Seeds of destiny

Amenity turf uses only a handful of the 10,000 species in the grass family. Perennial ryegrass is a major component of grass seed mixtures used for sports, amenity and other landscape purposes in the UK. Demand is growing for new cost-efficient seed mixes that cope with flooding, drought, and disease. Consumers are also increasingly aware of the need for biodiversity and the benefits of wildflower turf. We look at the new and emerging trends in this well-trodden subject.
Drought, floods, salt and biodiversity
“The other day, a Dorset customer wanted a specific mix for salty soils, as he lives on the coast,” comments Jack Wilkinson, Lawn UK. The nation-wide company gets asked for a diverse range of seeds, from drought tolerant mixtures to those that cope with heavy wet soils.
“I don’t believe there’s one grass that suits everything,” he says. “We use the traditional species, the ryegrass, the fescues, the bent grass, all mixed together to come up with the best mix for the situation. If you rely on just one species, you open the door to disease and weed problems. Most of our mixes have two or three different species, so if the soil doesn’t like one of the species, you’re still going to get something coming through.”
Nick Gladstone, Hurrells & McLean Seeds, says there’s a need to look at quicker greening over, better tolerance of extremes of weather, deeper root density, and ability to use nitrogen better. “That would mean we wouldn’t have to apply as much nitrogen and wouldn’t have leaching into the waters. Maybe we should be breeding more from the fescues than the perennial rye grasses, because the latter are very hungry for nitrogen whereas fescues will grow in lower fertility situations.”
James Hewetson-Brown, Managing Partner at Wildflower Turf says the company concentrates on the biodiversity angle. “Climate change is an issue, and the Olympics created more awareness of a wildflower meadow being good for the environment and biodiversity, good for the bees and butterflies, and drought tolerant.”
He comments that establishing a wildflower meadow is difficult from seed.
“It can be done, but it takes three of four years of hard work and regular cutting. Generally, weeds take over, and people don’t know how maintain it, or what’s involved in growing from seed. Turf is almost a guaranteed meadow.”

Research and development
At The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), Sheena Duller, Research Scientist says that while grass breeding is a bit slow and generation time is always going to be a year: “with some of the marker techniques we should be able to knock off the odd year – with not quite so much growing out in the fields and seeing if it displays the trait we want. Using markers we can grow them for a few weeks, take leaf samples, test thousands of plants in the greenhouse, and then grow on the ones that look as though they should be useful.”
She says that while disease resistance, flooding and drought response are all quite major traits, “they’re all terribly complex traits – there’s no one gene that you can say yes this is the gene that makes it root down to three metres etc. There’s a lot of factors, but we’re getting there.”
Nick Gladstone, managing director at Hurrells & McLean Seeds believes that grass breeding companies should be looking at grass seeds that help combat drought and flood and extremes of conditions. “For example, for landscaping purposes, for drought, we might be looking at significantly deeper rooted varieties or species that may have not just drought tolerance benefits, but also reflect on other aspects of landscaping and sports, such as consolidating newly created slopes that are volatile and not quite stable. A very deep-rooted plant might do that.”

Derek Smith, Amenity Sales & Marketing Manager at Johnson Lawn Seeds / DLF Trifolium says that as a breeder/producer, the company can take a long-term view, and spends millions on research and development. “Our goals include drought tolerance, deep root systems, and salt tolerance,” he says. “We also consider nitrogen use and efficiency, and the carbon footprint.”
At The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), Dr Mike Humphreys, Principal Investigator, works on forage grasses, but often on similar species. As he remarks: “Premier rye grass is premier rye grass.”
He’s working on various challenges, including drought and heat tolerance, and winter hardiness: “I try to target the genes we want from the fescue and put into the rye grass without reducing the good qualities of the latter.”
As examples, he remarks that Meadow fescue is very winter hardy, and has been considered for hybridizing with rye grass for winter hardiness; he is also looking at the Southern Europe and North Africa fescues for heat/drought tolerance, and good root systems.
A new drought-resistant variety is going into trials in 2013, with the transfers of genes for drought-resistance from Mediterranean grass. “We’ve introduced genes that enhanced water sufficiency – the amount of grass grown for each amount of water taken up by 80%, compared to Italian ryegrass. Same genes into perennial ryegrass and got the same effect.”
For flood challenges, he is monitoring how roots behave over time, how deeply roots die back, and the large amount of space left behind. “We’ve managed to halve water run-off compared to perennial ryegrass cultivar,” he says. “The potential is huge.”
New for 2013
Limagrain UK’s Colour Splash has six new flower mixtures for 2013. The low-maintenance flower seed mixtures can be used in various locations including parks, roundabouts, and golf courses. The Honey Bee Mixture and Biodiversity Mix contain plants that attract bees and insects.
Barenbrug has added Extreme RPR (Regenerating Perennial Ryegrass) to its range for 2013, a grass seed that complements the existing BAR Extreme. The company says that RPR differs to regular perennial ryegrass as it shows a better sod density, wear tolerance and recovery throughout the year. Barenbrug products with the GreenEarth quality mark include Bar Fescue (Plus), Solide, Bar Duo Bent and WaterSaver.

Rigby Taylor has a dedicated Landscaping Sundries catalogue, and a new range of super-micro granulation Microlite fertilisers, with uniformity index of 1-1.5mm. For the autumn, winter and early spring periods, two forms of Microlite analyses contain Activate ERD, which makes available humic acid for improved root mass and length, and an increase in root hairs. The addition of zeolite, a naturally occurring mineral incorporated into the Microlite formulations, helps promote plant growth by enhancing nutrient availability.
At Lawn UK, Jack says customer feedback and concerns drive the company’s products. “We change the mixtures as we need to – sometimes it’s soil acidity, or additional drainage.” Sprogs & Dogs is a popular Lawn UK seed mixture, and contains Dwarf Ryegrass and Creeping Red Fescue, to provide a full, thick turf. Premium Green is the company’s flagship lawn seed, with bentgrass and slender creeping red fescue, especially suitable for golf greens, and bowling greens.
Jack has also seen a surge in demand for wildflower seed, with customers wanting a wildflower area instead of lawns, to attract bees and butterflies.
British Seed Houses’ new Aber®Sustain seed mixture offers a low maintenance, sustainable option for use on landscaping projects, including lawns, parks and ecological builds in cities. The compact clover leaf blends well in an amenity setting, and its high stolon density fixes nitrogen to help the sward feed itself, while the white clover root systems improve soil structure and can help to overcome problems of soil compaction.
Wildflower Turf’s unique ‘soil-less’ system is weed suppressing, easy to handle and delivers a guaranteed wildflower environment. It has 34 UK native wildflowers and grasses, (minimum 50% wildflowers), suitable for a range of soil types, and ground landscaping applications from 30m² to 10,000m². It is shade and drought tolerant. Typical applications include gardens, parks, municipal areas, private grounds and estates, and education/outdoor classrooms. It can also be used by councils, in housing developments, on car park verges, and for green roofs.
Johnson Lawn Seeds / DLF Trifolium’s new ‘Tenuis Bent’ cultivar, Arrowtown browntop bent grass has class-leading density, tolerance to close mowing and high disease resistance. Arrowtown has a natural vigour that enables it to recover quickly from renovation, with improved drought stress and colour retention in a dry summer. The company also has 13 new blend formulations, and two new cultivars.

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