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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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