Mar 15, 2012

Why Grass Seed is Way More Interesting than You'd Think: Reports from the Pennington Seed "Seed for Yourself" Summit

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Over the past weekend, I was fortunate to be invited as a guest of Pennington Seed to attend the Seed for Yourself Summit near Albany, Oregon. As someone who lives in the city and is thankful I haven't had to care for a green lawn since I gave the responsibility back to my dad when I left for college, I admit I knew very little nothing about grass seed, how to grow it, or why some is better than others.
But now, I've been schooled, and I'm popping around the neighborhood goin' "See that? That's tall fescue, it goes dormant in the winter, which is why it looks like straw;" and, "Perennial rye grass right there, cause it has untoothed parallel sides and prominent parallel veins on the upper surface."

See? I learned something. And...grass seed is pretty fascinating stuff.   Our day began with a beautiful, early morning bus ride from our hotel in downtown Portland to the Williamette Valley, about ninety minutes outside the city. This region is known as the "Grass Seed Capital of the World", since its climate - mild, wet winters and a flat valley location next to a mountain range - makes this part of the world the perfect place to grow and harvest grass seed. The location on the 45th parallel also realizes some of the best pinot grapes and wine in the country (like its southern hemisphere mirror, New Zealand). So, good for wine, good for grass seed. Good to know.

We first visited NextGen research, which is Pennington's research facility. The scientists there are constantly building new cultivars to create better grass seed. At any given time, they have hundreds and hundreds of plots a-happening to test different soil and water conditions. (There are equivalent facilities in Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, and Arizona to test other climates.)

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NextGen, while owned and operated by Pennington, is a serious scientific and botanical institution that produces peer-reviewed research, and tests not only products by Pennington, but from competitors and universities to really learn what produces better grass seed. My favorite part is the brilliant solution that turfgrass breeders have invented to test different cultivars. They have a lightbox they wheel around on a dolly, and place over a plot. They then take low-resolution digital photos, and then import the images into software that analyzes how many green pixels there are:created at: 03/15/2012
Brilliant, right? Much better than the method prior to the early 00s, in which all sorts of individuals would simply make subjective judgments.

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We checked out some of the greenhouses, where they have all kinds of cool contraptions set up to find just the right cultivar. There are little drip spouts they time with a standard musical metronome, and samples they purposefully innoculate with fungi to check the seeds resistance:created at: 03/15/2012

Then, we traveled to the Pennington Seed plant about 10 miles away, where we got to see how the seeds are processed, mixed, bagged, and prepared for shipping. Pennington selects different seed blends for different parts of the country, so even if you buy a 1-Step Smart Seed Mix in Boston and a 1-Step Smart Seed Mix in Austin, you're guaranteed to get the right blend for your climate. And, we got to wear sweet safety vests. I chose orange.

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We headed back to NextGen for some hands on experiments. Here's Timothy from Charles & Hudson and Brittany from Pretty Handy Girl getting dirty with some Pennington 1-Step Complete:

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It was helpful to learn from the best of the best (professional grass seed scientists) how to guarantee success in planting, and now I feel confident I could take on whole golf courses and fields of planting. Fields, I say!

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It comes as no surprise that the NextGen facility has some of the best looking lawns anyone's seen. The ideal climate and expertise of the team makes for some fine turf. Here's plant breeder Debra Hignight demonstrating how to tell the difference between some of the major types of grass grown in the U.S.: tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, and Kentucky bluegrass.

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I was impressed with Pennington's Seed's commitment to quality and long-term results. They are constantly pushing to build better seeds and produce a scientifically researched product that meets consumer needs: wear tolerant, cold tolerant, salt tolerant, and most importantly reducing chemical applications and using less water. These aren't genetically modified plants; this is smart cultivar breeding that uses the best of selection, Gregor Mendel-style.

Big thanks to Pennington Seed for hosting us, teaching us so much, and for empowering us to try out what we've learned in our own climates. In the next few weeks, I'ma get my hands dirty with some friends who just bought a new home, and see if I can't fix their sorry, sorry sod. More info soon!

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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 purchase or 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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gail on Mar 15, 2012:

Great post!  :)  I found it very informative even though I was there.  Good luck with that sorry sod!  I have some sorry stuff myself... it's a little scary!


ps it was great to meet you!