right grass seed is important because these mixtures are not a one-size-fits-all situation.
Another example is rough bluegrass. It only really thrives in shade and very moist regions. Unless you live in such a place, avoid varieties that include this cheap but highly contextual seed type.
Before we look at seed types, let's look at some of the factors that can affect how well grass will grow in your lawn.
Your choice of grass seed will need to consider a few external factors. You may have noticed that several of the above descriptions of grass seed types included considerations like "traffic" and levels of shade.
These factors matter because they're all about your lifestyle and the expected use of your lawn. After all, lawns are no longer simply fashionable — they're functional too.
Factor #1: Levels of Shade
This generally affects the amount of sun exposure and shade the grass is naturally built to take.
Some seed types, like the fescues, are good in partial shade. Others, like bermudagrass, won't settle for anything less than full sun exposure.
Factor #2: Wear and Tear
"Traffic" is all about how much footfall or wear and tear your lawn will be expected to take.
When you select a grass seed, considering the heartiness of the variety or species type will help you make the best decision.
Why? Because it means that you'll select a type that isn't likely to get brown, patchy spots, or dry out in certain conditions. And you won't choose a grass seed that is too thatchy, too delicate or too coarse for what you'll be doing.
For example, families with young children who plan to enjoy their lawn with water sports or mini pools should opt for Kentucky bluegrass rather than fine fescue.
This turf-type holds up to patchy spots because it is self-mending. The grass creeps in and naturally fills in the holes. But it also requires more mowing, frequent fertilizing, and timed watering if you plan for it to look its best.
Take the time to consider what you'll be doing on your lawn and factor this into your choice of grass seed.
Factor #3: Grass Seed or Ready-Roll?
Many homeowners will consider ready-roll grass when they're looking to revive their lawns to their fullest.
But choosing between a grass seed or a ready-roll sod grass is a decision that comes down to factors like how quickly you need to see a result and how much time you're willing to put in maintaining the germination. It also depends on how much money you're willing to shell out.
First, consider the use of your site: Are you going to run or play sports on your lawn? Will you be able to water it daily and do you have lots of trees on the grounds?
Ryegrass, for example, is a fairly common grass seed type for sports fields but they need full sun and daily watering. Without this, they get patchy, brown, and dry.
Another consideration is cost: Even the best quality grass seed is going to much cheaper than transplanting ready-made turf. However, sod gives a more instant result.
The caveat is that it may not root as well or as firmly as natural grass seed.
Your options are also greatly reduced with sod, precisely because the growing process has already taken place.
If you have a specific kind of site or property — for example, a property with lots of shade — you can choose the grass seed type that matches this.
If you choose to put down sod, you're limited to the varieties already grown. And among these limited varieties, most sod is not shade-tolerant. They tend to dry up and turn patchy.
Pro-tip: If you can manage the cost and intend on getting ready-roll, you still need to inspect the soil. You want to figure out if the sod will fit with your current soil.
Factor #4: Site Size
The size of a lot has a great effect on seed type and how much seed you need to get a healthy lawn. In general, bigger sites on a tighter budget do well with turfgrass seed.
Another way to see if you're getting a good bag of seed is to look for something called a pure live seed (PLS) percentage. This calculation is a measure of whether a reduced price on seeding is truly a bargain or not.
PLS is calculated by taking the percentage of "pure" seed (written on the variety label) and then multiplying it but the percentage of germination. The product is then divided by 100.
In action, this looks like a fairly simple formula:
At 85% pure seed and 72% germination, divided by 100, the output is 61% PLS.
Now, how much seed does that entail for planting? Simply divide the percentage PLS by 100. So, in this example, 100/61 = 1.2. This means that you'll need 1.6 pounds of a seed that has a purity of 85% and 72% germination.
The final price will tell you whether it's a good run for your money — or not!
Pro-tip: If you're buying a lower quality seed and comparing it to something of higher quality, you should also consider how much manual labor it takes to maintain the lawn, from seeding to watering, fertilizing, and germination.
Factor #5: Seeding Sloping Sites
A quick note about using grass seed on sloping sites. Many homeowners opt for ready-roll on sloping or hilly sites on their property because they're concerned about rain and soil erosion washing the seeds away.
This is a legitimate concern, but one that's easily mitigated if you're heart-set on grass seeds. In fact, once your lawn has sprung, this will be a prime factor in avoiding soil erosion.
Several products are available to stop this from occurring:
- Straw: You can opt to sprinkle straw over freshly-seeded soil -- gentle slopes are best
- Erosion-control netting: Netting can be made from coconut fibers and is specifically designed to help keep soil packed in. Look for one that has a fairly large weave and is biodegradable
- Erosion-control blankets: A blend of straws and nets, erosion-control blankets act like a protective layer for the soil
But how do you know which type of grass seed will work for you in any of these scenarios? To help answer that, we've put together a comprehensive list of grass seed types to help educate you!
TYPES OF GRASS SEED
Your grass seed decision on varieties depends on a host of factors, including land and soil readiness, region, geography, season, and how much work you're willing to put in to maintain it.
As you can see, there are a couple of types of "species" of grass seed. These include fescues, perennial ryegrass, bentgrass, bluegrass, buffalo, bermuda, bahia and more.
The table above gives you a good sense of the natural features of each type of grass. Even the grass species themselves can have seed variations. For example, fine fescues include creeping red fescue, chewings fescue, hard fescue, and sheep fescue varieties.
So let's take a look at the features of some of the most common seed types, besides the ones above:
- A warm-season grass type
- Has a low need for water
- Coarse texture
- Perfect for lawns with a lot of walking or "high traffic"
- Requires full sun exposure, can handle partial shade
- Aggressive in its growth
- Warm-season grass type
- Has a high drought resistance
- Has a fine to medium texture
- Sustains a fine to medium level of foot traffic
- Expects full sun exposure
- Fills in quickly
- Another warm-season grass seed
- Doesn't require too much watering (frequency and levels)
- Fine texture
- Can't sustain too much foot traffic or wear and tear
- Calls for full sun exposure but can tolerate partial shade
- Easygoing and low-maintenance
- A warm-season grass type
- Has a moderate need for water
- Has a coarse texture
- Can only sustain a low level of traffic
- Best in full sun exposure but good in partial shade
- Creeps low to the ground and is slow growing
- A cool-season grass
- Has a low level of drought resistance
- Great for traffic and can take a lot of wear and tear
- Requires full sun but also good in partial shade
- Familiar? This grass is used quite commonly on golf courses and provides a soft but dense lawn fill
- Is moderately drought resistance
- A cool-season grass
- It has a high to medium need for water (levels and frequency), especially in comparison to the fescues
- Grows in a medium to fine texture
- Calls for full sun but just fine with partial shade
- Tolerates cold well and is disease-resistant
- Demonstrates a high degree of drought resistance
- Has a low need for water
- Germinates very quickly
- Has a coarse texture and grows in thatches
- Prone to red thread disease and chinch bugs especially love the fine fescue because of its tendency to provide thick thatch
- Slow recuperation so worn out or patchy areas heal very slowly
- Calls for low fertilization
- Totally fine in mild winters and warm summers
- A cool-season grass seed
- Has a low drought resistance so it has a high need for water
- Sustains a high level of traffic
- However, intolerant of extreme heat or cold
- Calls for full to partial sun
- Has a moderately good level of drought resistance
- Has a high to medium need for water
- Has a texture that is coarse
- It grows quickly and tolerates partial shade
- Is a dense and "wiry" sort of growth
- Has a moderate need for watering
- Is hardy enough to sustain a high level of traffic
- A fine to medium texture
WARM SEASON V.S. COOL SEASON GRASS SEED
The best way to distinguish seed types — besides their characteristics — is via season. Which season or climate does your preferred seed type thrive in?
As you can see, your region deeply affects your choice of grass seed — and whether it will thrive or fall.
If you're in border states, where the climate changes, it's also important to choose a versatile turfgrass type.
This will become the basis of your seed type choice so make sure to choose a variety or mixture that conforms to your type of soil, sun exposure, as well as overall climate conditions.
Generally, there are two types of seed type:
This turfgrass seed type originated in the South and thrives in warm or hot weather. It naturally goes dormant and turns brown with the onset of cooler temperatures.
It also thrives in the sun, which means that too much shade is not a good thing.
Warm-season grasses should be planted during the late spring so that they hit their stride during the high summer.
- St. Augustine
Originating in the North, this turfgrass seed grows rapidly in the spring and fall, being shade- and drought-tolerant.
However, converse to warm-season grass seed, these species tend to turn brown and patchy during the hottest days of summer. This means that you should only be planting cool-season grass during the spring or early fall.
- Perennial Ryegrass
- Tall Fescue
- Fine Fescue
- Kentucky Bluegrass
Blends and Mixtures
Different mixes of grass seeds, as long as they don't contain too many additives or low-quality fillers, are usually designed to be sold together to address very specific issues.
Let's say you wanted to get a drought-resistant species, or you're specifically looking to repair a damaged lawn. You might turn to a seed mixture or a lawn repair mix, respectively.
Seed mixtures are mixes that combine several different kinds of grasses in one package. These help offset each other, which keeps your lawn green and healthy.
Then there are blended-seed mixtures, which combine several different kinds of the same grass species in one.
Opting for a blended-seed mixture, you can take advantage of the strengths of each. An example of this would be combining multiple kinds of fescues together. The resulting appearance is the same when you use a blended-seed mixture.
And, finally, you can go specifically for function: the lawn repair mix.
Along with grass seed, your mix also includes starter fertilizer and mulch, making this an all-purpose solution for addressing those brown and patchy spots. You don't need to buy these three items separately or guess at the proportions.
The best part?
Because they're specifically designed to address lawn repair, these seed mixtures often include attenuated to allow for water absorption and retention to improve growth.
Pro-tip: Use mixes containing variations of Kentucky bluegrass, fine fescue, and even small amounts of perennial ryegrass. These "repair" seed mixtures will address those bare, patchy, and brown spots, giving your entire lawn a uniformly green look.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT GRASS SEED
Now that you know why choosing the best seed is important and which varieties work best, let's dig into how you can choose the right grass seed.
First and foremost, you need high-quality grass seed, and local nurseries and grass seed vendors are usually the best place to find quality. Each variety has its own needs for levels of water, fertilizer, pesticides and even mowing frequencies.
For example, Kentucky bluegrass is a kind of turfgrass seed that calls for more fertilizer and more frequent watering to thrive.
No matter which grass seed type you choose, however, always make the investment in top-quality seed, rather than going for cheaper retail outlets that mix the seed with a whole variety of "fillers."
Your lawn will thank you.
Now, let's look at how to choose your seed type in four easy steps.
Step #1: Perform a Soil Test
It's essential to start with a soil test, but you may wonder: "why?"
Your soil's pH will largely determine whether your lawn thrives once it starts growing, or whether it looks patchy and tired.
In general, turf grasses require well-aerated soil that has a slightly acidic pH balance of between 6 and 7.0.
As you can see, taking a soil sample is an easy process that requires you to divvy up your site, collect samples and data, and then send off the samples for further testing.
To test your soil, grab a soil test kit and begin gathering small samples from several differentiated spots where you're planning to seed. Mix the soil and place it into the bag.
Because it takes about two weeks to receive the results back, make sure you're planning to perform the test well in advance. Just in case results don't come back as you expected, you'll need time to make adjustments to your soil before planting.
Step #2: Study Up on Seeds
We covered seed varieties earlier, but this is where you can put that knowledge into practice.
But there's more to finding varieties than knowing what's out there. You also need to know how some big-box seed companies work, and you need to know what to watch out for.
For instance, sometimes reduced priced seeds are sold as "variety not stated." However, seed mixes usually also come with labels that state the variety of each grass species included. Read it thoroughly!
And if there's no such label, avoid purchasing the seed bag. Why? Because there's usually a certain about of chaff, dust, weed seeds, and crop seeds included. You want to make sure that what you're paying for is actual seed.
You should know that seed mixtures will often bring in seed types like "Boreal" creeping red fescue, annual ryegrass/Italian ryegrass, and other inferior species.
These are mostly fillers that won't do too much for your lawn so don't bother paying for a mixture that includes them.
But you'll only be able to catch these flaws if you read the label and know what to look for - and now you do!
Step #3: Check On Local Variety Performance Data
Once you know which varieties are good and bad, check up on which varieties perform well in your area.
A great source for this is The University of Minnesota. They have a portal dedicated to data on variety performance known as the Cultivar Evaluation Results. This can help you to check on the historical performance of seed types.
You can also visit the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program for data and rankings of most turf cultivars, as well as the performance of ongoing trials.
Or of course, just ask the experts here at Nature's Seed!
Step #4: Decide On Your Species
Once you've finished your research, it's time to pick a seed.
From fine fescues to bluegrass and bermudagrass, your choice depends on factors like:
- Your region
- How much shade you have on your property
- How much work and maintenance you intend to put in (moving, fertilization, growth rates)
Some grass types, for example, call for very particular amounts of nitrogen fertilizer. Others can hold a green color all season long and take very little input from you to root and grow quickly.
Choose the best seed for your lawn, and then enjoy your pristine carpet of green!
Ready to take charge of your lawn this spring and summer?
It's definitely not rocket science, but there is a blend of art and science here: The art of growing and cultivation, and the science of testing your soil and choosing the right seed.
Because this is a multi-step process, you'll need to patient as you choose the right grass seed for your lawn.
Your efforts at growing a lush lawn should begin with a soil sample.
Once that comes back, you'll know definitively if you're spending some time improving the pH of your soil, or if you're ready to seed.
From there, you should also consider other growth factors like your region, how much shade there is on your lawn, and wear and tear.
It's only at this point that you should check local data, zone in on a specific variety, and buy your grass seed.
All of these things together will help you craft the perfect lawn.