Evolution of turf seed

Over the last 30 years, seed producers have developed and introduced thousands of new varieties. And, as with any commodity, success increases consumer demand. In 1967, less than 15 varieties of Kentucky bluegrass were on the market. In 1996 alone, 73 varieties of Kentucky bluegrass were in production in Oregon's certification program.

"Some varieties have decreased over time definitely," says Kevin Morris, National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP). "For example, Merion Kentucky bluegrass and Manhattan perennial ryegrass were the first improved turf-type varieties of their species. Merion was the 'Cadillac' of grasses for about 25 years (1950 to 1975). Its claim to fame was improved resistance to leafspot disease, which severely damaged all the Kentucky bluegrasses on the market at the time. Manhattan was the first perennial ryegrass that did not shred so badly when mowed, therefore allowing it to be used on higher-maintenance sites such as golf courses and athletic fields. No one uses either of these varieties much at all now in the United States, because newer varieties with improved color, density, disease resistance and seed yield have replaced them."

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In 1967, annual ryegrass was one of the more popular species. Seed companies were still in the early stages of developing perennial ryegrass, according to Keith Laxton of Seed Research of Oregon. "In 1967, the selection (of grasses) was very limited, and the turf quality was problematic," says Laxton. "Today, consumers have a whole spectrum of varieties from which to choose. Many of the new varieties have pretty good turf quality; most have excellent turf quality."

Ryegrass and tall fescues have a market life of about 5 to 6 years. After that, seed producers introduce newer, higher-quality varieties. According to Turf Merchants Inc., perennial ryegrass led the number of new varieties for 1996 with 18 eligible for Oregon certification. Tall fescue was second with 14 new varieties.

Regional needs also help fuel the introduction of new varieties. In fact, some seed companies develop new varieties focusing on a specific region of the country. The Scotts Co., for example, has developed and tested varieties - mainly in the Midwest - that are better adapted to conditions in that area. This regional approach pertains more to Kentucky bluegrass than tall fescue and perennial ryegrass, which perform well in many different regions.

"The future of varieties is moving toward more regionally adapted grasses. Companies are looking more at different types of plants and trying to develop them more for specific regions or uses," says Morris. "The downside to this is that it is expensive to develop a marketing program for just one region. It is easier to have a national marketing program for a grass - the market size is much larger and the payoff greater."

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