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His new grass is greener

Environmentalists and budget-conscious homeowners can cheer about product developed by Wayland man

Jackson Madnick spread his product, Pearl’s Premium ultra low maintenance grass seed, on a client’s lawn in Weston yesterday. Jackson Madnick spread his product, Pearl’s Premium ultra low maintenance grass seed, on a client’s lawn in Weston yesterday. (Photos By Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / July 4, 2009
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Jackson Madnick may have designed the perfect lawn grass. It’s not just about looks, but also about low maintenance, conserving energy, protecting the environment, and even knocking a couple hundred dollars off your water bill.

Homeowners who hire someone to cut their lawns will save even more because, as independent testers like This Old House magazine have verified, grass grown from Madnick’s seed blend only needs to be mowed once a month. And after it’s established, forget about having to water.

Called Pearl’s Premium, “it’s the only ultra low maintenance grass seed blended for our climate,’’ according to Madnick, who lives in Wayland and spent six years researching and testing seeds to produce his product.

“You water it for up to a month [after planting] and never have to water it again,’’ he said.

The seed’s other pluses - no chemical fertilizers needed and less fossil fuel burned by lawn mowers - make it popular with environmentalists.

Since its debut two years ago, Pearl’s Premium has tripled in sales each spring and fall planting season and is currently growing on about 2,000 lawns, Madnick said. Priced at $33 for a 5-pound bag - enough to cover 1,000 square feet - it’s sold at 18 regional Whole Foods Supermarkets, by nonprofits such as Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, and online at www.pearlspremium.com.

In addition to being an entrepreneur, Madnick is also a homeowner with a lawn. So while environmental considerations drove his research, he was also eager to find a way to cut down on yard work.

“I’ve always loved a green lawn and hated the maintenance,’’ he said.

Studying the factors that cause widely used lawn grasses to require so much care, Madnick drew on the expertise of three turf management scientists to develop a seed blend that is slow-growing and has 12-inch roots, deep enough to allow the grass to survive droughts. The blend, which is produced in Oregon, is based largely on fescue - a cool season, shade-tolerant grass native to temperate and colder regions of North America. It grows much more slowly than blue grass, which is the basis of most commercial lawn grasses. Those grasses sprout quickly and look nice, but they also race through nutrients, requiring water and heavy fertilizing to stay healthy.

Pearl’s Premium has the approval of This Old House magazine - which grew and tested the seed blend - and the ABC and Fox television networks have aired favorable stories about it.

The seed also has won praise from some regional environmentalists. Debbie Cook, South Shore head of Greenscapes Massachusetts, a nonprofit program that encourages homeowners to grow native plants and conserve water, said she used the product on a bare patch of her own lawn and was pleased with the results. She also included it in a spring expo on “green’’ landscaping practices.

Sharon water conservation specialist Paul Lauenstein said he discovered Pearl’s Premium last fall and quickly incorporated it into his “no water’’ lawn care regimen.

“It came out great,’’ Lauenstein said of the resulting growth. “It looked like a Chia Pet.’’

The key is to provide grass with “rich, organic dirt,’’ Lauenstein said. Organic matter soaks up water like a sponge and releases it slowly. He also advises cutting grass infrequently and leaving it high, at three inches. Tall grass needs less water and helps shade out weeds.

The average annual residential water bill in Sharon is about $350, but Lauenstein said he pays just $60. He estimated the average homeowner can save 30 to 40 percent on annual water bills by eliminating outdoor watering altogether.

Residents in other communities might reap more savings. For instance, in Belmont - where the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority Advisory Board lists the average household water bill at $559 - water superintendent Michael Bishop estimated the average cost of watering during the summer at $160.

The fledgling company’s marketing strategy begins at home. Madnick’s wife, Betsy West, a sales consultant and former head of sales for The MathWorks, a Natick company that sells engineering and technical computing software, has started devoting more time to helping Pearl’s Premium expand. The company also has enlisted the services of two part-time employees.

The immediate plan is to get the seed into more Whole Foods stores and partner with nonprofits, such as Mass Audubon and Greenscapes, which are looking for ways to raise money in a slow economy.

Madnick said he is counting on consumers’ desire to save money and use fewer natural resources to drive sales. Then there is the appeal of watching grass grow - very slowly.

“Your lawn is meant to be lush, green, and healthy,’’ he said, “not a place for worries.’’