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Clippings: Penn State mix can be a deceiving title when buying grass seed

Saturday, April 10, 1999

By Susan Banks, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Confused about what Penn State Mix grass seed really is? So are lots of other people.

I received a letter from a reader who wanted to inform me that Penn State doesn't market any of the seed mixes called Penn State Mix. While I knew that, the actual origins of the seed mixture said to have been developed at Penn State University is fogged in the mists of time.

Peter J. Landschoot, associate professor of turf grass science at Penn State, said Penn State does provide suggestions for grass seed mixes but he doesn't have any idea where the story originated. He's seen some really lousy grass mixes out there marketed as Penn State Mix.

"In some cases, they are similar to what we suggest, but in others they are not even near that," he says. "Because it has the name Penn State on it doesn't mean it has anything to do with anything we recommend."

So Penn State does not market any of the grass seed you see in garden centers. How do you find decent seed? I asked Landschoot what he would recommend for area homeowners because he's devoted his life to the study of turf grass.

"For home lawns in Pittsburgh that have sunny and shaded areas, we recommend [a mixture of] about 50 to 60 percent Kentucky Bluegrass, 30 to 40 percent of a fine fescue - that could be creeping red fescue, red or Chewings Fescue. The rest of it, which would be 10 to 20 percent, would be perennial ryegrass.

"The reason the bluegrass is in there is because it has good sod-forming grasses. The perennial ryegrasses are in there because they germinate fast. If we use more than 20 percent, it dominates [the lawn] because it is so aggressive. The fescues are in there because they are shade-tolerant, where blue and rye are not. Over time, they will predominate in the shade areas where the blue and rye will predominate in the sunny areas."

Landschoot said shopping for the best grass seed is like trying to buy grade A steak:

"Only the restaurants get that, so the professional market gets the cream of the crop. Homeowners usually don't want to pay the price for it, so they'll get a medium- to low-quality, but that's usually good enough. Yes, they'll have more disease problems, and it won't look as nice as newly sodded lawn, [but] if they are buying a good mix, they are probably getting something good enough."

Landschoot recommends that do-it-yourselfers try to go with the best varieties they can find. Just make sure you don't get junk. Stay away from anything containing annual ryegrass seed, which will be the cheapest seed around, says Landschoot.

It's a temporary grass that will deteriorate in two to four years, gradually thinning out into a very ratty-looking lawn. It's also a very coarse grass that doesn't mow well. Like everything else, however, there are some exceptions. Lofts sells Palmer Rye Grass, and Landschoot says that's a good variety.

"I also wouldn't use Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue, especially not in a mix with other grasses, because you'll get big coarse ugly grass clumps in the lawn. In an orchard, that's fine. But for a lawn, most people are dissatisfied with that," he says.

There are good-quality turf-type tall fescues that I highly recommend, but they are not readily available. So generally speaking, says Landschoot, don't head for the cheapest stuff on the shelf. And if your lawn means everything to you, contact a professional. He'll have access to top-grade grass seed.

In the meantime, buyer beware.



Most of us who garden reach a point at which acquisitiveness outgrows the wallet and propagation becomes the only economical way to increase a collection. Then there are those lucky few who have money to burn, but can't get their hands on that coveted specimen unless they grow it from seed. And we can't forget those who can't tell a carrot from a croton, but just want to have a nice lawn.

Which means the new book by the American Horticultural Society, "Plant Propagation" (DK Publishing $34.95), is one just about anybody can find a use for.

If you want to have a lawn that is the envy of your neighbors, or sow peas for the dinner table, or learn to graft a cactus, editor-in-chief Alan Toogood explains it in a way you don't need a Ph.D. to understand.

The text is broken into two parts, the first explaining the different types of propagation, like vegetative, grafting, layering, etc. The other half is a dictionary listing more than 1,500 types of plants, with instructions on propagation methods for each. It's also well-illustrated with lots of color photographs. This one, like the earlier AHS publication, "Pruning and Training," is a keeper.



The Greater Pittsburgh Dahlia Society will hold a root auction and meeting tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. at Munhall Borough Building, Second Floor Meeting room.

This is a mini-auction of roots only. A plant and root auction is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. May 16 at McKeesport Garden Center at Renziehausen Park.



Clearly, lots of people have dogs. K-9 Turf, the fertilizer I wrote about last week, has been flying off the shelves at all four Best Feeds Garden Centers.

The environment-friendly product is supposed to help rid lawns of urine burn spots and be safe for use around pets and children.

Larry Toms, Best Feeds stores manager, says one of the stores ran out of the product for a short period. But they are expecting another partial truck load just in time for the weekend rush.

So if you didn't get a bag of K-9 Turf last weekend, there is still time to do it.



Area nurseries: We are still taking information on what you have that is new and exciting for the spring 1999 planting season. A story is planned in late April, listing nurseries along with the new plant material they will be offering. There is no charge for this. For more information on being included, call me at 412-263-1516 or e-mail me at sbanks@post-gazette.com.



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