New low-maintenance, slow-growing seed offers new niche for landscape contractors

PHOTOS COURTESY OF JACKSON MADNICK.
A Lake Road property, before and after installing a Pearl’s Premium lawn.

Jackson Madnick, developer of Pearl’s Premium seeds.

A new seed blend, called Pearl’s Premium, developed and patented by Jackson Madnick of Wayland, Mass., as Pearl’s Premium “Ultra Low Maintenance” Lawn Seed, claims to save time, money, energy and water. According to the company’s Web site, www.pearlspremium.com, the lawn doesn’t need watering once it is established (which takes about one month), grows so slowly that it only needs cutting once every three to four weeks, develops 12-inch roots making it drought-tolerant, never needs chemical fertilizers and helps to transition clients to organic lawns. The seeds are more expensive than conventional seeds (for landscape professionals it can be purchased for $150 for a 25-pound bag, which can cover about 5,000 square feet), and Madnick says it is an ultra-low maintenance seed specifically blended for cooler climates.

The seeds are the result of six years of product research and testing. So far, over 3,000 lawns have been installed across the country (approximately 3 million square feet) at homes, condominiums, colleges and municipal parks. Also, Harvard, Tufts and Cornell are currently testing the seed for use on its campuses.

The lawns grown by Pearl’s Premium seed have been getting positive reviews in the press from the National Garden Association to the Boston Globe to This Old House Magazine, which grew and tested the seed blend.

Not a miracle grass

Despite the initial success of the grass blend, Madnick is quick to point out that this is not a “miracle grass.”

“This isn’t going to take over the world, it’s a niche product,” says Madnick, who points out that it needs a lot of water every day for a month to get established or it will die. And, some people will never take to the look of the grass, preferring the look and feel of bluegrass instead.

These clients in Weston, Mass., used Pearl’s Premium to create a healthy lawn over compacted soil after heavy construction work on the property and a new septic system was installed in the backyard.

How the blend was created

Madnick worked with three scientists from the National Turf Evaluation Program to find the unique mix of native and adaptive seed types that would work to make a low-maintenance grass. “I researched grasses from all over the world that needed less maintenance, and also looked good and were soft,” said Madnick. Five seeds were eventually selected: two in particular are resistant to mold and mildew, and all five are drought-resistant, grow 12-inch roots and grow at a quarter of the rate of bluegrass.

Once the types of seed were selected, Madnick did extensive tests to find the precise proportion of the various seeds that would give grass the quality he wanted for not only the Northeast climate, but for all of North America (except for extreme southern zones). The patented blend of seeds, which are sold in a very specific proportion that cannot vary, was named “Pearl” after both his daughter and his mother.

The seed will grow from mid-Canada to Maryland. “It wasn’t developed to grow in the deep south, but [customers] are growing it in Miami, Texas and Southern California,” says Madnick, noting that while they will grow in southern areas, they will need water.

Pros and cons

David Gordon, owner of Newton Organic Lawn (www.newtonorganiclawn.com) in Newton, Mass., says that it does take some patience to get the Pearl’s Premium to grow after seeding.

“It takes a whole extra week to germinate. It takes more effort up front to get it going, but there’s more dividends down the road,” he says.

Gordon says the grass has “a vibrancy that’s hard to describe. It looks like the green grasses of Ireland.” There are several species of grasses available commercially that need less water, but he found that Pearl’s Premium needs no water once it gets started.

“The results I’ve had [with clients] have been fabulous,” says Gordon. He has installed seven lawns with Pearl’s so far, most of which were overseeded lawns and the rest new installations.

Gordon charges about $900 to install 4,000 square feet of lawn using Pearl’s Premium, which is only slightly more than for a conventional lawn. “For the whole grand scheme, the more expensive seeds are not significant,” he says.

There also needs to be a strong a commitment by the owner of the property to water religiously during the germinating phase. “I e-mail clients to bug them to water. You can’t just throw it down and forget about it,” says Gordon.

He also likes to use Pearl’s Premium in hard-to-grow places, such as curbside, under trees or in shaded areas. “If you don’t want to do the full-blown thing using Pearl’s, this is a good way to see how it works in trouble spots,” he says.

The new seed blend requires no synthetic fertilizer, herbicides or fungicides.
 
This client wanted a lawn that did not need chemical fertilizer to prevent runoff into the lake

Good for the industry?

For a landscaper installing a lawn that needs little maintenance, it begs the question: is this good for business?

Stu Ramsay, former owner of a Lawn Doctor franchise, admits that this kind of lawn seed may look like it will destroy business for an already struggling industry, but Madnick says that it can actually help a landscaper’s business by tapping into a new market.

A recent study conducted in Massachusetts showed that 91 percent of homeowners maintain their own lawns and only 9 percent hire a landscaper for maintenance. “There have been a number of landscapers [selling Pearl’s Premium] who have been reaching out to the 91 percent who do their own lawns about the low-maintenance quality of the grass,” says Madnick. The results are encouraging, according to reports he has gotten from these landscapers. “Landscapers are picking up new installation business from people who do their own lawns,” he says.

“There is a whole market that can’t afford to have weekly mowing, but could afford maintenance three times a summer,” agrees Ramsay. “These are markets that a landscaper can penetrate that they can’t penetrate now, which has huge ramifications for business.”

How to buy and install

Landscapers can buy Pearl’s Premium directly from the company. The seeds can be picked up at the Pearl’s Premium location in Wayland, Mass., or shipped out.

Here are some major points to consider when installing a Pearl’s Premium seed lawn:

  • Cut the lawn extremely short, down to the dirt, with a dull blade. Rake away clippings and thatch.
  • If the existing grass is weak, the Pearl’s will outcompete it quickly. “If the grass is very healthy, don’t fertilize it before installing the Pearl’s,” Gordon says. He also recommends over-spraying Phydura (a natural clove oil and vinegar concentrate that blocks photosynthesis of grass and kills it).
  • Test soil and use lime to correct the acidity. Spread a small amount of organic compost to help start seeds. This will fertilize the lawn for a year and helps keep out future weeds and grubs.
  • Spread Pearl’s Premium seeds at 15 per square inch (a 5-pound bag covers 1,000 square feet) or spread extra thick at 25 seeds per square inch or 7 to 8 pounds per 1,000 square feet to help keep out weeds. Apply with a spreader going in two directions at right angles to each other for even spread. Gently rake into soil to just barely be covered. Roll seeds in for good contact with soil, particularly on slopes.
  • Water every morning for three weeks for 20 to 30 minutes (or the time it takes to water the soil down to 1 inch). In warmer weather or for well-drained soil, water a second time for 20 minutes at 3 p.m. To avoid fungal diseases, never water at 5 p.m. or later.
  • After three weeks, cut watering back to every two days for the next two weeks. Remember, watering is essential to get the seed established.
  • For mowing, cut lawn high with a sharp blade. Wait until the new grass is 4 inches high, and cut back to 3 inches. Leave clippings only if using a mulching mower. After the initial cut, cut once a month.
  • For weed control, aerate two times per year, cut 3 (or more) inches high, and heavily overseed (8 pounds per 1,000 square feet). Spread corn gluten the first week of April to prevent broadleaf weeds; other weeds will need to be hand-pulled.

The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.