Grasses are categorized as either warm season or cool season. Warm-season grasses are best adapted to the southern part of the United States. They grow vigorously in the warm summer months, then become dormant, turning brown in cold weather. Warm-season grasses do not thrive in cold climates. Cool-season grasses grow well in the North, at high elevations in the South, and in those parts of the country that have winter snow cover. They grow actively in the cool weather of spring and fall, and slowly in summer heat. With ample water they will remain green the year around. In warm climates a cool-season grass is often seeded over a dormant warm-season grass lawn as a temporary grass during the winter months; it does not survive intense summer heat. You may want to check with your local nursery or county extension service to find out which grass varieties or cultivars grow best in your area.
Which grass to choose
Sixteen major grasses are found throughout the United States. With advances in turfgrass breeding, new and improved cultivars – or cultivated varieties- are continually being made available. Improved cultivars, with resistance to diseases and insects and tolerance to adverse conditions, replace older cultivars each year. Each grass variety may have different recommendations for mowing and fertilization rates. These two differences are tip-offs to whether grasses require high or low maintenance: Those requiring short mowing and frequent, heavy fertilization are for dedicated lawn owners only.
There are three major types of cool-season grasses: bluegrasses, fescues, and ryegrasses. Bentgrass is another type, but it requires more maintenance and is not as adaptable as the others are to various climate zones; it is used primarily on golf greens and in the Pacific Northwest.
The blades of bluegrasses all have a characteristic boat shaped tip, with the edges curved up like the sides of a canoe. Most are relatively cold tolerant but need generous amounts of water and fertilizer. Kentucky bluegrass is the most popular; rough bluegrass is often added to shade mixtures.
Fescues come in many forms and are generally classified as fine or coarse. The fine-textured fescues described here are chewings, hard , and red fescue. Turf-type tall fescue has coarser blades but better wear tolerance than the fine-textured fescues, and it does better in hotter areas.
Ryegrasses tend to clump rather than form runners, as many other grasses do. They germinate and establish themselves quickly, and are used in low-cost mixtures to cover large areas.
Creeping Bentgrass Agrostis palustris
Used extensively in cool climates for golf course putting greens and tees, lawn bowling greens, grass tennis courts, and some home lawns. It produces a fine-textured, soft, very dense, carpet-like lawn. However, it must be carefully tended or it can quickly lose its attractiveness. It requires frequent watering, low mowing and high requirement fertilizing (1/2 to 1 pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per month of active growth.) While it is susceptible to a wide range of diseases, some cultivars that are quite resistant include "Penncross," which is dense, disease resistant, and quick to recover from damage; "Providence," which is darker green and has more of an upright growth habit; "Seaside," "Cobra," "Emerald," "Penneagle," "Pennlinks," "Prominent," and "Putter."
Kentucky Bluegrass Poa pratensis
The most widely planted cool-season grass, especially in the northern latitudes. Blue-green in color, medium to fine textured, and very cold hardy, it represents the standard for appearance against which other cool-season grasses are measured. It is widely used for lawns, athletic fields, golf fairways, and general-purpose turfs because of its beauty. Even so, it requires conscientious maintenance. It is best adapted in northern states east of the Rockies, in the Pacific Northwest, and at higher elevations in the South. Mow it to between 11/2 and 21/2 high, slightly higher during hot weather. Water frequently and fertilize generously. Among the most useful cultivars is “Adelphi”, which is low growing, dark green, and fine leafed; it is especially disease resistant, fairly tolerant of shade and heat, and attractive even under low maintenance.
Rough Bluegrass Poa trivialis
A bright green, fine-textured, and shallow-rooted grass with boat-shaped tips to its blades, this relative of Kentucky bluegrass is noted for its high tolerance of moist soils and shade. The grass is soft, cold hardy, and retains its color over winter in mild climates. It makes a good component in shady-lawn mixtures, but in sunny areas it tends to crowd out other worthwhile grasses, particularly Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. Most rough bluegrass is grown in the same locations as in Kentucky bluegrass. Popular cultivars are "Colt," "Laser," and "Sabre."
Festuca species and varieties
Includes chewings, hard, and red fescue, all very fine leafed grasses that are used extensively in seed blends for both sunny and shady situations. They germinate rapidly (7 to 14 days) and establish themselves quickly. They are medium green in color and spread by tillers or short creeping rhizomes. During extended hot, dry periods, fine fescues may lose their color rapidly.
Festuca rubra commutata
An aggressive, bunch-type fine fescue that can overtake other grasses – a bad quality if you want to preserve these but good if you want to crowd out weeds. Because of its high shade tolerance, it is sometimes used to overseed shady lawns, often in mixtures with perennial ryegrass. Chewings fescue is best adapted to cooler areas in the northern United States and Canada, the coastal regions of the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, and elsewhere where summers are cool. It is well adapted to the sandy, acidic, often infertile soils that are found in these regions.
Festuca ovina var. duriuscula
Hard fescue is a fine-textured grass found mostly in the northern United States and Canada and at high elevations. Growing in clumps, it is slower to fill in and become established than chewings and red fescue, but it needs minimal maintenance when mature. It is tolerant of shade in well-drained soils and is fairly drought resistant and salt tolerant. Highly resistant to diseases such as dollar spot, leaf spot, and red thread, it is generally healthier than other fine fescues. It also stays greener over summer, even during extended dry period. Its wear ability is fair, though the clumps do recover slowly from damage.
Also called creeping red fescue, it is a frequent component of bluegrass mixtures. A fine-textured grass with narrow, dark green blades, it blends well and does what some bluegrasses cannot – it grows well in both shade and drought. Red fescue is preferable to chewings fescue in a seed mixture because it is more heat tolerant and less likely to form thatch. It is best adapted where summers are cool, such as in the coastal Northwest and at high elevations. It is widely planted in the Great Lakes region. It grows well on banks and slopes and creates an especially lush effect when left unmowed.
A dense clumping of grass that forms a coarse turf able to grow in sun or shade, this species stays green all year in mild-winter climates. It is a good general grass for home lawns as well as for playing fields and commercial grounds. Its disadvantages are its coarse texture and clumping style of growth. It does best in areas of mild winters and warm summers, and in mild-temperature regions of the Southwest.
Annual Ryegrass, Italian Ryegrass
A cool-season annual or, in cooler climates, a short-lived perennial bunch-type grass. It forms a medium to coarse-textured lawn with moderate wear resistance. In temperate climates, it is sometimes used as a temporary lawn in late spring. In mild-winter areas of the southern, southwestern, and Pacific states, it is often used to overseed dormant warm-season grasses for winter color. Best grown in full sun, this grass requires a moderate to large amount of water and is not drought tolerant. It also has poor tolerance of heat and cold.
Deep green glossy leaf blades, a shallow root system, and a texture that is finer than annual ryegrass characterize this grass. Exhibiting the best wear tolerance of any cool-season grass, it is often used as a tough play lawn. However, its intolerance of extreme heat, cold, and drought make it best adapted to coastal regions with mild winters and cool, moist summers. In southern states, it is sometimes used instead of annual ryegrass to overseen dormant lawns of warm-season bermudagrass during winter. But unlike annual ryegrass, it tends to persist during the transition from cool to warm weather – a disadvantage if you want the bermudagrass to predominate again when summer returns. Perennial ryegrass likes full sun but will tolerate some shade. Its non-creeping, bunchy-type growth forms a uniform lawn if the grass is properly established and maintained.
Unlike cool-season grasses, warm-season grasses grow vigorously during hot weather and go dormant during cool or cold winters. With adequate nitrogen fertilizer, these grasses may stay green all year in very mild climates. If their winter brown-ness is displeasing, they can be overseeded with a cool-season grass such as annual ryegrass. Even in their winter brown or straw-colored state, warm-season grasses can help keep mud from being tracked into the house. Most warm-season grasses are vigorous growers that tend to be invasive. Some type of edging is normally installed to contain them.
A tough, coarse-textured, moderately aggressive grass that is adapted to a wide range of soil conditions. It is grown from the central coast of North Carolina to eastern Texas. It is also found in central and south-western Florida. It grows best in sandy, slightly acid, infertile soil, in either full sun or partial shade. It does best where rainfall is regular and plentiful. It is especially suited to roadsides, airfields, and other expanses requiring a minimum-quality, minimum-maintenance grass.
A fine-to medium-textured grass that spreads and fills in quickly by rhizomes and stolons, common bermudagrass has deep roots that help make it tolerant of heat and drought (although it looks better given adequate water). Easily grown in most soils, it resists many diseases and can take considerable wear and abuse. These qualities make it popular for lawns, sports fields, and roadsides. common bermudagrass is best adapted to lower elevations of the Southwest and the region bounded by Maryland, Florida, Texas, and Kansas. It is also grown in mild-winter areas along the West Coast.
Softer, denser, and finer textured than common bermudagrass, hybrid bermudgrass is a fast-growing, durable, heat-loving grass used for home lawns and golf courses. It is considered fairly drought tolerant, but like common bermudagrass, it looks better if given more water. It also needs more frequent mowing (twice a week during active growth periods), somewhat more fertilizer, and full sun. It is popular in the South, Southwest, Southeast, and mild-winter areas along the West Coast.
A coarse-textured, light green grass that creeps low to the ground by way of leafy stolons. It is grown primarily in the Southeast and in Hawaii. It adapts to poor soil, resists chinch bugs and brown patch disease, and is aggressive enough to crowd out weeds. It also requires less mowing than other grasses. These qualities and its slow growth make it an excellent low-maintenance, general-purpose lawn. Because of its shallow roots, it has only moderate drought tolerance and is among the first of the warm-season grasses to turn brown during extended hot, dry periods. Also sensitive to low temperatures, it tends to turn brown and go dormant when cold. It turns green again when temperatures warm up. It will not withstand much traffic and is slow to recover when damaged. It should not be planted near beach areas, since it cannot tolerate salt spray.
St. Augustine Grass
A robust and fast-growing coarse-textured grass with broad, dark green blades, St. Augustine grass is among the most shade tolerant of the warm season grasses. It spreads aggressively and crowds out most weeds. Best adapted to southern California, Hawaii, mild areas of the Southwest, and Florida and other Gulf states, it is tolerant of salt sprays and salty soil. It also tolerates heat. On the minus side, it requires frequent watering and tends to lose its color under cold conditions.
Tolerant of heat and drought, yet able to endure some shade, zoysiagrass forms a dense, wiry, fine-textured lawn that crowds out weeds. However, the needle like blades of many varieties can be sharp underfoot. Zoysiagrass grows best in coastal areas of the South and throughout southern California. It is relatively untroubled by diseases and pests. It does not thrive where summers are short or cool. It goes dormant sooner in winter than other warm-season grasses and may stay brown longer.
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