Category Archives: Planting Lawns

Warm Season Grasses

By   November 14, 2015
map showing the USDA grass growing zones

USDA grass zone map

Warm season grasses are the types usually found in the warm humid area of the map.  They grow best in a band across the Southeast starting with Southeastern Texas across the Souther parts of the Gulf States, including all of Florida, and wrapping around to South Carolina.

As the name implies, warm season grasses thrive in a warm climate but often go dormant when the weather cools.  Some will die if the ground freezes.

Fine textured turf grasses don’t grow really well in this area and most lawns are planted with course textured grass.  They still look great and can meet our standards of easy lawns if chosen with care.

Choices for Warm Season Grasses:

The most popular warm season grasses are:

  • Stenotaphrum secundatum, commonly known as St. Augustinegrass is a thick carpet producing sod that spreads aggressively by stolons.  Stolons are above ground runners or shoots. St. Augustinegrass has rich dark green color blades that are fairly wide and shoot out in all directions.
  • Cynodon dactylon, commonly known as Bermudagrass has a silver or purple tinge and very deep roots which help it survive.  Bermudagrass also forms a thick mat and spreads above ground wherever a node comes in contact with soil.  It’s a full sun grass and is commonly used in southern golf courses.
  • Paspalum notatum, commonly known as Bahiagrass is a tough grass that is easy to grow.  It is native to Central and South America where was originally a pasture grass.  Bahiagrass isn’t as thick or green as St. Augustinegrass or Bermudagrass, but it requires less care and has a place in easy lawns for warm areas.
  • Zoysia is a creeping grass native to Asia.  It forms a thick, generally low growing and finely textured sod that leaves little room for weeds. Zoysia is commonly used for golf course fairways and athletic fields because it will fill in damaged areas on its own quickly.  It is tough to cut, though and doesn’t get along well with rotary mowers.  Reel type (scissor bladed) mowers are best.  Zoysia is easy to care with low fertilizer requirements.  On the downside, zoysia goes dormant when the weather cools leading some landscape companies to simply paint it green for the winter.
  • Buchloe dactyloides, commonly known as Buffalo grass was selectively bred from a prairie grass on the Great Plains where it got it’s “buffalo” name.  It spreads by stolons and rhizomes and forms a thick sod. Buffalograss is moderately heat and drought resistant.
Type Water
Needs
Drought
Tolerance
Texture Sun Notes
Bahiagrass Low High Coarse Full to partial Moderately
aggressive
Bermudagrass Medium Medium Fine to Medium Full Fills in
fast
Buffalograss Low High Fine Full Minimal
Maintenance
St. Augustinegrass Low to
medium
Medium
to Low
Coarse Full to partial Grows
quickly
Zoysiagrass Medium
to high
Medium
to High
Fine to Medium Full to partial Dense and
wiry

In most southern areas, easy lawns are a mixture of these types with St. Augustinegrass is mixed with Bahiagrass or Bermudagrass. The resulting mixture is more able to adapt to your landscape situations and shows the best features of each.

Grass Growing Zones

By   November 4, 2015

The USDA produces a map that shows the US divided into 2 main grass growing zones and several subzones. The Cool/Humid zone covers most of the Northeast from the Great Lakes to New England and the California to Oregon shore areas.  The Warm/Humid zone covers most of the SouthEastern US that doesn’t see frost.

In between there is a Transition zone that is a mix of both.  There are also a Warm/Arid and Cool/Arid zones that we won’t cover here as growing turf grasses in the desert cannot be made easy. Some parts are cold enough in the Winter that warm weather grasses have difficulty, yet warm enough that cool weather grasses can’t survive.

map showing the USDA grass growing zones

USDA grass zone map

Grass Growing Zones
Topsoil Types

In addition to climate zones, landscape planner may also look at the topsoil types.  This is still a new science as mapping is complex and hasn’t been completed.  It’s a task that until recently has been handled primarily as local knowledge by landscapers.  Soil scientists have put together the Unified North American Soil Map, a compilation of grid surveys from across the country.  There is a Google Earth overlay if you are interested.

The technical soil type is interesting, but for most of us, the important parts are how much organic content the soil has, its depth, consistency, and its drainage.  Your agricultural extension service or local garden shop can probably give you a visual opinion, chemical elements like nutrient content and Ph may require a soil test.  Good topsoil is usually dark brown or almost black.  Lighter colors indicate an abundance of salt a lack of organic elements.  Damp soil should form a loose and crumbly ball when squeezed in your hand. Your grass needs to grow roots in it.  Too hard and roots (or water) won’t be able to penetrate.   Too soft or sandy and water will drain away quickly.  Muddy soil will still be muddy under your grass.

Different soil types may require different seed types.  Or in some locations, your testing might determine that there isn’t a way to build an easy lawn.

Seed Selection by Zone

Turf breeders are constantly working to develop new and better strains for each zone, but it’s a slow and incremental process.  There isn’t such thing as a “universal grass seed”.  Some grow better in certain areas.  Perhaps the best way to choose seed for your area is to web visit your state’s agricultural extension service. It’s usually associated with an agricultural college or university.

Another good way to choose seed for your zone is to check with the major seed houses.  Many of the big national ones blend local mixtures for each zone and many subzones.  Only trust the bigger companies that put their reputation at risk.  Companies like Scotts, Pennington, or Ampac want you to come back often.  No name or house brands may not be as trustworthy.

 

 

Cool Humid Zone Grass Seed Types

By   October 31, 2015

This list of individual grass seed types is for your reference.  In most cases, you should be using a blend rather than just a single type.

Kentucky Bluegrass

Kentucky Bluegrass illustration showing it's growth patterns

Kentucky Bluegrass illustration showing it’s growth patterns

Kentucky Bluegrass is perhaps the nicest of the “fine lawn” grass seed choices. It’s got a fine to medium texture, dark green color, and, despite its Kentucky heritage, it stand up well to Northern winters. Another big plus is that it spreads by rhizomes (underground stems), which means that it actually grows thicker with time and forms a good, solid sod.

Kentucky Bluegrass becomes semi-dormant in hot and dry conditions, but recovers quickly in cooler temperatures with adequate moisture. It grows best grown in well-drained, sunny areas, although a few varieties tolerate some shade. It’s moderately kid-friendly with an average ability to stand up to wear, but also an average propensity for grass stains.

On the downside, Kentucky Bluegrass needs slightly more Nitrogen fertilizer than other grasses and has a tendency to build up heavy thatch with too much fertilizer and water. Kentucky Bluegrass is generally very slow to germinate.

Make sure that you only plant fine textured perennial bluegrass.  Kentucky bluegrass has a nasty cousin called Annual Bluegrass (Poa annua ) that grows like crazy in course textured clumps and then dies out at the end of the season…but not before it’s spread lots and lots of seed.

 

Perennial Ryegrass

Perennial Ryegrass illustration showing it's growth patterns

Perennial Ryegrass illustration showing it’s growth patterns

Fine textured Perennial Ryegrass is one of the most common grass seed types added to grass mixtures. It has a fine to medium leaf texture and usually a dark green color. It tolerates wear and heat well but has a tough time with shade, drought, and winter freezes.

Perennial Ryegrass is usually quick to germinate and grow, and there have been several varieties bred recently that come up in just a few days. This fast germination makes it prized for overseeding and quick covers, but also means that it’s sometimes competitive with other grasses. Better mixtures generally contain limited (less than 20%) amounts of Perennial Ryegrass.

Grass breeding programs have also developed some varieties with beneficial fungal endophytes which provide some insect resistance.

Stay away from Annual Ryegrass for your permanent lawn. Annual Ryegrass is a fast growing, course textured grass that fills in quickly. It has some uses a temporary cover or stabilizer for slower growing varieties, but it doesn’t grow evenly or cut well and dies after just one season.

Builders Ryegrass is a mixture of annual and course perennial grasses that sprout and grow quickly, making it a favorite of construction crews who want to spiff up a new home. Unfortunately, the looks fade quickly as the annual grass dies out and the perennial varieties mature into clumps. Whatever survives the first season continues to grow quickly and will need mowing often.

 

Fescues

Fine fescue grass illustrations showing the grass seed types

Fine Fescue

Fine textured Fescues are narrow-leaved and dark green grasses that can be used alone or in a mix of grass seed types with other types. Common types are Creeping Red Fescue, Chewings Fescue, and Hard Fescue.

These are low maintenance grasses and sometimes thrive where other types do not. Fine Fescues tolerate low fertility soil as well as low (acid) pH, and they don’t like a lot of fertilizer. They stand up to drought well but don’t like hot humid weather. Some Fine Fescues contain disease and insect repellent endophytes.

Recently, several new varieties of Tall Fescues have become available. These are finer textured than their predecessors, making them more suitable for lawns. Like their relatives, the Fine Fescues, they have a dark green color and are somewhat tolerant of both drought and heat.

Tall Fescues are somewhat slow to germinate and it might be tough to get seeds started in the Spring or Fall when the ground temperature drops below 70. They will tolerate shade but not as well as a Fine Fescue.

Notice that the illustrations show different growth patterns for each type of grass.  Sub varieties may differ slightly but all types in the same family will usually display similar patterns.  Some grow on a short stem, some on a long stem, and on some all of the blades come direct from the crown.

Other Grass Seed Choices

These varieties of grasses have special uses but don’t get along well in a standard lawn.

Alkaligrass is used along the shore and on roadsides where it’s tolerance for salt and high pH let it grow where other grasses won’t. It has a dark green color with a medium to fine texture. Alkaligrass tolerates mowing.

Bentgrass and Creeping Bentgrass are specially bred to be cut extremely short (½ inch high). They are common on golf greens but become weed-like in a standard lawn cut at regular heights.

Rough Bluegrass, Poa trivialis is a light green colored grass that is sometimes used for it’s spreading habit. It is considered a weed on golf courses and athletic fields because it spreads vigorously by stolons (aboveground stems) but doesn’t stand up to traffic, heat or drought.

Another type of bluegrass, Supina Bluegrass (Poa supina) is somewhat similar to Rough Bluegrass but has better tolerance to wear and is sometimes used on athletic fields.

 

Zoysiagrass

Manila grass zoysia

Manila grass zoysia

Zoysiagrass has been advertised as the ultimate easy care lawn grass…just plant it and your lawn will look like a country club. In truth, it has some strong points but it’s far from the perfect northern lawn grass.

On the plus side, it grows well during the hot days of summer when other lawn grasses go dormant. Once it’s established, it grows into a thick sod that prevents other weeds and crabgrass from sprouting. Zoysia stands up to wear well and requires less fertilizer and water than most types of grass.

On the negative side, it’s expensive and laborious to start. Zoysia is very difficult to grow from seed and is usually sold as sod or plugs, little pieces of sod that will expand to fill in the surrounding space. This might be why you see full page ads for Zoysia in magazines…it can be a big purchase, and carries enough profit for the growers to justify full page ads.

Zoysia spreads slowly, so plugs might take several years to fill in. Since it spreads by stolons, it’s often a problem keeping Zoysia out of plant beds, and there might be some problems when it invades your neighbors lawn. It’s tough turf requires more frequent mowing than most other lawns during the hot months, but slows down considerably as the weather cools.

While there are some varieties that are winter hardy, it loses its color as soon as the weather turns cold. In my Connecticut home area, a Zoysia lawn will usually turn straw brown in mid-October and look totally dead, staying that way until May. This isn’t a problem for summer homes, but there are some amusing stories about home sellers who have spray painted their Zoysia lawns green so it wouldn’t look like it’s dead.

Renovating and Reseeding

By   October 9, 2015

Got a bum lawn?  The idea of tearing it all up and starting from scratch sounds tempting but isn’t always the way to go.  The existing conditions that caused the problems will still be there, and you’re going to add some new ones to the mix.  Renovating and reseeding may be the best choice.

Lawns go bad for a reason.  The wrong mix of grasses may have been planted, or the desirable grasses may have been damaged by overuse, insect damage, pH problems, or lack of nutrients.  Fix these problems first, and then often your lawn can be renovated with better results and a lot less work than replacing it from scratch.

In most cases, the only reason to start from scratch is if your lawn needs filling or regrading.  Then, you have no choice.  Keep in mind that when you rototill a lawn, it’s going to kill almost all of the desirable grasses, but many of the weeds will survive.  Chop up a dandelion root into 4 pieces, and you’ll have 4 new dandelions.  Most weed seeds can stay dormant for years, so tilling may bring to the surface seeds that were created when Bill Clinton was president.

Late summer and early fall are the best time for lawn renovation and reseeding in the Cold/Humis zone.  The temperatures have gone down and we get rain on a regular basis, plus many of the summer weeds have slowed their growth.  Once your seeds germinate, they’ll have months to grow roots and harden before dormancy and the ground freezes up.

Spring planting is a distant second choice.  Get started early if you have to plant in spring.  It’s a race to get your spring seedlings up and well established before the competition and damage from summer drought and hot weather weeds begins.  If you have to renovate in spring, plan on needing an overseeding again in the fall.

Here’s the process for renovating and reseeding:

  • Correct any problems first!  Now is a good time to get a soil test, the test is worth the couple of bucks that it costs.  There are even test-it-yourself kits available at the garden shop.  While not as comprehensive as a professional analysis, they’re still much better than nothing.  Trim branches to reduce the amount of shade, and fix any drainage problems.  This step is a must do, otherwise all of your work will be wasted.
  • Control the weeds.  Dig them up or blast them with glycophosphate (Roundup or Kleenup).  Don’t just blast everything, try to leave as much of the good grass as possible.  If you used glycophosphate, allow a week or two after this step for it to work and residual chemicals to dissipate.
  • Mow as short as possible, then clean up well.  Your goal is to have bare ground ready for seeding.  Seeds can’t grow through thatch or other junk.  Use a power dethatcher for large areas.  There are special dethatcher rakes available that do a good job too, but require some work.  A regular garden rake is ok for small areas.
  • Cultivate the soil to allow your seed to make good contact with the soil.  Go ¼ inch deep or more using your dethatcher.  Fertilize and lime as necessary from the results of your soil test.  This step is important…you’re going to be doing a lot of work for nothing if you don’t fix any soil pH and fertility problems.  If you still want to skip the test, select a fertilizer to add 2 lbs. of phosphorous and 1 lb. of nitrogen per 1000 square feet.  Most starter fertilizers fit this ratio.  Without test results, assume that the pH is acidic and lime the area as well.    Rake in the fertilizer and lime.
  • Now spread the seed.  Be sure to spread it evenly across the entire area. Use the seeding rate on the bag for a new lawn on big bare spots, the rest goes on at ½ of that rate.  You are shooting for 15 to 20 seeds per square inch on the bare spots.  More isn’t better as crowded seedlings can’t grow strong.  For large areas, slit seeders (rent it at a tool rental shop) are a fantastic tool.  They cut into the soil and actually plant the seeds under the surface.
  • Rake the area lightly, then roll or tamp it to ensure that all of the seeds have good soil contact.
  • Now you need to water, water, water.  Your goal is to keep the soil and seeds moist continually without getting them waterlogged.  Depending on the weather and type of seed, germination takes anywhere from a few days to a month.  Don’t stop watering just because some grass has come up.  Some types take longer than others, and our goal is to have a lawn consisting of several different types.
  • Apply another light application of fertilizer when the seedlings have reached 2 inches high.  Make sure that it’s lawn fertilizer only, the young grass isn’t ready for weed and feed or any additives yet.  Apply it at half strength, about ½ pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet.  More isn’t better; your grass is still real tender at his stage.

Care for New Grass

By   October 8, 2015

Early care is critical and starts at planting.  Care for new grass is job #1 once you have seeded or renovated your lawn.  It will need extra care for several months after it’s planted.

The first step using water wisely. We need to keep the top inch or two of soil constantly moist to aid germination. At the same time, we want to encourage the new roots to grow deep, so soil down to 6 inches needs to be kept constantly moist also.

Rainfall guage

Rainfall gauge

Your first watering needs to be thorough to penetrate down to the 6-inch deep root level. This will require about an inch of water. Use a sprinkler for even application and place an empty can on the lawn to measure. You may have to apply the water gently to prevent washouts and split your watering up into several sessions.

Once the soil is moistened all of the ways through, your task is to water often enough to keep the top inch or so of the soil moist until the seed germinates.

Water with a hose or sprinkler several times a day. Limit the stream to a fine spray. Too much water or too much force will cause washouts and may damage the fine roots of your newly sprouted grass.

Watch the color of the exposed soil. As it dries out, the color will lighten. When it’s over half lightened, it’s time to water. Use this trick to see how evenly you water too.

Once you have a pretty good carpet of new grass established, it’s ok to lighten up on the watering a bit. Cut back to once a day at first, then stretch it out to a couple days at a time. Watch your new grass for wilting. If it appears to droop or change to a darker color, get out the hose right away.

Your waterings should gradually become heavier but less frequent. Remember, you want to keep the soil moist down to the 6-inch mark without allowing water to collect on the surface to encourage fungal growth.

Mulch

Mulch can help keep the moisture in but apply only a thin layer.  Your seed will need sunlight and warmth to germinate. A thick layer in Spring can delay germination.  Make sure that your mulch does’ introduce any seeds to your new planting.  Bales of regular field hay may contain seeds for field grass.  That’s not what you want.  Use Salt

About 4 to 6 weeks after your seed has germinated, it’s time for a booster fertilizer application. Use a good quality timed release formula without additives (no weed killer or crabgrass preventer), and apply it at half strength.

Mowing

Start mowing when your new grass reaches 3 or 4 inches high. Wait until the soil is dry and run the mower engine fast so that the blades will cut smoothly. Be real careful with this first mowing.  Your grass is delicate and isn’t rooted firmly.  Your new grass is going to take a full season to establish a full set of healthy roots, so give it a little extra care as it matures.

Unfortunately, care for new grass isn’t always easy care.  A new lawn needs to be babied, but the time spent on early care will lead to easier care later.

Planting Sod

By   October 8, 2015
planting sod starts at the turf farm where sod is harvested and rolled

Rolled turf at a sod farm

Planting sod is fairly easy to do and you can have a finished lawn in a short time.  On the flip side, it’s much more expensive than seeding and still needs extra care and watering until it gets established.o

The extra cost is because a sod farm or greenhouse does the time-consuming work for you.  They plant the seed and grow it until the roots are established, then roll it up into strips for you to plant.   You can cut and shape the sod to whatever shape you need and get instant coverage, even  on slopes that might be prone to erosion.

Sod can be planted in almost any season, but best results will come from spring or fall plantings when it’s growing vigorously at the farm and can establish itself in your lawn with a minimum of stress. Sod is real delicate when it’s harvested and has only a thin layer of roots.  That makes it extra important to find a good source and get it planted right away.

Delayed planting is sod’s biggest enemy.  There’s a lot of injury from harvesting, and decomposition starts right away.  This can produce a lot of heat, and heat kills.  Lack of water can also harm your new sod, store it in the shade and keep it moist (not wet) until it’s planted.  Don’t cover it with plastic tarps as they can cause heat buildup.

Prepare the soil the same as if you were going to seed it.  In order to survive, your sod will need to expand its thin layer of roots into the underlying soil.  If it’s hard as a rock, or covered with moss,  new roots won’t be able to grow and your sod will soon die. Once your sod is spread out, roll it well to ensure that the roots make full contact with the soil, and water it well.  Remember, even though it looks like an established lawn, it will be several months after planting sod before it can grow enough roots to be completely hardy.  Keep it well watered.