It’s everywhere. And no, we’re not talking about frozen yogurt or Boba tea. Instead, we’re talking grass.
You can find this green wonder worldwide, and while some areas are lusher than others, grass is as much of a constant as water, dirt, or chirping birds. But left on its own, grass can quickly get out of hand. We all appreciate the beauty of Yellowstone Park in summer, tramping through the high grass and taking in the scenery. But Yellowstone Park grass in your backyard is not an ideal situation.
Here is where proper lawn care comes in. There are cool-season grasses, warm-season grasses, and everything in between. Understanding the type of grass you have is the first step in caring for it. For example, some warm-season grass treatments can damage a lawn that might have some cool-season grass mixed in. And, despite grass’s ability to grow and thrive at extraordinary rates, you can accidentally stifle that growth and enact some real damage if you’re not careful.
We all want a beautiful lawn, but beautiful lawns come at a cost. It’s not all that high, but there are some things to keep in mind when caring for that lush green oasis.
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Know Your Region
Before the grass itself, the first step is to know your region. The grasses that grow in the northern half of the US are cool-season grasses; their peak growing seasons are fall and spring, and if they were planted in the south would likely die within weeks. These varieties are accustomed to colder seasons and don’t do well under extreme heat nor humidity.
Moving south, we gradually encounter warm-season grasses. When the temperature hits an unbearable 98 degrees, these grasses get moving. Their peaks are during June and July and would suffer an unbearable demise should they find themselves in Minnesota come November.
Before considering a lawn replacement, it’s critical to know your region and whether you’re going to be a cool-season kind of house or a warm-season abode.
Notice Grass Features
Although grasses differ significantly in the regions they inhabit and how they behave, they all share one commonality – they’re herbaceous, monocotyledon plants. Herbaceous, monocotyledon plants were hammered home in 1st grade, but it’s worth repeating.
Herbaceous, monocotyledon plants (grasses) are non-woody, and feature jointed stems and sheathed leaves. Where the differences come into play are the shapes, particularly in the leaves, stems, and collar.
Leaf-blades are some of the most varied. A fun exercise is to run out and clip a piece of grass; odds are the blades on the part you select are parallel-sided, needle-like, tapered, constricted at the base, or twisted. If it doesn’t fall into one of these five categories, you should bring it to a military base for extra-terrestrial examination and book an appointment to speak on CNN.
Next is the tip, and here it’s easy – it’ll be boat-shaped or pointed. Some might be a mixture of the two, but in general, they share more characteristics of one over the other.
Grass stems can be round, elliptical, or flat. The width or robustness of the stem is dictated by age and health; if a stem is overly flaccid and easily bendable, you’ve got a dying piece of grass on your hands. Lastly is the collar. On the collar, each blade of grass has a sheath, ligules, and auricles.
Sheaths come in three different shapes, ligules in seven, and auricles in four distinct shapes. To nail down the exact variety in your lawn (or in the lawn of your neighbor whom you’re secretly jealous of), you’ll need a notebook to jot these features and then return to the Internet to corroborate them per category.
To learn more about grass identification, check out this handy visual key from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
Cool-season grasses come in all shapes and sizes. Each of the following has its own merits; we’ll leave the decision-making up to you.
If you’ve ever golfed, you might not have known it, but Bentgrass was all around you. This grass is great for golf courses because it can tolerate mowing at a shallow cut. In spring, Bentgrass will spread considerably, and it’s also a quick grower in cold, wet conditions.
Bentgrass roots are closer to the surface than similar varieties, so frequent watering will help it to flourish. Many folks love the look of a golf course and try to emulate that in their own homes. It is common to see Bentgrass in cooler climates throughout front and back yards.
A word of caution with Bentgrass, however. If you want to eliminate it for some reason, good luck. Many older lawns have been seeded with Bentgrass, and because it’s so hearty, eliminating it can take some time. If you have isolated patches, you can dig them out or even kill them using glyphosate. But, once it takes over, it will be a project to get rid of Bentgrass once and for all.
Fine Fescue is not one type of grass, but rather the umbrella that encompasses Hard Fescue, Creeping Red Fescue, and Chewings Fescue. All three can survive harsh, cold climates and also play nicely with similar cool-season grasses. Hard Fescue is the “less-refined” of the three. It tends to bunch together but will thrive in areas that are dry or overly windy and cold. Fine Fescues stay green nearly all year round, and also can stand up to a drought.
Experts suggest that mixing in other cool-season grasses with Fine Fescues is an excellent route to take. For example, Bluegrass can add some much-needed color while the Fine Fescue improves the overall appearance, filling in stubborn spots that other varieties might have trouble flourishing in. Before purchasing, note that some Fine Fescue varieties will include Bluegrass in it, categorized under “weed seed content.” This is a weed and should be avoided.
By far, one of the most widely known cool-season grasses, Kentucky Bluegrass is so famous the state adopted it in its tagline. Currently available in a range of blends and formulations, Kentucky Bluegrass easily fills in bare spots, does not spread overly aggressively, and features a moderate growth pattern. Kentucky Bluegrass will tend to turn dormant in excessively dry and hot weather and does not do well in extreme cold winter months like one might have in North Dakota in January, for example.
In terms of water, Kentucky Bluegrass requires regular watering. This is a thirsty bugger, and while it can survive droughts, don’t expect it to like them. Kentucky Bluegrass shifts into survival mode in the face of prolonged droughts and will turn dormant. Overall however, maintenance is low, and if left uncut, will reach up to 24 inches.
Ryegrass is a fast germination and seedling growth grass. It is used on permanent and temporary lawns, has exceptional cold tolerance, and depending on the variety, good drought and heat tolerance. Ryegrass is found throughout the US in everything from high-quality pastures for livestock to turf grasses. Ryegrass peaks during cool seasons (fall to spring) and is native to Europe and Asia. Like many similar varieties, Ryegrass made its way to the US hundreds of years ago.
Ryegrass is not as resilient as Kentucky Bluegrass or even Tall Fescue, but the color you get from Ryegrass is genuinely spectacular. In fact, many praise Ryegrass on this feature alone. Ryegrass generally grows and spreads slowly, and does so via underground stems (rhizomes). This variety will grow in clumps and expand from there. But once it takes over an area, the end result is a uniform green that is beautiful and unique.
Another variety that originated in Europe, Tall Fescue made its way to the US in the early 1800s. It did not immediately catch on, and early adopters preferred to use it as pasture grass before it eventually arrived to the lawn. New lawn varieties have since sprung forth, and there are now a plethora of relatives within the larger Tall Fescue family.
A leading choice for most lawn aficionados is the Pennington Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue. This is a low maintenance, economical, drought and heat tolerant grass that brings to life nearly every lawn it touches.
Tall Fescue really hits its stride in spring and fall months. The midsection of the US from the Atlantic to the Midwest is colloquially known as the “grass transition zone.” This is where cold and warm zones begin to overlap. Tall Fescue is an exceptional variety for this grass transition zone, mainly because it can tolerate heat at higher levels than other cool-season grasses. If you find yourself residing in this area of the US, Tall Fescue is a good option.
Warm-season grasses can withstand some extreme heat. Some can also swim as we’ll detail in a bit. Let’s take a look!
If you’ve ever traveled to parts of Africa, you’ll quickly recognize Bermuda grass. Brought to the US by the Spaniards from Africa in the 1500s, Bermuda Grass is also referred to as “South Grass.” While cold tolerant, Bermuda Grass is a warm variety through and through.
Bermuda Grass flourishes in climates as far north as Northern Virginia and is at home in warmer, tropical environments throughout the south. Bermuda Grass “shuts down” once the temperature drops below 60 degrees. It will remain dormant in this period, and spark back up once the temperature rises again.
The best time to plant Bermuda Grass is in the spring, and this variety is not overly picky when it comes to soil type. Coastal regions are also fine for Bermuda Grass because it can certainly survive some sea salt spray. This grass will tolerate the shade, but up to a point. Full, sunny climates are best, and a light daily watering is all that’s needed to keep Bermuda Grass healthy and flourishing.
Aside from looking fantastic, Centipede Grass is extremely low maintenance. For all those out there who can’t stand the thought of investing hours on end every weekend in caring for your lawn and live in more warm-season environments, take a long, hard look at Centipede Grass. The Southeast is the ideal climate for Centipede Grass as it’s heat-tolerant, has a relatively shallow root system, and also tolerates shade (but not too much).
Although Centipede Grass is tolerant of heat, it’s not overly tolerant of prolonged periods of drought. The Southeast typically has a high amount of rainfall, a Centipede Grass favorite. If you live in an area that suffers droughts, this variety will shut down and might not survive, depending on how harsh the subsequent winter is. Once laid, Centipede Grass requires little fertilizer, and acidic soils are best.
Not your typical “lawn,” Dichondra is an excellent option if you’re seeking to stand out and be the “different” house on the block. Moreover, if you own an orange Camaro and your kids have matching purple mohawks, a Dichondra lawn is right up your alley.
In all seriousness, if you have the time to dedicate to the up-keep, Dichondra can make for a fabulous looking lawn. One of the pros of Dichondra is while the installation can be a bit tricky, once it’s in, mowing is much less frequent, and maintenance over the long-term is less than other varieties.
A common mistake with Dichondra comes with watering. Watering too lightly and too often will result in what’s known as “shallow rooting.” This weakens the Dichondra plant and makes it more susceptible to diseases. When you water a Dichondra lawn, it’s essential to do so infrequently but deeply. The root system is more profound than other grasses, so it needs a deep watering to absorb the water, but too much will flood it out.
St. Augustine Grass
When we refer to a vigorous grower, St. Augustine Grass is at the top of the list. Originally used as a pasture grass, St. Augustine Grass originated on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It was known at the time as a “seashore colonizer” due to its ability to survive and float in the sea over tremendous distances. As such, you can find this variety in tropical seashores throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, and Australia.
The optimal conditions for St. Augustine Grass are 85 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This variety can withstand temporary flooding and soils of nearly any type. A hearty grass for a hearty lawn lover, the one knock on St. Augustine is it will not survive prolonged dry seasons.
St. Augustine needs water, and in Florida alone, it represents nearly 70% of lawns. Take care when laying St. Augustine Grass to ensure your soil has a high pH. You might also need to incorporate some additional iron and micronutrient supplements.
Likely the most enjoyable word to say on this list, Zoysia Grass is dense, lush, and highly versatile. Zoysia prefers lots of sun but will hold up decently with some light shade. Another variety that is good for the previously mentioned transition zones, maintenance is not overly cumbersome, and Zoysia Grass doesn’t need a ton of water.
Native to Asia, Zoysia has been prevalent in the US since 1895. Its active growth begins in late spring, but Zoysia takes off in the summer. A perennial grass, Zoysia will return year after year in the appropriate climates, but its sweet spot is the warmer regions of California and the humid Southeast.
Some Zoysia owners can get a bit frustrated at the beginning stages as it grows slower than many lawn grasses. But once it gets going, Zoysia transforms into a literal carpet. It’s a dense variety that requires roughly one inch of rainfall or water per week. Sandy soils will need more frequent watering to endure the summer stress.
To Sum it Up…
You likely have an idea of whether you live in a cool or warm-season region. If you spend 30 minutes defrosting your car three months out of the year, we’re going to roll the dice and go with a cool-season region. All grasses don’t survive in all regions, and attempting to lay one in a season that doesn’t correspond will result in disaster.
A lovely lawn depends on a caring, informed hand. Knowing the type of grass you have coupled with the region you live in will result in a lovely lawn and a happy life.