Establishing a beautiful lawn is an investment in your home and its future. To enjoy all the benefits of a natural lawn, you need grasses that overcome the environmental challenges of a changing world — and still produce a lush, green carpet beneath your feet. As a leader in the grass seed industry since its beginnings, Pennington works to foresee and meet those needs. That commitment is evident in the industry-advancing innovations of its research facility, NexGen Turf Research. The largest private grass seed research facility in the United States, NexGen helps ensure your lawn can have the finest grass seed possible.
Evolution in Turfgrass Research
The last few decades have seen significant changes in the grass seed industry. When the research program now known as NexGen started in 1990, turfgrass research was very different from today. NexGen Director of Research Kenneth Hignight recalls, “Turfgrass breeding was still in its infancy in many ways. Advances were easy." Much of the work involved adapting European plant materials to U.S. environmental conditions. Focus was on the professional market, and measures such as overall quality, density and color were top concerns.
Over time, research emphasis shifted more and more toward home lawn grasses and cultivated varieties, known as cultivars, that deliver more. "Today, many good cultivars exist, and it is very hard to see differences when conditions are suitable for growing. However, when different stresses are applied, differences in cultivar performance are evident," Hignight explains. NexGen focuses on traits that add value, such as drought tolerance and water conservation, which meet these challenges and optimize lawn performance.
Priorities Driving NexGen Goals
Research goals at NexGen reflect an increased need for sustainable, environmentally-friendly turfgrasses that you can grow with confidence. Researchers aim for turfgrasses that can survive under adverse conditions, require less water and other resources, and have a low environmental impact. “We are the leaders in breeding for drought tolerance," Hignight says. “Water conservation is a primary objective."
Breeding efforts target grass cultivars that will resist disease, require fewer applications of pesticides, and won't die or thin out at the end of the summer. “We use many different types of stresses on cultivars, including drought, disease, traffic, heat, cold, shade, and salt," Hignight says. Of course, Pennington grasses still must have attractive qualities such as density, rich healthy color, and outstanding quality and performance overall.
Unlike most seed companies, Pennington grows its own grass seed through a network of dedicated seed farmers. Because of the importance of these grower relationships, NexGen goals also emphasize improved seed yield. Researchers work to select grass cultivars that are adapted to seed production areas and that resist major diseases that lower seed yield. This helps ensure the success of Pennington growers.
Environmental Achievements at NexGen
The impact of NexGen achievements in turfgrass sustainability extends beyond Pennington Seed. The NexGen team takes pride in its role as one of the four founding members of the Turfgrass Water Conservation Alliance (TWCA), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to water conservation. Six years after its founding, the TWCA boasts more than 100 members, ranging from university professors and local governments to sod farms, landscapers and private companies.
The development of drought-tolerant grasses represents another achievement of special significance to the team. “NexGen has blazed the trail on breeding for drought tolerance," says Hignight. TWCA-qualified Water Star grass seed varieties such as Pennington Smart Seed grasses are one example. These water-efficient grasses require up to 30 percent less water than comparable varieties, and combine outstanding traditional performance with improved resistance to drought, insect pests and disease.
Cooperative Efforts Affecting the Industry
Relationships with universities have been integral to NexGen's success. It is currently involved in cooperative projects with more than 15 universities across the United States, resulting in many significant advancements.
NexGen and Rutgers University were the first to develop seed that is resistant to gray leafspot disease. Unknown in perennial ryegrass at one time, the disease mutated and resulted in complete losses of perennial ryegrass through the Midwest and Northeast. “This put the perennial ryegrass market in jeopardy," Hignight says. “The quick response of developing resistant cultivars kept the market alive."
NexGen's partnership with the University of Arkansas has been critical to advances in turfgrass evaluation for drought tolerance. Results of the collaboration include an industry-altering evaluation method known as digital image analysis (DIA). Utilizing digital cameras, light box units and computer analysis, DIA effectively eliminates the leading flaws in turfgrass evaluation: inconsistency and bias on the part of the rater. “DIA has had a major impact on turfgrass evaluation," Hignight says. “I believe the future will lean heavily on this technology." Additional advances in DIA are underway.
A Focus on the Future
As competition intensified over the years, many turfgrass breeding programs have disappeared. True advancements and returns on the significant investment research demands take many years. As others backed away, NexGen held its course. Hignight notes that Pennington and its parent company, Central Garden & Pet, recognize that research and technology are keys to their success. Their commitment to the future continues.
You can learn more about industry-leading innovation and vibrant, sustainable lawns through Pennington's email newsletter and other valuable resources designed to help you achieve the lawn you desire. Pennington is committed to growing the finest grass seed research can deliver, so you can enjoy the satisfaction of a healthy, beautiful, sustainable lawn.
Pennington and Smart Seed are trademarks of Pennington Seed, Inc.Turfgrass Water Conservation Alliance is a registered trademark of NexGen Turf Research, LLC.