There’s nothing more satisfying than a well kept lawn with lush green grass. And whether you grow your own grass seed or buy it from the store – the story of where grass seed comes from is a fascinating one.
Many native US varieties of grass seed were wiped out when the settlers arrived. Popular modern varieties like Fescues and Kentucky Bluegrass originate from Europe, while others hail from Africa, South America, Japan, China and the West Indies. You can buy or grow your own grass seed.
Let’s dive down into this subject in more detail, to discover how you can harvest your own grass seed, where some common varieties originate from – and the provenance of store bought grass seed.
Does Grass Seed Itself? (What Causes Grass To Seed?)
If you mow your lawn regularly, it’s unlikely to seed itself. Grass seeds come from a flower cluster called an inflorescence, which doesn’t develop until the grass blade reaches a certain size.
These inflorescent clusters typically contain both male and female elements, meaning the seeds are fertile and ready to grow into fresh new grass stems. Some grass species reproduce through a method called apomixis, where no fertilization is needed as the seed produces a clone of the parent grass.
Either way, if you don’t want your lawn to spread, just keep on mowing to prevent flowers growing and developing seeds. Maintaining your lawn at a short level means that it never gets the chance to reach the self-seeding stage.
So how come you’ve noticed grass spreading even though it’s kept short and there are no flowers to be seen? This is because some species of grass can also spread via underground stems known as rhizomes. New grass shoots can grow upwards from these rhizomes, effectively enlarging the grassed area on the surface.
The new grass, if left unchecked, will produce its own inflorescent clusters and seeds. Again, regular mowing can prevent your lawn spreading through rhizomes. This is also less likely to happen in dry conditions. On the other hand, if you want your lawn to spread, keep it well watered to encourage this natural growth.
Can You Harvest Your Own Grass Seed?
If you want to extend your lawn, you can harvest your own grass seed. The first thing to do is to stop mowing (we know: this bit is painful if you like a neat lawn) and let those flowers develop.
When you have a good cluster of flowers ready, it’s time to harvest the grass seeds. Make sure they’re nice and dry: if it’s been raining, give it a bit longer to dry the seeds out. Then, simply walk around snipping off the flowers and storing them in a dry paper bag.
When you’ve collected it all, give the bag a good shake to start to separate the seeds out, then finish the process by hand. You should now have a good collection of pure grass seed that you can store in a dark and cool place until you’re ready to plant it.
You also need to prepare the soil. Loosen it to aerate it, which helps the seeds to settle into the earth. Once the seeds have been scattered, keep gently watering the area.
Keep an eye out for weeds appearing during this early growing stage. If you harvested the grass seeds carefully, you should have avoided picking up any weed seeds; however as we all know, these pesky weeds will always find a way.
Where Do Different Types of US Grass Seed Originate From?
Of course, you don’t have to home-grow and hand-harvest your own grass seed for a fantastic result. Here in the US, we have so many fabulous species of grass to choose from, each with its own story and characteristics.
As we’ve mentioned in our previous article about the history of the lawn, many of the native species of American grass were wiped out when the settlers arrived. These tough grasses weren’t exactly lawn friendly, and were largely used for construction.
The imported lawn grasses may not have been as robust for making buildings, but boy, did they know how to spread.
The lawn grasses we see today come from all over the globe, and many have fascinating histories. There are different types suited to different conditions, with some liking dry climates and others needed plenty of water.
Here’s a bit more about the best-known types of modern American grass seed:
Fescue grass originates in Europe, and comes in two types: tall and fine. Tall fescue grass is an excellent choice as it will grow in just about any conditions. It’s not even fussed about getting decent nutrients. It was brought here in the 19th-century.
The finer variety was developed for the great golf courses of Scotland, and despite its name, is actually pretty hardy. If you buy a pack of grass seeds, fine fescue mixed with Kentucky Bluegrass is a great combination.
Believe it or not, this is also a European grass. It’s named for Kentucky because that where it was processed, and the grass tips have a subtle blue tint. The musical genre is also named for Kentucky, which has been called the Bluegrass State since the late 19th century. The grass is very hardy and doesn’t mind the cold.
This grass has been grown in Japan for over 1,000 years, and was brought over to America just over a century ago. It’s named for a botanist, Karl von Zois. The thick, lush grass is popular for golfing fairways, and because it grows densely, can withstand plenty of footfall. It’s also pretty drought-tolerant.
St. Augustine Grass
This grass first arrived in Florida in the late 19th century. It grows naturally in the Gulf of Mexico, the West Indies, and West Africa. St Augustine tolerates salty air and humidity, which is why it became the go-to grass for yards in Florida. It’s tough, but it’s also thirsty, so bear that in mind if you don’t want to be watering the lawn in dry weather.
This is a Chinese grass that was brought here by American scientists in the early 20th century. All the centipede grass found in the US today comes from the three sprigs that these scientists tended. It’s a pale and coarse grass that needs very little maintenance. It’s inexpensive to buy and to look after, but it won’t take a look of footfall.
Like St Augustine, this African grass likes warm weather. It’s dense and good for footfall, but absolutely does not like shade. It was introduced to America earlier than many of the other varieties we’ve discussed, and some say it was brought over by accident with a batch of hay. If this was the case, it was a bit of luck, as this drought-resistant grass is perfect for Southern golf courses and lawns.
Where Does Commercial Grass Seed Come From? (That You Buy in Stores)
If you buy a commercial grass seed, it’s likely that it’s a blend. It will have been created for its reliable growing properties, to ensure that you get a good lawn coverage.
Contractors building new homes will often use a blend containing ryegrass, which grows extra-fast and covers quickly. Originally from Europe and Asia, ryegrass is hardy and low-maintenance, and isn’t too fussy about its conditions. It’s also dense, which gives an attractive overall appearance.
Commercial seed production goes back a long way. Oregon is a leading producer of domestic and forage grass, and has been growing grass seed commercially since 1921. Oregon grass farmers produce ryegrass, bluegrass and both fescues.
You may prefer to start again with one of the grasses we mentioned above, if you fancy going for a grass that’s more tailored for your climate and conditions. Or, you might simply be happy with your tough and easy ryegrass lawn, like millions of yard owners have been over the years.
While most native US grass seed varieties died out when the settlers arrived in the 19th Century – they were quickly replaced with other varieties from Europe and Asia, as well as Africa and South America.
Many of these varieties, such as Kentucky Bluegrass – have since become national favorites and have assumed their own unique North American identity. In particular, Ryegrass varieties are now used by property developers as they are so attractive and hardy.
Whether you choose to grow and harvest your own grass seed (but who could bear not cutting the lawn?!) or buy it from your nearest store – I hope you’ll agree that the history of grass seed in modern America is fascinating.
Homeowner and property investor Larry Jones founded Take a Yard in 2020 to bring you the very best outdoor living content, based on his years of experience managing outside spaces. Read more >