Choosing the Best Turfgrass Varieties
An important component of a great looking, healthy lawn is choosing the best species and cultivars available. Each year Virginia Tech partners with the University of Maryland in developing a Recommended Turfgrass Variety List. This list is based on field performance data in replicated research plots at the Turfgrass Research Centers in Blacksburg and College Park, as well as research plots at the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Virginia Beach. Seasonal quality data are compiled, statistically analyzed, and representatives of Virginia and Maryland’s Crop Improve Associations meet with Virginia Tech and Maryland turf management faculty to develop the latest list of recommended varieties.
For a list to have any validity, multiple years of successful field performance are required. Most of our research data are gathered from side-by-side evaluations in Variety Trials administered by the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program, a branch of the USDA. These trials are replicated at several locations around the country and performance data are always available on-line at www.NTEP.org. Very specific variety data on pest pressure, leaf color and texture, tolerance to environmental extremes, etc. can be found at this site. These trials are conducted under specific guidelines for maintenance and they last for approximately six years in hopes that Mother Nature will present plenty of environmental and pest challenges to the varieties to see how they respond and differentiate from each other.
We have essentially two categories of recommendations on the Virginia list: Recommended and Promising varieties (note: there also are additional comments regarding blends, mixes, and specific species). To be eligible for consideration of making the list, the variety must be named and available as certified seed, sprigs, or sod. Next, it must be tested at sites in both Virginia and Maryland. Finally, it must perform well relative to other varieties for a minimum of two years to be considered Promising and three years to make the list as Recommended.
Even with an outstanding performance record, we still suggest that you blend multiple varieties from the recommended list for cool-season grasses such as tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, and perennial ryegrass. This practice further broadens the genetic diversity of these species. The more genetic diversity you have in your lawngrasses, the more likely the turf will survive a pest or environmental extreme. And also remember that while diversity is important for turf survival, turf uniformity is still key to most people’s perspective of what constitutes a “great looking” lawn. Color (especially dark green) continues to be one of the most important considerations. So, you might want to take a look at the complete NTEP data report online and see how some of the recommended or promising cultivars compare in terms of genetic color (i.e. light vs. dark green) when it comes to purchasing seed blends or mixes. Fortunately, many of the specialty turf product stores (discussed later) do this type of thing for you.
While the variety list is a great starting point towards developing a healthy, environmentally friendly lawn, it is obviously not a guarantee to lasting success with the lawn. Choose appropriate species for your specific situation while considering your climate, soil, light, desired maintenance level, etc. Strengths and weaknesses of the various grasses that will help you make the best choice in species possible are detailed in other podcasts on the Turf and Garden Tips website. Plus, never forget that in a Transition Zone state such as Virginia where almost NO turfgrass species is perfectly adapted, there will still be seasons where turfgrasses will struggle (and maybe even die) simply due to environmental extremes.
Is it easy to locate just about any recommended variety? Unfortunately no. There are several outstanding varieties available that are not evaluated in NTEP and other supplementary university trials for one reason or another. Since we are not evaluating them, we have no basis to make a recommendation one way or the other. But note that just because a variety does not appear on the list does not mean it won’t do well at your location. Don’t be surprised if the garden centers of big-box retailers have limited to no offerings from the recommended list because they typically buy seed based on volume and price and to serve the needs of a general geographic area. Most of these products contain reputable varieties from prominent seed suppliers and the minimum thing you want to do is to ensure that you purchase certified seed with a recent testing date on the seed tag. This at least guarantees that what is on the tag is in the bag.
Where do you find varieties from the recommended list? It can be done with a little extra effort. Search the yellow pages or the internet for grass seed in your area. You likely will locate a specialty turf supply store in your region that often stocks products that you simply can not purchase from the garden centers of big-box retailers, and they also most often have the expertise to answer some of your most specific questions regarding the lawn and landscape. Most of these stores already have pre-blended seed sources developed from the Virginia recommended list. Some of them can even make your very own blend if you wish!
I hope this information plays a role in helping you obtain the quality of lawn you desire. If you have any other questions on ways to develop a great looking, environmentally friendly lawn, please contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office.