The Story of Grass

Our Affiliate member Barenbrug, have provided our readers with some insights into the story of grass.

Delivering a new grass cultivar to the market is a long and multifaceted process, involving many people and departments of the Royal Barenbrug Group. The “Story of Grass” is a minimum fifteen-year journey which we will detail below

Stages of the grass breeding process: collection, crossing, plant selection and isolation


The first seven years of the Story of Grass involve traditional plant breeding techniques.  For the UK amenity market, breeding stations at Wolfheze (Holland) and Mas Grenier (France) are where the magic happens!

In years 1-3, initial crosses are made, typically between plants of an existing cultivar and plants isolated from the wild or a particular environment of interest.

Years 4-6 involve the laborious selection process of the original cross progeny.  Individual unmown plants in a large nursery are scrutinised for a broad range of characteristics, removing those with weaknesses to disease, heat, cold etc. and selecting only the very best to continue on the journey.  After initial selection, individual mown plants will also be looked at, examining basic aspects of turf quality and persistence.  This three-year process may whittle down 10,000 plants to as few as only a couple of dozen.

In year 7, the surviving plants are grouped together based on similarities.  They are then isolated from others and allowed to cross-pollinate within their group.  The resulting “synthetic line” is the basis for a new cultivar.  It is important to remember that a cultivar always exists as a population of genetically different individuals that are very similar (but not identical) to one another.


In years 8-10, new synthetic lines are tested by the breeding department against other elite lines and existing cultivars from global breeding programmes. This takes place at multiple locations (including in the UK) to ensure reliable results for wide-ranging end-user markets.

For perennial ryegrass, synthetic lines will be tested under simulated wear/traffic and at a low mowing height as two basic stress factors.  Breeders will also include a range of other trials or laboratory testing at this stage, for example tolerance to a particular turfgrass disease or sustained drought conditions.


 Results of performance testing are presented to product development teams in target markets and a decision is taken on which synthetic lines to multiply up to become a cultivar.  The multiplication (year 11) is a vital and costly process, forming a “breeder’s seed” stock, which will be used as the foundation for commercial production in the future (Figure 5).  It is imperative to ensure absolute seed purity at this stage.


 In years 12-15 and beyond, cultivars are submitted to official trials across the globe, depending on their target markets.  Here in the UK, the BSPB/STRI trials that drive the Turfgrass Seed booklet (Figure 6) deliver reliable, independent data for a variety of important turfgrass traits.

In parallel, it is necessary for a cultivar to be examined under legislative protocols to ensure it is eligible for sale.  Aspects such as distinction (different from existing material), uniformity (individuals within the population must be very similar) and stability (no reversion to parental wild-type) are scrutinised over a fixed period of time (typically three years or longer).


 As official trials are progressing, Barenbrug strives to undertake significant product development and R&D on a local level in the global marketplace to ensure that new cultivars are integrated into product lines effectively.  Ultimately, this process is the one that delivers improved turfgrass performance to end-users in the field.

Product development encompasses a range of processes, such as mixture synergy trials (the combined performance of species and cultivars) or looking closely at the intraspecific traits that a new cultivar delivers, and how best to match these with end-user requirements in particular markets.

The R&D process here in the UK & Ireland involves working with independent organisations such as STRI and the Irish Sports Turf Institute (ISTI), as well as internal development work.  Increasingly, working in partnership with end-users across the region to delve even deeper into the market in the search for solution-based products has been a rewarding process.

A good example of this R&D work is the recently-launched Sustainable Grass Technology (SGT).  SGT has brought together development work across Europe at breeding stations, with external partners (STRI and Landlab) and is now expanding further into local work with end-users.  In 2020, trials have been initiated with St Andrews Links and Gerrard’s Cross Golf Club to scrutinise drought and heat stress in the UK more closely.


 Only the very best cultivars make it through official trials and our extensive R&D process, but when they do, the vital role of seed production teams can commence.  First, breeder’s seed has to be multiplied to produce pre-basic seed, which then goes on to basic seed after another harvest.  Basic seed is supplied to farmers to sow resulting in certified seed production, which is the grade of seed sold to end-users.

At all stages, it is imperative to remove off-types to maintain a cultivar’s integral purity.  Minimum criteria are required for certified seed and every seed lot will be issued with a seed certificate.

Seed usage

 The final (and most important) chapter in the Story of Grass is yet to be written.  It is over to you now!  We trust the latest and greatest cultivars will be used to deliver the very best turf possible, to be enjoyed for recreation and sport up and down the country.

The TGA would like to say a massive thank you to Dr David Greenshields, Barenrbug for the fantastic article.