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How to Grow a Better Lawn – Grass Seeds DO Make the Difference

Last week I flew to Portland, OR to get an education on grass seed at Pennington Seed. I learned a lot more than I ever imagined you could learn about those little seeds. I am so grateful for the opportunity and the time that Pennington Seed took to share this information with me. I spent a whole day trying to absorb as much as I could. As you can imagine, there was so much information, I tried my best to fit it all in this post.

Research and Development:

You wouldn’t believe how much research and development goes into the grass seeds you buy today (particularly if you buy Pennington Seeds.) The scientists and all the folks at Pennington are passionate about meeting customer requests for their grass. They even promise “Guaranteed Performance and Quality” and print it right on the product package.

They are also concerned about water conservation and the impact of chemicals on the environment. Which is why they are constantly breeding new grasses that are more drought tolerant and more disease and pest resistant. In fact, they stopped using pesticides in their greenhouses and rely on natural pest control:

Lady bugs and praying mantises are natural pest predators.

One species of grass, the scientists are working on, has a root length 130% longer than previous generations.

Did you know that a grass that has a longer root can reach further into the soil to access water and nutrients that other grasses couldn’t previously access? This translates to a more established and drought tolerant lawn for you and me!

Kenneth Hignight shows us some of the research grasses.

The second factor of drought tolerance is planting the appropriate seed for your climate. I know you southern US peeps are not going to like this, but you need to accept that there are specific species of grass that will live longest in your region. Those warm season grasses will turn brown over the winter. And when you see that brown — don’t fear or fret — it is just your lawn’s way of going dormant for the remainder of the hot dry season so that it can prosper once the season changes and conditions are ripe for growth again. Accept the change as you would the falling leaves on  an autumn tree. Huge amounts of watering will just waste water and only slightly delaying that natural dormant process.

Now, if you REALLY hate that brown look, you can overseed your lawn with a rye grass for winter color, but be forewarned that it won’t last through the summer and you will likely have to reseed yearly.

About Reseeding:

Before my grass education, I thoroughly believed that we would seed our lawn; water it correctly; and reap the rewards of a beautiful golf course quality lawn for decades. Boy was I wrong. It turns out that it is necessary to reseed yearly until we have a VERY well established lawn. Then, and only then can we take a year off here and there. What I didn’t realize is that the turf type tall fescue blend is a custom blend that has been specifically mixed for my local environmental conditions. This specialized blend is then shipped to my local home improvement store. The purpose of the blend is to have grass seed that will do well in some of the shady spots in my lawn. Other seeds in the mix will fair better in the hot summer sun. Some of these grass plants will die out, but the others will continue to live and thrive. This is why you will have a really lush lawn when it first comes in but then it thins out as the year progresses. Which also explains why you need to reseed yearly.

Custom Blends:

A custom blend is created for your specific locale. Did you know that Pennington Seed produces grass seed for the entire US plus many other countries? They have data that describes the growing conditions for their entire customer base. So, resist the urge to drive a long way to buy grass seed that is cheaper or on sale. Buy your grass seed from your local stores. Steer clear of grass seed that is on sale or clearance. Chances are that you are not really saving money on that seed? You are essentially buying old seed or seed that is not top quality. Personally, I would rather pay a little more now so that I get my money’s worth after all the effort to grow the grass.

Should you have any leftover grass seed, be sure to seal it in a ziploc bag and store it in the freezer.

Did you know that the grass you bought a few years ago is inferior in quality? Why? Two reasons:

1. Unless stored properly in a cool and dry place, the health of that seed has been compromised by any change in temperature and humidity. So, if you happen to have a small amount of seed leftover, you can store it in the freezer and use it next year.

2. Okay, so you knew about #1, but did you know that because of all the research and development that Pennington does, that each year they are producing super seeds! Seeds that have longer roots than the year before and more drought tolerant and fungal and pest resistant. They are constantly picking the grass plants that last longer and are healthier than their crop mates! Then they are bred to out perform their parents generation. This is seriously cool science people! So, buy new yearly and you will be getting a better and stronger seed than the year before!

There 5 main ways that can kill your lawn (and most of them can be prevented!)

1. Disease/Pest/Fungus – This is one enemy (well three enemies) that you have a little control over. Buying a seed that has natural disease and pesticides will help. And watering the appropriate amount, at the right time will help too.

Pythium will wipe out an entire lawn overnight.

2. Poor Soil conditions – A good ph balanced soil that has proper drainage and nutrients will go a long way to keeping your grass healthy. Before you plant new, be sure to till your soil and amend the ph balance with the addition of lime if the ph is less than 6. Or add sulphur if the ph is 8 or higher. Then coat the dirt with top soil and water before planting seeds. If you have an existing lawn, you can amend your soil slowly by aerating yearly and sprinkling compost and ph amendments on the lawn.

3. Water  – I bet you are going to say that under-watering is the main cause of killing your lawn. Contrary to what you might think, most people end up overwatering their lawns and killing it. Overwatering makes your lawn more susceptible to fungi and disease.

Watering should be delivered 1-2 times a week for a total of 1″ of water per week. Water in the morning hours. (Middle of the night waterings can encourage funguses and disease.) Use a sprinkler system or hose mounted sprinkler heads to water uniformly. Hand watering is near impossible to do correctly. (You may need to hand water edges, corners or areas near a building that dry faster.) How do you know how many inches you are watering? Either use a rainfall gauge or set out some tuna or flat pet food cans and measure the height of the collected water after you water. Resist the urge to water more than 2 times a week. It is important to allow your lawn to dry between waterings. Make those grass roots grow deeper to access more nutrients and create a more established lawn.

4. Over fertililizing – If your grass is healthy and the soil is good, you shouldn’t need much fertilization. An early spring and late fall application for cool season grasses is recommended. And throughout the growing season for warm season grasses. Aim for slow release fertilizers and avoid ones that are a high percentage of nitrogen which could lead to a faster growing (and more mowing) lawn.

5. Cutting too short – Grass experts recommend that you resist the urge to cut your grass more than 1/3 of its height. If you adhere to this rule, you can leave grass clippings on your lawn. These are helpful and put nutrients back into the soil as they decompose. Cutting more than 1/3 of the height can leave big clumps of grass clippings that could kill the grass below it. Make sure you have a sharp mower blade. Dull blades can lead to ragged cuts and make the grass more susceptible to disease and drought.

Endophytes – Endo-what?

Debra Hignight showing us the grass on the left has naturally occurring endophytes to fight disease. The grass on the right does not.

Many species of grass have a living fungi inside the seed that naturally fights disease and pests? These beneficial organisms are called endophytes.   They are found in some rye grasses and fescues. Pennington Seed is successfully producing grass seeds that naturally contain these endophytes.

Here is a little something to think about next time you are purchasing grass:

Pennington Seed’s main product is grass seed. They strive to produce the BEST grass seed for their customers. Seeds that are resistant to pests, disease and drought. Pennington doesn’t benefit from grass that requires pesticides and more fertilizer.

Reader’s Questions Answered:

Mike Baker giving us an inside look at the Pennington Seed plant.

You asked the questions, and now I have answers. A big thank you to Russ Nicholson for taking the time to answer each of your grass questions:

Vanessa asked: I live in Florida and our grass is not grass, but weeds and crabgrass. Ugh! I hope you learn a lot and give us the low down on growing better grass. Have a fun.

Samantha asked: If you miss the pre emergent weed killer application every year like I seem to is there any hope?!

Russ answered: Post emergent applications can control many grassy and broadleaf weeds, a liquid application is best.

Patricia asked: I’ve been trying to get grass to grow in our very shady yard since we moved here 6 years ago. I can’t wait for your tips.

Russ answered: Some areas are just too shady to support turfgrass growth. You may consider trimming the tree to allow more light underneath or expanding the landscape bed. The tree absorbs much of the needed light creating a dense shade with no usable light plus the tree absorbs most of the available water in the soil too.

Carrie asked: My lawn, aka weed garden, is horrible. I want to know how often & when to do things: seeding, fertilizing, weed control, etc., the whole year long process.

Laura asked: Brittany I live in NC, 
I’d like to know how to keep it from turning into dirt patches by the end of every hot summer.
We have to reseed every year.

Russ answered: Basic Outline –  Seed in the fall or early spring for cool season grasses i.e. TTTF (Turf Type Tall Fescue), apply a pre-emergent if seeding in the fall, post emergent if spring seeding. Bare areas may be from excessive use, compacted soil, or poor soil – consider amending the soil, aerifying the lawn concentrating on the poorly performing areas. Apply fertilizer early and late spring, about 1 lb N each time with 50% slow release and 1 lb N in Sept again 50% slow release.

Susan asked: Is there any grass that grows in shade?????????

Russ answered: Try the Dense shade mixture but also look at the response above regarding shade under trees.


Monique asked: 1. What’s the best way to reseed lawn using fescue grass?

Russ answered: Remove the dead material in the existing lawn and apply seed with a goal to have seed reach soil.

2. What season is best for growing grass?

Russ answered: Fescue grows best in Fall and Spring months

Cindy Sue: We live in middle Ten. and although Bermuda grass seems to do better here because of the heat, what other kinds of grass seeds could we use to make it NOT look dead in the winter months?

Russ answered: Turf Type Tall Fescue will survive as well though if existing lawn is Bermuda it will be difficult to renovate to a cool season grass or any other warm season for that matter too. All warm season grasses will go dormant (look dead) in the winter months. The lawn could  be overseeded with perennial ryegrass in the fall for winter color.

Susie asked: I live in Raleigh and the soil here is just dreadful especially since they remove the topsoil when they build houses. My backyard has shady areas that are sparse and the full sun parts are full of weeds. HELP!

Russ answered: Control the weeds, even with a non-selective like Round Up and then seed in the fall with a Sun & Shade mixture.

Erin asked: Is there any blade grasses that will survive and thrive in Houston? I HATE St. Augustine and Bermuda grass. My lawn is patchy and I need something to help fill it in…and if it killed off the crap they call grass down here, that would be even better.

Laura asked: Let us know what you learn. Down/over here in West Texas, our grass is dying as I type. And the weeds are taking over! Of course, the drought doesn’t help!

Russ answered: Only warm season grasses will survive in Houston i.e. St Augustine, Bermuda, Zoysia, & Centipede.

Bernadette asked: Does Pennington has a product that can compete with the PNW moss and the puppy loving going on in our backyard? We live on a golf course so our grass mishaps look all the worse backed up against the 9th hole.
Kimbo asked: I live in Northern California (the desert part) and was curious about when the best time to overseed or patch thin spots in the lawn would be. Because the heat of the summer fries everything to a crisp I thought spring would be a bad time to start “baby grass”? So when do you do it? We never get a hard freeze so is the fall the best time? It seems like the same sections of my lawn die every year, and I am not sure I am overseeding correctly!
Russ answered: Fall overseeding will work well if they are putting in a cool season grass, if it is a warm season then the spring is better. As for the same sections declining year after year, then it is not the grass but either soil or another impact that needs to be addressed, compaction, wear, and shade have the most impact.
Sarah asked: We are in PA where the weather is very unpredictable. Sometimes our grass grows a foot in 2 weeks other times Nothing. We also have 2 dogs that have a few places where they have killed the Grass. What’s the best way to keep our lawn beautiful? Is there a better seed for people with pets?[
Russ answered: Not knowing the part of PA you live, athough TTTF (Turf Type Tall Fescue) and KBG (Kentucky Blue Grass) perform best there. Climate conditions will vary growth as will the fertility management of all the grasses. There really is no alternative for residents of PA especially with the wear and tear of dogs.

More Resources:

For more information about planting and maintaining grass, check out these websites:

The Lawn Institute

Pennington Seed

Turf Grass Water Conservation Alliance

In the meantime, I’m on a mission to create barefoot worthy grass in our yard! I’ll be sure to share my results.

Disclosure: Pennington Seed, Inc. and their parent company Central Garden & Pet partnered with bloggers such as me to help educate us all about grass seed. As part of this program, I received compensation and was hosted by the company for a kickoff event. They did not tell me what to what to say about the use of the products. Central Garden & Pet believes that consumers and bloggers are free to form their own opinions and share them in their own words. Central Garden & Pet’s policies align with WOMMA Ethics Code, FTC guidelines and social media engagement recommendations.


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