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We dump a huge amount of water, chemicals, and money on lawns in America, and we spew lots of pollution into the air mowing them. There are some better options. One is to eliminate lawns. The other is to plant a lawn seed mix that doesn't need to be kept on life-support. Pearl's Premium lawn seed, developed by environmental activist Jackson Madnick with help of soil scientists, offers northern-climate landowners a much greener (!) option.

Pearl's Premium, named after Madnick's mother and his daughter, is available in two different mixes: a shady-site version, which is appropriate for lawns fully in the shade to 50% sun; and a sunny mix for sites with 50% sun to full sun. The shady mix consists of five different fescues (fescue is a type of grass), three of which are native and two "adaptive," to use Madnick's term. The sunny mix contains three of the fescues in the shady mix, plus a special deep-rooted adaptive bluegrass and an adaptive ryegrass.

There are four important benefits of Pearl's Premium turf compared with conventional Kentucky bluegrass turf:

1. Drought tolerant

Pearl's Premium is highly drought tolerant. The grasses establish much deeper roots than conventional turfgrass. While the roots of Kentucky bluegrass and the other grasses used in conventional turf mixes rarely extend more than two or three inches deep, the fescues and other grasses in Madnick's mixes extend down about 12 inches, where they can usually find enough moisture to eliminate the need for watering.

2. No need for chemicals

Consting of native and adaptive grasses, Pearl's Premium does not require fertilizers and other chemicals. In fact, one of Madnick's primary purposes in developing these mixes was to help detoxify our back yards. Runoff from American lawns has become a witches brew: nutrients that cause algae blooms in surface waters; herbicides that are used to kill weeds; and pesticides to kill grubs, insects, and other assorted organisms attempting to eek out a living in our lawns. Some health advocates suggest that these lawn chemicals are responsible for such problems as the surge in cancers being found in pets. It is concerns like these that have led the province of Quebec and Westchester County, New York to ban most lawn chemicals.

3. Infrequent mowing

Pearl's Premium is very slow-growing and, according to Madnick, only needs mowing once a month--instead of once a week for most lawns. By mowing less, you'll not only use less gasoline and generate less air pollution (and many lawnmowers spew out far more pollution than cars with modern pollution-control equipment), but you'll also save a lot of time. You can put that time to better use--maintaining a vegetable garden, going for walks in the woods, reading, or whatever.

4. It grows where other lawn mixes don't

While it admittedly takes some effort to get Pearl's Premium established, it has proved successful in locations where all other efforts to establish lawn have failed--beneath trees, for example. Madnick's website is full of testimonials about this, and the reviews he makes available on his website are quite positive. I'll be testing this myself and will report back!

Madnick spent years perfecting the two mixes he offers, growing hundreds of plots. He told me that sales are tripling annually and that the seed has now been used for over 4,000 lawns. More than 100 professional landscapers or landscape architects have also used it--either for their own lawns or for lawns of clients.

Madnick is quick to caution that Pearl's Premium isn't a miracle turf, and it's not perfect for every application. First of all, it's not going to grow well in the deep south; the soil  can't be too warm, or germination will be poor. He recommends it for about the northern half of the U.S. and into Canada--from about North Carolina or central California north). The seed is most commonly used in the Northeast.

Lawns produced from Pearl's Premium are also going to have a different look and feel than the bluegrass lawns most of us are used to. The grass is softer and not as robust and thick. If you want the "Chem-lawn" look, you'll probably want to stick with Kentucky bluegrass.

Pearl's Premium can be established on freshly graded soil around a new house or by mowing an existing lawn as low as possible--right down to the ground almost--and scratching up the surface with an iron rake before seeding. Ideally, the soil temperature should be in the range of 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit. The key to successful lawn establishment in the spring is to water regularly (as often as daily) for the first month as the lawn is being established. If planting in the fall, it's often possible to get by with less watering.

Pearl's Premium is fairly expensive: list price of $35.95 for a 5-pound bag of either mix, and $145.95 for a 25-pound bag. But once established, maintenance costs are low, so you should save in the long run. You can buy direct from the company's website or, in certain states, find the seed at Whole Foods stores.

Follow instructions on the company's website for how to plant and establish the seed. Given the cooler-temperature requirements for seed germination, it's getting pretty late this spring to establish a lawn (though I'm going to try!); you might want to wait until fall.

For more information:

Pearl's Premium, Inc.
Wayland, Massachusetts

I invite you to share comments on this blog. Has anyone tried out one of these mixes or another low-water, low-chemical turfgrass?

Alex Wilson is the executive editor of Environmental Building News and founder of BuildingGreen, LLC. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feeds.

Photos and graphics: Pearl's Premium, Inc.

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1 This product sounds very simi posted by mary brown on 06/08/2010 at 06:02 am

This product sounds very similar to "No Mow" and "Lo Gro" lawn mixtures found in the Midwest. These products are drought tolerant blends of low-growing varieties of fine fescues such as Red Fescue, Hard Fescue and Chewings Fescue. They have fine leaves and are well suited to low fertility soils, low maintenance and shaded situations. Since they are cool season grasses, they grow well during the cool months (60-75 degrees F) of the year. The suggested rate of seeding is 5#'s /1000SF. Depending on how large your area is the cost can be anywhere from $3.75 to $6.00 per pound. I have heard from friends who have used these kinds of fescue blends--they seem to do best in filtered to sunny light and in areas that do not get intense visual scrutiny like side yards, leach field areas and low traffic back yards. Also, fescue is a clump grass so it may take a while to fill in and not look spotty. The areas where my friend says it doesn't do as well is where the soil is really bony and in deep shade. If you still want that manicured lawn look in the areas near walkways and patio spaces, you might want to choose a more traditional lawn mix or even a hybrid tall fescue turf mix that has fine leaves.

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