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Grasses

      
Date Published: 
August, 1902
Original Author: 
Archibald Smith
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 16th Annual Convention

Ordinarily, when one thinks of grasses, the association is entirely with the hay field and the pasture; forgetting that in the family (Graminae) there is included something like three thousand five hundred varieties, embracing everything, from the strong rooted wiry fibred grasses of the hillside, through the cereals to King Corn, and the stately bamboo of the Tropics.

The cereals, as they are called, furnish in large part our daily bread, but the grasses whose grains or seeds are of secondary importance, are more in number than these and are both directly and indirectly of fully as great economic value to the human family and the lower animals.

In view of these facts, it will readily be understood that the grass family is of more value to man and the domestic animals than all the other vegetable families combined.

"They are widely distributed in every soil, under the Equator, in the Arctic and in the Temperate Zone, but their greatest beauty and variety are seen in what is called the dairy districts, where they clothe large tracts with their beautiful green verdure."

In the whole world the family ranks fifth in size. The legumes, which are also of great value as food for domestic animals, etc., rank second. In number of individuals, the grass family exceeds any other one of flowering plants, and it is possible they are equal to all others of the higher plants.

It is remarkable that although the Egyptians, Jews and other eminent, nations of antiquity gave considerable attention to the culture of cereal grains, the products of which could be used to supply their personal wants, either in affording food or clothing, yet the special cultivation of grasses, to feed the enormous herds of domestic animals they possessed, received no attention whatever prior to the period when Rome dominated the greater part of the then known world. The probable reason for this, of course, is found in the fact that there was at that time a greater range, and it was possible not only to pick the best pastures, but also to move from pasture to pasture when necessary.

In the times which immediately preceded the fall of the Roman Empire, in addition to growing wheat, barley, beans, etc., for bread, the soldier husbandman also grew alfalfa, red clover, Vetches, Lupins and other Leguminous, which were used both in the green state and in the form of hay for feeding their cattle.

In England the cultivation of forage plants was only commenced about the middle of the seventeenth century. It is reported in Dr. Plot's "Oxfordshire" published in 1677: "They have already sown ray grass, by which they improve a cold, sour, clay weeping soil, for which it is best; but good also for dryer uplands, especially light, stony or sandy soil." It was almost one hundred years after this that timothy or herds grass, and cocksfoot or orchard grass were introduced into England from the United States.

George Sinclair, writing about 1825, says: "Rye grass (Lolium perenne) was, till lately the only species employed for making artificial pastures." He also records the information, "The first mention that I find made of the rye grass in early books, is in "The Mystery of Husbandry, Discovery and Laid Open," by I. Woolidge, 1681."

It will be readily understood, of course, that at this time the meadows and pastures contained a great many species of the natural or true grasses; probably something over one hundred distinct sorts, but few of these at that time were known by any but a local name; neither was seed of the different kinds readily obtainable. It was almost the middle of the eighteenth century before, as an improved system, it was recommended that seed shaken out of the best meadow hay should be sown with the clovers to form a permanent pasture.

It was even at a later date than this, when Stellingfleet recommended the collecting of seeds of the different varieties, such as crested dog's tail, sweet vernal, meadow fox-tail, meadow fescue, sheep's fescue, etc.

Those who would now have a fine sward have not to contend with the difficulties that met the sower 75 or 100 years ago. At the beginning of the last century, the seed of only a few sorts were offered for sale. These in most cases contained weed seeds and other impurities, the majority of the natural grasses that formed the permanent pastures, were almost unknown by name to the farmer. The relative values were entirely unknown, and worst of all there were but few people, either able or willing, to undertake the collecting of seed of the several sorts and test their suitability for different conditions and situations. Now all is changed; the comparative merits of the various grasses are fairly well established. Seeds of all the desirable sorts are readily obtainable at moderate prices. Individuals and States have worked out through exhaustive experiments, the facts as to the relative values for all locations and soils; so that the sower may now select at small expense and with practically no uncertainty, the kinds that will produce the results desired.

Some idea of the labor that was undertaken in bringing this about may be had by reviewing the method adopted at Woburn Abbey, England, by Sinclair. “Having procured a collection of seeds of the natural grasses, by hand-gathering from the pastures, preparations were made for their culture in such a manner as to obtain a clear and satisfactory knowledge, founded on observation of the various properties, habits and comparative values of each distinct species and variety."

Spaces of ground, each containing four square feet, were enclosed by boards, in such a way, that there was no lateral communication between the earth enclosed by the boards and that of the garden; the soil was removed from these enclosures and new soil supplied, or mixtures of new soil were made in them, to furnish, as far as possible, to the different grasses those soils which seemed most favorable to their growth; a few varieties being selected for the purpose of ascertaining the effects of different soils on the same plants. The nature of these soils was accurately ascertained by analysis. Upwards of 200 varieties were sown, the different species were cut at varying stages of growth, the particular time at which the various kinds attained to the greatest degree of perfection, time of flowering and maturing of the seeds were carefully noted. These experiments having been carried on through a number of years, resulted in a knowledge of their comparative vigor, habit, seasons and the kinds of soils most favorable to their growth.

Another characteristic that the Woburn experiments proved was that grass plants, like human beings, love company and detest being alone. Sinclair says: "The unconquerable habit of almost every species of almost all the varieties of grasses, to combine and grow with others, renders any attempt to cultivate them singly for any length of time, impracticable, without at the same time having a thin and tufted sward or a great many weeds."

It is likely that most of us who have given the subject thought have realized when looking over an old lawn or old pasture in prime condition that there are included in such a sward anywhere from 10 to 25 distinct sorts, therefore Sinclair's experiments, and our own observation, show the necessity of using a number of varieties together when a close turf is desired, no matter whether that turf is for mowing purposes, permanent pasture or lawn.

In sowing vigorous growing varieties of grass, such as timothy and orchard alone, the individual plants stand out with the bare spots between much more conspicuously than would be the case if Rhode Island bent, or Kentucky blue grass were sown. Nevertheless, blank spaces will exist to a greater or less degree between the plants, when only one kind of grass seed is sown, and they (these spaces) are never overcome by any habit of stooling of the plants themselves; instead, in time, the spaces become filled up with weeds or other varieties of grass.

This filling up by nature in a pasture, perhaps, is not very objectionable; even in a lawn it will not be noticed or criticized to any extent by the uninitiated, but the gardener, who is familiar with grasses, in walking over such a sod, will not only notice it, but, in most cases will know by the elasticity of the turf the difference between the suitable grasses selected and sown, and the weeds and other grasses that have made a place for themselves. These facts, in my opinion, show beyond a question; the necessity of a mixture. What the mixture may be will vary, of course, with the soil and location, as well as the sower's experience.

The grounds of the Boston Park System and the Metropolitan Park Commission of Massachusetts have been principally seeded down with what we Boston folks call the Olmsted formula, which is:
20 lbs. cleaned seed Rhode Island bent (Agrostis canina).
20 lbs. cleaned seed red top (Agrostis vulgaris).
20 lbs. cleaned seed Kentucky blue grass (Poa pretensis).
10 lbs. white clover (Trifolium repens) per acre.

This mixture in a general way is satisfactory. Being composed of clean or solid seeded varieties the weed seed trouble is reduced to a minimum. Nevertheless, it has the disadvantage of suffering severely in our average winters, and as it grows older, shows on some soil, and in exposed situations, as much bare ground as one would expect to find in a poorly seeded hay field. Possibly some of the reasons for this are that Blue Grass does not bear well with the repeated close cuttings to which it is subjected and as it does not attain to maturity under two or three years, the early and frequent cutting may weaken the constitution and make it less able to withstand either continued hot, dry or severe winter weather, than is the case when it grows under more natural conditions. Nevertheless, it is one of the most desirable grasses for a lawn, and will succeed fairly well on a great variety of soils, and also under partial shade.

The Red Top is grown principally in Illinois. The meadows on which this seed is produced have been reserved for the purpose for a great many years, and I believe that as a result of continual seed producing, the plants have acquired a habit of making seed stems rather than leaves; consequently the Red Top, although called a fine leaved grass, is not as suitable for lawns as it once was.

Rhode Island Bent; when the pure article, is beyond criticism of any kind and should be used in lawn mixtures to the exclusion of Red Top, even though it costs a little more.

Experience shows that the grasses which especially interest us for lawns ripen their seeds at three different periods of the season, or if classed according to the time about which each ripens its seeds, they will form three groups; the first, consisting of the earliest, perfect their seed usually before the end of June; namely:
Sweet Vernal (Anthoxanthum odoratum)
Meadow Fox-Tail (Alopecurus pratensis)
The second consists of:
Small Leaved Sheep's Fescue (Festuca ovina tenuifolia)
Kentucky Blue Grass (Poa pratensis)
Crested Dog's Tail (Cynosurus crestatus)
Pacey's Perennial Rye Grass (Lolium perenne)
Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata)
Rough Stalked Meadow Grass (Poa trivalis)
Hard Fesue (Festuca duriuscula)
Rhode Island Bent (Agrostis canina)
Red Fescue (Fistuca rubra)
Red Top (Agrostis vulgaris)
About the end of July and the third about the end of August, consists of:
Wood Meadow Grass (Poa memoralis)
Yellow Oat Grass (Arena flarescens)
Various Leaved Fescue (Festuca heterophylla)
White Clover (Trifolium repens)

It is possible to give a much longer list, but I think this will be found sufficient. All the sorts are adapted for lawns of one kind or another; even the Meadow Fox-Tail, though somewhat coarse in growth and Timothy like, is worthy of a place because of its extreme earliness.

If in selecting a mixture for any given soil for the purpose of raising a hay crop, the varieties should be those that mature nearly about the same time, but if a permanent pasture or lawn is desired, then the mixture should include all kinds that reach their perfection at different periods throughout the season.

The following particulars as to the suitability of the kinds we, have named, for the different soils and conditions, may not be out of place.
SWEET VERNAL is one of the earliest flowering perennial grasses that we have. It continues its activity through a very long season and will be found to be as green and fresh in appearance at the end of August as it is at the end of May. Its fragrant qualities are well known and for this reason alone, it is worthy of a place in the lawn mixture. It will grow on almost any kind of soil, even a thin, dry one, but prefers good rich loam.

In buying seed of Sweet Vernal, it is well to insist upon getting the true perennial variety, as there is frequently sold, under this name a spurious variety which both in seed and growth resembles the genuine, but the Puelii is an annual and for that reason is not suitable for lawns.

MEADOW FOX-TAIL: A May flowering, strong growing, perennial grass, especially suitable for strong soils. It is somewhat like the Timothy in its habit and may be objected to on account of its broad leaf and rather pale green color, yet, I would recommend the use of a moderate quantity of it in mixtures, because it is not only hardy and permanent, but early in growth.

SMALL LEAVED SHEEP'S FESCUE: especially suitable for light, dry, sandy soils. The blade is rather light green in color, and the plants inclined to be slightly tufted in their habit, but both of these objections are practically overcome when sown in mixture with other sorts. I know of no fine growing grass that succeeds as well as this variety does in really dry situations.

KENTUCKY BLUE GRASS: One of the most common and valuable grasses we have. It is perennial in habit, quite early, usually flowering in June and adapts itself to a great variety of conditions; although it prefers, but does better in a partial shade than in the sunlight. Its objection to the full sun is more readily noticeable when the seed of the Blue Grass is sown alone. On light soil, or in dry seasons, it is sure to burn.

The plants do not come to their maturity until they are three or four years old and this is a sufficient reason why Blue Grass should be used in all permanent mixtures. While the soil, in which it seems to succeed best, is what might be termed first class corn soil, it will grow on almost any soil from dry knolls to wet meadow.

CRESTED DOG'S TAIL: This grass succeeds well in dry, hard soils, and is suitable for mixing with Red and Sheep's Fescue for sowing down sandy or light lands, but like the Blue Grass, it makes its best growth in a rich medium soil. It is perfectly perennial; of fine close growth and deep green in color.

PACEY'S PERENNIAL RYE GRASS: There are several types of Rye Grass; two of them annual, or at best not more than biennial. Lawson is authority for the statement that the English Rye Grass was originally perennial and that the shorter life of at least one of the varieties was induced' through growing the plants for the production of seed alone. Let this be as it may, the selection known as Pacey's Perennial, is true to the description and well worth a place in all mixtures for permanent grass. It is somewhat large seeded, but the plants are of a fine, neat habit, and desirable color. The seeds sprout quickly; the plants make a rapid growth, and afford some protection and aid to those of slower habit. It is suitable for all soils and situations, excepting very moist soils, where it dies out quickly, as it also does under the shade.
ORCHARD GRASS: This well known grass is generally considered to be of too rank a habit for use in lawn mixture, and as a rule, this is the case, although Orchard Grass in reasonable proportion with other sorts, if kept under the mower, does not present a coarse appearance, and its vigorous root system enables it to make wonderful growth even in dry seasons. It will grow on heavy or light soils and I would especially recommend it as a suitable grass to form a part of the mixtures for shady places and also for light or sandy situations.

ROUGH STALKED MEADOW GRASS: Not generally recommended for lawns, although used to some extent in England for that purpose. It is one of the best varieties to sow under heavy shade and on rich, moist soils. Under the mower its rather rank growth does not show. It is quite early in habit and carries its growth well into the autumn.

HARD FESCUE: Perhaps the most valuable of all the Fescue family. It closely resembles the Red Fescue but is of more upright growth although of quite dwarf habit. It has an unusual drought resisting power and maintains its deep green appearance throughout the entire season. Very suitable for light soils but does best under favorable conditions.

RED FESCUE: This grass is at home on light, dry, sandy soils, and does equally well on sandy lands near the sea coast and the dry hill side. It can also be recommended to form a portion of the mixture for shady situations. It is a true perennial and of fine dwarf habit.

RHODE ISLAND BENT: It is enough to say that this grass is without a peer for the lawn. I am afraid, however, that too frequently seed of the common Red Top is substituted. As a matter of fact there is little difference between the Agrostis canina and the Agrostis vulgaris, excepting that as, I have already pointed out, the seed of the latter is saved from plants that have acquired the habit of forming seed, rather than of making a growth of soft herbage. The growth of Agrostis canina in Rhode Island is also affected some, not only by the moist climate that is usual in that state as compared with Illinois, but also by the fact that the fields are not cut for seed purposes year after year.

RED TOP: I have already alluded sufficiently to the characteristics of this valuable grass. It is likely that in, the near future, it will be produced in considerable quantity in districts where it has not hitherto been grown for seed purposes. Already improved cleaning machinery has made this practical in a small way, and I think we may hope to have seed of a more desirable type on the market shortly.

WOOD MEADOW GRASS: As its name implies, this grass is found natural in the woods, and is very well adapted for growing under trees. It is, however, just as desirable as part of the mixture on an open lawn, particularly where the soil is good. It has a very fine habit of growth; quite early and of long duration.

YELLOW OAT GRASS: The true variety (there is a spurious one frequently offered) is quite a desirable grass for lawns, when the soil is light or; dry. It is particularly adapted to exposed elevations. Naturally it is a little rank in habit, but under cultivation this is not noticeable.

VARIOUS LEAVED FESCUE: An early, hardy perennial that does well in cool, moist soils, even clay. It produces root leaves very freely, and may be used to advantage either on shady or open lawns when composed of a good heavy soil.

WHITE CLOVER: I am of the opinion that the most beautiful lawns are those composed wholly of natural grasses and in which no White Clover finds a place. The public, however, seem to call for a portion of this in a lawn grass mixture and besides it is largely used for patching up thin spots. I have noticed that in unusually dry or hot seasons and especially on thin soils, that White Clover seems to show greater vigor from the middle of July until the end of August, than do most of the grasses. For this reason, and because of its popularity, it will continue to be a part of all lawn grass mixtures.

A week ago, when I was asked by the Chairman of your Committee of Arrangements to make some remarks on the subject of grass, I felt very much like saying "No”, for the reason that I realized there was not much, if anything, that I could say that was not already well known to you.

In my remarks, however, I have tried to emphasize the necessity of a mixture of grasses, both for the sake of permanence and appearance. The real reason, I believe that one or two varieties of grasses have been selected for seeding lawns, to the exclusion of others, is that it is thought there are only two or three of the finer varieties obtainable, which are practically free from chaff and weeds.

This in itself, from my point of view, is not sufficient excuse. Seed of all the varieties of grasses I have named can now be had, although in some cases not free from chaff, yet, just as free from weeds as Blue Grass or White Clover. To obtain such, it naturally, follows, that a higher price has to be paid than would be the case if impure seeds were offered: but the difference in the actual cost is so small that this can hardly be considered a factor.

I presume that quite a number of you will not agree with me in my conclusions. I hope, however, you will defer judgment until you have had opportunity to compare the result of a two or three kind mixture with a properly balanced lawn grass made up from six or eight varieties.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the16th Annual Convention
Held at Boston, MA
August 19, 20, 21 and 22, 1902

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