The great grass seed swindle!

In about the last 40 years grass seed has undergone a revolution, when I was an undergraduate perennial rye grass was the tufty grass you tried to avoid in anything but the areas of long grass due to its course nature and inability to tolerate close mowing. Suffice to say things have changed a lot with the discovery that you can selectively breed grasses and so dramatically alter their nature, particularly the case with rye grass. Now very few commercial grass seed mixtures contain no perennial rye grass cultivars in their make up. This is because modern perennial rye grass cultivars still have the good wear resistance of their wild type but the nature and tolerance to close mowing of the traditional finer grasses. This has lead to a proliferation of hundreds of different grass cultivars each with their own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. Every year the STRI (Sport Turf Research Institute) and the BSPB (British Society of Plant Breeders) publish a buyer guide to the available grass seed varieties and the 2012 edition runs to 32 pages! With all this variety how are you going to the right choice? Lucky this is done by the seed merchants and all grass seed is now sold in mixtures. Now comes the problem, because how good these mixtures are can be very variable.

Can we trust the packaging

Mixtures from the big seed houses are very good as they are supplying the professional market and have a wealth of specialist knowledge to back up their choices. You only have to look at recordings of a late season football match from the 1970’s and compare the pitch to a late season match now. Unfortunately you are unlikely to see these on the shelves of the local supermarket or DIY shed, and even if you did you the name would nothing to you as they sell to people like golf and football clubs, and landscapers who buy grass seed in multiples of 25 Kg sacks. The people at the STRI began to wonder if all the advances made in turf culture over the years had filtered down to the domestic market so in 2009 they started to investigate the quality and performance of the grass seed mixtures which were aimed at the home gardener. This wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm by some of the retailers, claiming as the seed mixtures changed from year to year by the time the trials would be completed the mixtures would have changed so the results would be out of date. Fortunately the STRI pressed on sighting the argument that trail would show if the mixtures matched the description on the packet they came in. Unfortunately for the consumer STRI are not Which, consumer protection is not what they do, it was fortunate for the retailers since they would not want the trial results given the kind of press coverage Which would have given them. They were not good.

Does it do what it says on the box?

By their own admission the trials are in an early stage but in their April 2010 Bulletin they had already come to the conclusion that the quality of the mixtures was VERY variable and the price on the box was no indicator of the quality of the content. The mixture appeared to be made to price not purpose so the consumer had no way of knowing if the mixture was really suitable for them. In any walk of life this would have coursed a public outcry and the retailers would have had their PR people running round like scolded cats. The STRI is a professional research organisation for the horticultural industry so sadly no one noticed the damming report they produced, and I’ve read a few research bulletins but none I can think of which were this bad!

The mixtures ranged from reasonable to ones which were only really suitable for a farmer’s field, I know self sufficiency is coming back into fashion but keeping a house cow might be a step to far.

So what to do?

From the report and the deafening silence that has followed it I think it fair to say buying your grass seed from a supermarket, DIY shed or most large garden centres is going to be at best the horticultural equivalent Russian roulette. So what would I do? Well head to an independent garden centre or similar place and have a wander about. Look to see if the grass seed is in nice shiny little boxes on the shelves. If it is I’m afraid your best bet is to keep looking. On the other hand if the grass seed is being dolled out of large paper sacks in the floor and the sacks are rather plain you are in a much better position. Have a look at the brand name, ask the staff about it, google the name and see if a big specialist grass seed company, do a bit of research, you are going to be living with this mixture for many years to come. That way you should get a grass seed mixture which reflects the quality out there and not left with the stock room floor sweepings. Clearly a case for “Caveat emptor”!

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