Turfgrass Choices - Which
species should we use?
By Robert Cox, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension
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
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
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
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
unless 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
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
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 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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