This year has seen a flurry of activity from sports and amenity grass seed suppliers as they offer new solutions to the age-old problem of how to establish or over-sow turf successfully. And with grounds management budgets likely to be tight for some time, many of these products could offer savings on maintenance down the line.
Rigby Taylor has launched a seed coating called Enhanced Seed Performance (ESP), that comprises a blend of micronutrients, hormones and other ingredients to ensure rapid, healthy root development.
Launched at BTME earlier this year, ESP "has gone down very well across the board", says grass seed research and development officer Steve Denton. "For the show, we coated six of our Mascot products, and given the response to that, next year we will be coating the complete Mascot range."
In the past, Rigby Taylor has worked with French seed breeder Top Green on new seed varieties. But ESP was developed and trialled in the UK over a three-year period.
The coating's main selling point is its role in ensuring rapid and comprehensive establishment, Denton explains. "There isn't much you can do to shorten the germination time - that's in the plant's DNA. Rye, for example, will germinate in four to five days, and you can't change that.
"It's after that point that the coating comes into its own. The grass will go from germination to a usable playing surface three to four weeks quicker." The benefits are obvious for high-specification surfaces where time is tight, he adds.
"Football and cricket have been key this season. In cricket, quick establishment is ideal for end-of-season renovations. And in football, the window of opportunity between the end of the season and the first pre-season friendlies is becoming shorter and shorter - as little as six weeks."
On the landscape side, too, he adds: "There are specialist projects where speed of establishment is critical." Yet the extra cost need not break the bank, he says.
"With previous coatings, the added expense has been an issue. It's hard to justify a premium of £40 on a bag of grass seed. But with ESP we have kept costs to a minimum. It adds about £4-£5 to the cost of a bag, which I think people are prepared to pay to get the results."
DLF Trifolium has also introduced a novel seed coating this year, in the form of iSeed. Its aim is to deliver conventional nutrients directly to the seedling.
Developed by Norway-headquartered fertiliser company Yara, this gives seedlings extra vigour early in their development. Trials have shown improvements in establishment of 30 per cent or more compared with untreated seed.
Though simple to achieve in theory, amenity sales manager Derek Smith explains why this is more difficult in practice."iSeed is one-of-a-kind in being a full strength fertiliser," he says. "Most fertilisers have a high salt content, which draws moisture out of the seed, but with iSeed the salt content is very low."
The coating also ensures more efficient uptake of fertiliser compared with conventional modes of application - up to four times greater in the case of phosphate, the company claims. As well as cutting costs, it also reduces the volume of nitrogen run-off, which can help grounds managers comply with the EU's Water Framework Directive.
"You also get 40 per cent more seedlings and they grow into bigger, stronger, tougher plants," says Smith, adding that the appeal for turf professionals is clear."In modern sports turf, the big factor is time. If you can sort out the speed and quality of seed establishment, you are 50 per cent of the way to a good sports surface. But get it wrong and you have more disease, more Poa annua and broad-leaved weeds, which means more fiddling around with sprays."
The coating is effective when over-seeding, too, he adds. "Grass seed has only a small energy store of its own. That's not a problem when you're sowing into bare ground, but among plants with mature foliar and root systems, the seed will be at a disadvantage. And that will only get worse if you feed the area with fertiliser - the existing growth will become more aggressive rather than less."
However, combined with a growth retardant such as Primo Maxx, "you can maximise the new seeds' opportunity for establishment," he adds.
Launched across the Johnson's range this spring, iSeed had "a few teething problems" with some seed drill formats, but the design has been refined to include a harder coating as well as less dust, says Smith.
"It's 50:50 seed and fertiliser, so effectively you are buying both at once. It won't be for everyone, but for a village cricket pitch or bowling green, it's a similar price to using a good-quality fertiliser and seed."
It has gone down particularly well in the cricket world, with independent trials at Old Trafford in Manchester and the Rose Bowl in Hampshire. "They tell us the results are at least as good as two conventional over-sowings," Smith confirms.
Barenbrug UK has put the emphasis this year on a thorough programme of trials, which it carries out at the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI), its own trial site at Cropvale in Worcestershire and in a programme of 16 "in-field" commercial sites across the UK and Ireland.
Research and development manager Jayne Leyland explains the company's motivation. "It takes around 15 years to produce a new seed variety, by the time you get it through official testing and registration. So we already know they will have tolerance against the most common turf diseases - leaf spot, dollar spot, red thread."
But rigorous trials ensure that these varieties perform as expected within the mix, in terms of species competition, cool temperature germination and winter and spring colour - the "mixture synergy" as Leyland terms it.
"We are looking at disease tolerance, spring green-up and colour, mixture competition and playing quality. For football pitches and racecourses, do they recover quickly after wear, particularly in winter? Do they provide lasting colour? Whereas for golf, shoot density is key. These are all characteristics we want to keep."
Such extensive trials give the company a head start when introducing a new cultivar, she believes. "We use that information to update the mixes," she says. "For example, our trails at Perranporth Golf Club in Cornwall influenced the development of our BAR22 mix, while our input differential trails at STRI led to the Bar Duo mix. They allow customers to see first how new varieties perform in mixtures and give us confidence that they perform well."
Even though Barenbrug is a large multinational company, tests need to be specific to the country and region in which they will be used. For example, says Leyland: "Castle Stuart golf course near Inverness gave us useful results on early growth. We can see how different mixes work on a regional basis. It also helps turf professionals see how mixes perform in their area. It's an opportunity to see trials close-up, from which you learn a lot more than by just reading about them."
Similarly for the Irish market, this year's trials at the Druids Glen resort near Dublin monitored the performance of seven Barenburg species and mixtures under two maintenance regimes - one high, one low - which were based on differential input trials that the company has been carrying out at STRI since 2006.
"We look at turf performance from a playing point of view as well as in agronomic terms. So we assess the trueness, speed and ball-roll," says Leyland, adding that this approach fits in with the recently introduced STRI Programme of golf course playing quality benchmarking.
The company's approach also stands to benefit commercial turf growing, she says. "You want to have rapid establishment and early colour and our Bar OC gives early closure over the sward, preventing weeds such as early meadow grass establishing, as well as allowing the turf to be harvested relatively early."
Andre Erlah, greenkeeper at Easingwold Golf Club, has completely restored the greens at the North Yorkshire course, having incorporated the Avalon variety of velvet bent grass (Agrostis canina) from British Seed Houses (BSH) - a variety that it is claimed offers not only an excellent playing surface but also high tolerance of drought and disease.
Rather than have a monoculture on the greens, Erlah later introduced Aberroyal, BSH's low-input brown top bent, a few years later to strengthen the advances made by the velvet bents.
The greens are now playable in the winter, and water, fungicide and pesticide costs have all been cut. Feedback about the new greens that he has received from both committee and club members has also been good, says Erlah.
"We're now able to open more and the greens are ready for play sooner in the season because the bents take off a lot quicker than Poa annua after they have been seeded," he explains.