An eco-friendly lawn you don't have to mow

July 7, 2011: 5:36 AM ET
Pearl's Premium founder Jackson Madnick with his pet.

Pearl's Premium founder Jackson Madnick with his pet.

(CNNMoney) -- It's hard to imagine anything more innocuous than a lush suburban lawn. That's what 63-year-old entrepreneur Jackson Madnick used to think -- until a golf course killed his cat.

His cat, Kitty, sickened and died 14 years ago. A groundskeeper at the nearby links told Madnick that many local animals had been dying off from chemicals used to treat the grass there.

That set Madnick off on a mission to find a grass seed that grew easily without toxic chemicals. He spent nearly a decade potting and growing more than 70 different grasses on the deck behind his home in Wayland, Mass. Finally, he got results: a slow-growing, drought-resistant blend of seven grasses that needs no chemical fertilizers, little mowing and relatively no water. He named the blend Pearl's Premium, in honor of his environmentalist mother.

"At first I wondered if I had done something wrong when the grass was growing slower," he says. But when he dug into the soil and found the roots extending to the bottom of the pot, he was ecstatic.

Pearl's Premium arrived on the market in 2009. The seed is now available at Home Depot's (HD, Fortune 500) website and at 60 brick-and-mortar stores, including garden centers and Whole Foods branches on the East Coast. Madnick expects his six-employee company to hit $1 million in sales this year.

So where's the splendor in this grass? The roots. According to Madnick, Pearl's Premium's roots grow up to a foot long, reaching deeper for nutrients and water than the two-inch roots of common bluegrass. This means it gets plenty of access to nitrogen and may stay greener in the fall and winter. It also means that homeowners in the northern U.S. will seldom or never need to water it; in the drier South, it requires watering once or twice a week. (Newly planted grass requires a month of daily watering to get it established.)

Because Pearl's Premium grows slowly, it requires mowing only about once a month in sunny areas and every six weeks in the shade.

"This lets people have great lawns with far less impact to the environment," Madnick says.

Most lawns, after all, are anything but green. In California alone, homeowners water 10 million acres of residential grass, consuming enough water to supply the drinking needs of 40 million households, says Brett Lorenzen, a researcher at the non-profit Environmental Working Group.

Americans put 70 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides on their lawns each year, he adds. Those chemicals get washed into drainage systems and flow into lakes and rivers, where the resulting high levels of phosphorous create algae blooms that suck up oxygen, killing fish and native plant life.

"Lawns are devastating to our waterways," Lorenzen says. "The impacts are huge."

But does Pearl's Premium work? Ed Lyon, a realtor in Newton, Mass., met Madnick at a local green expo and liked the idea of saving water. So last year he de-thatched the existing lawn on his half-acre property and seeded it with Pearl's Premium. He says the fine-blade grass that grew in looks nice. It's softer and more resilient than his old grass, he adds, and greener, too.

"We don't really water the lawn anymore and basically it's fine," Lyon says. "Jackson Madnick is a bit of an evangelist, a salesman, but there's some truth to what he says."

Pearl's Premium is the only grass seed sold in Whole Foods' (WFMI, Fortune 500) North Atlantic region, which includes 27 stores, says Bill McGowan, the grocer's regional produce and floral coordinator.

"We're pretty selective about the items we put in the garden center," says McGowan. "So far, it's selling quite briskly. I haven't gotten a single piece of negative feedback."

But Pearl's Premium faces challenges. First off, it doesn't have the market to itself. No-Mow Lawn Seed has been around for years. Other eco-friendly grass seeds, including EcoLawn and Pennington Smart Seed, also promise less water and slow-growing grass.

And not everyone buys into Madnick's sales pitch.

"It's not new grass," says Frank Rossi, a Cornell University turf expert. "They put grass that's been out there forever and put it into a package and they called it something fancy. It's marketing."

Rossi notes that Pearl's Premium may not thrive in Texas, Southern California and the Deep South. Homeowners are best off ensuring they have decent soil and a grass that suits their climate, he says -- and by mowing the grass high, they can cut back on water bills.

While Madnick's efforts are noble, changing consumers' minds will be difficult, says Lorenzen of the Environmental Working Group. He questions whether people will take the time to reseed their lawn and water it each day for a month, up-front, to cut back on mowing and watering in the future. Plus, the seed is pricey: a five-pound bag that covers 1,000 square feet costs $34. The same amount of bluegrass may cost $8 to $27.

"Pearl's Premium isn't going to clean the water of the U.S.," Lorenzen says. "Changing people is hard, and I don't think most people will make the time and money to put it in, unless they really hate to mow." To top of page

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