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Turfgrass Choices - Which species should we use?

By Robert Cox, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agent, horticulture

Even the most diehard xeriscape proponents among us, still enjoy a patch of grass here and there in the landscape.

But, how do they get that grass without running up a hefty water bill and running a lot of water down the drain?

They might want to look at alternative, low-maintenance turfgrasses.

Many homeowners would like to believe in a turfgrass that requires NO maintenance (no water, no mowing, no fertilizer). Forget it. No such grass exists, despite come-on ads in magazines and Sunday newspaper supplements. Growing grass plants in the close proximity needed to form turf creates a highly artificial ecosystem, requiring some input to maintain it at a desired quality level.

If you are considering a new lawn or renovating an older one, you should answer several questions to arrive at a logical turfgrass species choice:

  • For what purpose will the turf be used? Do you want it to match your neighbors' turf? Is it primarily to look at or to host the neighbors for games of baseball or volleyball?

  • How much turf area is needed? How quickly must it be useable?

  • What are my soil conditions? Predominantly clay or sandy? Good drainage or poor? Typically, heavy clay soils prevalent in Jefferson County are not conducive to good root growth. Soil preparation is imperative for long-term lawn health.

  • What level of input (maintenance) am I willing to provide? Correct cultural procedures, which differ somewhat for each potential grass species used, will minimize pest, insect, disease and weed problems.

  • Is the area in full sun, part shade or full shade? As young trees in the yard grow, will they cast heavy shade, causing lawn grasses to thin out?

  • What is the elevation? Some grass choices, such as blue grama or buffalograss, may not perform well as a turf above 6,500 feet.

For many situations and uses, Kentucky bluegrass is the best choice. It is the grass most used in Colorado lawns. Local sod producers grow high-quality bluegrass sod, usually consisting of five or more cultivars (varieties) of Kentucky bluegrass. There are well over 100 cultivars available as seed. If you seed a bluegrass lawn yourself, it is best to use a mix of five or more cultivars.

Kentucky bluegrass is "forgiving", with the ability to produce useable turf despite poor soil and poor cultural practices. These conditions, however, likely will result in more problems with pest insects, diseases and weeds. Highest quality bluegrass requires improved soils and high levels of maintenance. With improved soils, bluegrass can be more drought-resistant than it gets credit for.

Zoysiagrass ads in Sunday newspaper supplements suggest a grass that "seems too good to be true." Zoysiagrass lawns work well in Tulsa, Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta. It doesn't work well in Colorado, and winter dieback is standard. Ask the man who owns one.

Following are grass species considered alternatives or "reduced maintenance" grasses:

  • Tall Fescue is a pasture grass that has been the subject of intense breeding work in recent years, resulting in many "turf-type" tall fescue cultivars. In deep, rich soils, tall fescue can develop a deep root system, giving it the ability to draw on water resources unavailable to shallower-rooted grasses. Compacted, heavy clays common along the Front Range of Colorado physically prevent tall fescue from developing a deep root system. In well-prepared local soils, tall fescue can develop a reasonably deep root system, resulting in some drought tolerance.

    Other advantages of tall fescue often are overlooked in the water use hoopla: It tolerates shade well, has very few pest insect and disease problems, tolerates saline soils, does not develop "thatch", requires less fertilizer and has good wear tolerance. Disadvantages include poor recuperation where excessive wear causes bare spots, the general need for more frequent mowing and the need to keep mower blades frequently sharpened.

    A number of very good newer cultivars of turf-type tall fescue are on the market. A mix of three or more cultivars is recommended whether seeding (September or April) or sodding (March through October). The so-called "dwarf" types are somewhat slower growing but also less wear-tolerant than other turf-types.

  • Fine Fescue (red, Chewings, hard or sheep fescues are all "fine fescues") has fine, narrow grass blades. Fine fescues do well in shade (usually a component of "Shady Blend" grass seed mixes) as well as in poor soil conditions. They are somewhat drought- tolerant. Like tall fescues, they don't mow well unlesssmooth brome (LIncoln) (18027 bytes) mower blades are kept sharpened. Fine fescues may go dormant (turn brown) at temperatures of 90 degrees. For this reason, they often work well for mountain area lawns.

  • Smooth Brome (shown at right)  is drought-tolerant, greens up in early spring, and requires less fertilizer. This pasture grass has wide blades. When used as a mowed turf, it loses some density. It often is used alone or in combination with crested wheatgrass and western wheatgrass as a roadside erosion control, lower maintenance lawn or a mountain area lawn. Cultivars include Bromar, Lincoln and Manchar.

  • Crested wheatgrass makes a decent turf, alone or in combination with smooth brome and western wheatgrass. It needs less fertilizer and is fairly drought-tolerant. In the heat of summer it may turn brown if not watered. If this happens, a watering brings it back quickly. CSU research suggests that the cultivar Hycrest works well as a turf, and Ephraim, Ruff and Fairway also are satisfactory.blue-gramma-grass-lawn (205561 bytes)

  • Blue Grama grass (shown at right) is the State Grass of Colorado. A "warm-season" grass, it is active and green only between May and October. It is an attractive straw color at other times of the year. It is very drought-tolerant, needs little fertilization and infrequent mowing. Left unmowed, it reaches 15 inches and develops attractive seed heads. It will not tolerate high levels of foot traffic or shady spots, and may not perform well as a turf above 6,500 feet elevation. CSU research suggests the cultivar Alma is especially suited for turf use.

  • Buffalograss is another native warm-season grass. Used earlier primarily as a dryland pasture and range grass, it has been the subject of extensive recent breeding work to develop "turf-types." Like blue grama, it is green only between May and October, and is an attractive straw color at other times. It does well in clay soil, needs little water or fertilizer and little or no mowing. It spreads by stolons. Buffalograss will not tolerate excessive shade or high levels of foot traffic. In a shady spot or when over-watered or over-fertilized, it thins out and weeds move in. It may not perform well as a turf above 6500 feet elevation.

    Buffalograss can be established from seed, sod or plugs. Some "vegetative" cultivars are only available as sod or plugs; these include 609, 315, Highlight, Buffalawn and Prairie. Other varieties available in seed form (and less commonly as sod or plugs) include Bison, Topgun, Plains and Sharp's Improved.

    Many subdivisions and homeowner's associations have covenants requiring the use of Kentucky bluegrass. Eventual acceptance and wider use of alternative, lower maintenance grasses is dependent on proper cultural practices for the species selected. Proper culture is necessary to realize the full benefits of each species.

Photos: Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010