Choosing the Best Yard Grass
Classified as either cool-season or warm-season grasses, varieties may require different temperatures for optimum growth and color. Wherever you live -- West Coast, East Coast, Southern region, Midwestern states or far north -- climate, soil pH and drainage help determine the best grass types to plant in your yard.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plant hardiness zones feature average low temperatures for the United States – they are useful for determining the best varieties of grass (and other plants to grow outside) in these regions. The USDA map is divided into Fahrenheit zones; it ranges from zone 1a (60 to 55 degrees F. below zero; mainly in parts of Alaska) to zone 13b (65 to70 degrees F. above zero; areas of the Hawaiian islands and Puerto Rico). For example, if you live in Ohio, the growing zones are 6a and 6b; with possible (average) low temperatures of around 10 degrees below zero. If you live on California's West Coast (with its various climates), the average low temperatures of USDA zones 8b through 11a are from about 15 to 45 degrees above zero.
Check out the interactive USDA plant hardiness zone map HERE:
Categorized by which climate is best for healthy turf growth, grasses are either cool-season or warm-season varieties. Cool-season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea), various types of fine fescue (Festuca spp.) and perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) are best suited for areas where the temperature falls below 32 degrees F. Some warm-season grasses growing in Mediterranean climates (such as USDA zones 8-13) thrive with regular watering even though they are drought-resistant.
Sturdy, weather-resistant cool-season grasses grow best in USDA zones 1 through 7 because low wintertime temperatures range from negative 55 degrees F. to 10 above zero. Cold weather brings dormancy; periods of time when grasses may stay mostly green but stop growing. Some varieties continue to grow when the temperature is between 59 and 86 F. Subsequently, long stretches of hot weather can lead to dormancy -- especially if the temperature soars past 90 degrees for a number of days (depending on how dry it is). Regular watering and fertilizing is recommended for cold-season grasses, especially thinly-bladed perennial ryegrass. Ryegrass, tall and fine fescues and Kentucky bluegrass may all enter dormancy in hot weather if they do not get enough moisture -- in August, especially. Color tends to fade somewhat when grass is overly dry.
Warm-season grasses planted in USDA zones 8 through 13 thrive when summer temperatures are between 80 and 95 degrees F. Popular warm-season grasses include buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides); its blue-green turf spreads by seeds and stolons with blades that grow up to 10 inches high. Perennial bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) grows low to the ground with rhizomes and stolons that can withstand periods of drought -- regular watering helps to keep the sod healthy. Zoysia (Zoysia spp.) is drought-resistant; its rhizomes and stolons grow from sod, sprigs or seeds. St. Augustine (Stenotaphrum secundatum), with flat stems and course blades, holds up moderately well under heavy foot traffic and can handle some shade. Kikuyu (Pennisetum clandestinum) grows quickly and is often mistaken for weeds -- left unattended; its blades can reach 18 inches high. Centipedegrass (Eremochloa ophiuroides) is slow-growing turf that spreads by stolons. It needs regular water but grows best in moderately acidic soils with pH from 5 to 6.
Before you spend the big bucks on sod, test the soil’s pH balance -- it may need to be altered. Soil testing kits are sold in garden stores but you can also contact your local extension service for advice; the health of the lawn depends on well-draining soil with the right amount of nutrients and acidic balance. Soil pH that measures at 7.0 is neutral; less than 7.0 is acidic; and more than 7.0 is alkaline. Optimum levels for many types of grass are between 6.0 and 7.0, notes University of Missouri Extension. Specially mixed and measured fertilizers can alter soil’s pH but follow directions carefully to be sure the application is appropriate for the type of grass in your lawn. Poor fertilizer management can lead to soil and turf damage.
Where the Green Grass Grows ...
Want to plant grass for playgrounds, parks, golf courses and athletic fields? Choose the best types that hold up well under heavy foot traffic and machinery. For USDA zones 8 through 13, buffalograss is a low-maintenance turf that grows well on school grounds, cemeteries, parks and golf courses but it does not bounce back hardily under heavy machinery. Zoysia handles heat and shade well but it grows rather slowly. Bermudagrass is typically planted on athletic fields and in parks; it is good “utility” turf that grows best in full sunlight.
In USDA zones 1 through 7, not only is Kentucky bluegrass (KBG) recommended for lawns, but its quickly-spreading turf makes good pasture land for horses and cattle. On golf course putting greens, the thin blue-green blades of creeping bentgrass (Agrostis palustris) help to keep the ball moving toward its target. Bentgrass must be mowed constantly and it does not hold up well under heavy foot traffic or machinery. Red fescue (Festuca rubra) does not need a lot of water or fertilizer and is often preferred in shaded areas of campsites and cabins. The various types of fescues add ornamental beauty to gardens and landscapes.
Oh, Ye Beautiful Grass!
One size does NOT fit all! Lush, green grass may look the same, but with different species and varieties, turf is not “built” the same. Seed heads, stems, leaves, roots, stolons and rhizomes make up grass blades for both warm-season and cold-season varieties. Uncut blades may bring about flowers and seed heads, which produce more seeds that can spread through wind or water to other plant life. Root structure can determine turf characteristics, for example: Kentucky bluegrass has shallow root systems that do not store large amounts of water so turf will enter dormancy if the weather is too hot or too cold for extended periods. Thatch, mostly found in warm-season grasses, is a matting of tangled roots, stems, grass blades and other vegetative matter. Lawns with old mulch and leaves, dead grass clippings and other plant debris need dethatching because water, oxygen, fertilizer and other nutrients cannot make their way through the thick mats and into the ground. Dethatching with a rake or powered cutting tool can help, but aeration -- removing plugs of sod -- is also recommended.
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© 2015 Teri Silver