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Inventor develops low-maintenance grass seed

Jackson Madnick lying on a lawn planted with the grass seed mix he invented.

Kai Ryssdal: So here's a deceptively simple agricultural trivia question. What's the single largest irrigated crop in this country? Corn's a good guess. Wrong, but good. Wheat? Yeah, no. Not wheat.

Try grass. Lawns, specifically. So wouldn't you just love to be the guy who invents a new kind of grass that promises to be lighter on your wallet? From Boston, Monica Brady-Myerov reports.


Monica Brady-Myerov: Lawns are green and pretty, but Jackson Madnick discovered their dark side 15 years ago when he lived on a golf course.

Jackson Madnick: Within a year of moving in, my cat, who went outside every day through a cat door, got cancer and died. I learned from the groundskeeper at the golf course that animals there don't last very long.

Madnick suspected it was the fertilizer, so he started experimenting with different types of grasses. After eight years of trial and error, he hit upon a mixture of seven different seeds he says doesn't need fertilizer once the grass is established. It also shouldn't need much, if any, watering beyond natural rainfall.

Madnick: Many people call it miracle grass, the holy grail of grass. It's not that. It's just a very slow growing native grass; it grows in many places that other grasses won't.

To get a good look and feel of the grass, we go to a lawn near his house.

Brady-Myerov: So when you walking on it, it's very cushiony.

Madnick: And it's a nice color green. That was part of our selection of seeds.

Madnick is an electrical and mechanical engineer who's invented things his whole life. But this science experiment could make him a millionaire. Landscaping is a $38 billion industry. The patent is pending on his seed mix, but it's already being sold at Whole Foods markets on the East Coast and online at The Home Depot. Madnick is billing it as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional grass seed. Neither retailer would disclose sales figures.

Scott Edban has 25 years of experience in turf grass science and teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He says large seed companies have developed similar mixtures but do a poor job selling them.

Scott Edban: This is nothing new, so he does a very good job of marketing the grass seed.

A five-pound bag of Madnick's grass seed costs $35, compared to around $20 for a bag of regular seed. But Madnick says users recoup the extra cost in lower maintenance fees.

That was the main selling point for the town of Littleton, a suburb 30 miles west of Boston, where the big green lawn is king. Savos Danos runs the town's water department.

Savos Danos: Having such large lots for the most part, it's a struggle and a cultural issue of people wanting to have reasonably nice-looking landscape, and it starts with lawns.

For the past two years, the Littleton Water Department has bought 100-pound bags of Madnick's grass seed to sell at-cost to residents. So far, it's sold about 200 bags.

Danos: By us incorporating the use of drought-tolerant lawns, we can say, look, we are doing our part to try to manage the water resources holistically.

Madnick calls his grass Pearls Premium Ultra Low Maintenance lawn seed. He named it after his mother; he remembers she always watched out for stray cats.

In Boston, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov for Marketplace.

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This grass is for light to medium duty wear and not for athletic fields like soccer or baseball, etc at this time. There is one school that was going to use Pearl's Premium for their soccer fields that they had four of to alternate wear, but that is not a normal solution for most applications. I do not know how that worked out. We will be working on a variation for athletic in the future.

Most standard seed companies that also sell fertilizer and are not interested in selling slow growing grass, because they sell less fertilizer. This is not about profit. It is about Sustainability. Our grass is not for everyone. Some people like the wider blade look of Blue Grass and many people actually like to cut the grass every week.Then there are people who would rather keep using what they have always used and hate change. Then there are people into sustainability who would rather cut less often and use less water who like Pearl's Premium Ultra Low Maintenance Lawn Seed. Many people into sustainability who have done side by side tests with this grass and other high quality grasses prefer this grass. Check it out for yourself as thousands of people who have done before in a small area and you will probably agree. People have used too much water and fertilizer on it occasionally and that makes it grow artificially faster. But the point of this grass is to use as little as possible, so leave the clipping and use a fraction of the organic fertilizer once or twice a year and no chemical fertilizer. Follow the instructions on the bag or web site www.PearlsPremium.com to use the least water and organic fertilizer. Tall thick grass with neutral pH from adding a little pellet lime has far less weeds. Hope this answers your questions

Will this work on athletic fields or other high traffic/use areas? My guess is that the slow growing nature would not allow the grass to recover from damage. Are there any sustainable grasses suitable for sports turf. Today, all the gains in sustainability (for recreation areas) depend upon dedicated, forward thinking and knowledgeable managers. It would be nice if this turf could relieve some of the burden.

Ebdon not Ebdan. And yes he is correct, the varieties are nothing new. Seed companies sell fertilizer AND seed. Why would they want to sell a variety that they will not make extra profit from?

I agree with Mike. A crop is defined as something harvested for food. Golf courses might be considered a crop, but lawns are definitely not.

So if someone buys this, and treat it like "normal" grass, how would they know that they're over watering it or over fertalizing it?

This grass is like nothing that came before. The very wise fellow quoted in the article never tested Pearl's Premium grass next to any other grass, otherwise he would have seen that it grows slower, with deeper roots and other benefits. The grass is in over 10,000 lawns in 46 states right now. It is growing in the deep south with a small amount of supplemental water, generally 1/3 the water of other grasses. Yes fertilizer is a problem because it mimics human estrogen and is an endocrine disruptor in the brain, but Julia is right, the pesticides that often come with some fertilizers may be more problematic according to Dr Alex Leu at the Harvard School of Public Health who is concerned with both pesticides and chemical fertilizers. So it is better to use a smaller amount of organic fertilizer, rather than chemical fertilizer and no pesticides, or only as a last resort under Integrated Pest Management. The main benefit of Pearl's Premium Ultra Low Maintenance Lawn Seed is that it grows so slowly you only cut it once a month and seldom or never water it after it is established in the north and down south it needs far less water, besides being safer for children and animals. My mother
pearl was an avid gardener, environmentalist and befriended all sorts of stay animals and birds back to health or found them homes in addition to stray cats. I originally started my ten year quest to create a better grass not just from my past cat, but my concern for children, animals, saving our water resources and our earth, but only so much can fit into a sound bite and Monica's excellent story about grass...which is an important subject when everyone is looking for a way to save money, water and time and protect our drinking waters from run off and at the same time have a greener lawn and earth.

I was excited while listening to this article and then found out that the grass is only viable for the upper half of the states. I feel that the article miss lead me- "miracle grass" yeah right. I think Madnicks entrepreneurial heroism is overstated here.

I see it must be a cool season grass seed as it is only offered in the northeast US. I doubt very seriously if it will grow well in the south. Right now in NC the choice is to water like crazy in June, July, and August if you plant fescue, or plant zoyzia, bermuda, or centipede that turns brown in the winter.
If he comes up with a mix for below the Mason Dixon line, then call me.

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