The Lawn Grasses

There are four ways to plant a new lawn: seed, sod, sprigs, plugs. Seed is the traditional way, and has the advantage of relatively low cost. If you're planting a large area seed is probably the way to go. Over the last three decades of so, turfgrass sod has become widely available. Somewhere, somehow, most grasses are available as sod. Sod is a good choice when the planting area is smaller, or where time or resources to nurse a seedbed until germination. Think of sprigs and plugs as pieces of sod: they're essentially the same as sod, but divided into smaller units. Plugs are actually small squares of sod, and sprigs are pieces of mature lawn grass that can form roots and grow. There are a few lawn grasses, such as hybrid Bermuda, St. Augustine, and some zoysia varieties, that are available only as sod, plugs, or sprigs.

For a basic introduction to lawns, see "Lawns 101."

Here are brief descriptions of the different kinds of lawn grasses. The kinds that you can plant as seed include bahia, bent, Bermuda, blue grama, buffalo, centipede, fescue (all kinds), bluegrass, ryegrass (both annual and perennial), and some zoysias.

Bahia grass (Paspalum notatum) is a tough, coarse grass that is popular in the Southeast as a low maintenance and generally low quality lawn. It is drought and shade tolerant, but requires frequent mowing. Improved varieties such as 'Pensacola' are more cold-tolerant and somewhat more attractive. Seashore paspalum (P. vaginatum) has a fine-textured leaf blade, but is most notable for its tolerance of salty soil and water.

Bent grass, creeping (Agrostis stolonifera) is a fine-textured perennial grass that forms a soft, tightly-knit turf. A favorite for golf course putting greens in northern regions. Top varieties include 'Penneagle', 'Penncross', and 'Seaside'.

Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) is the most important lawn grass of the Sun Belt. It has all the essential characteristics a lawn needs for those regions—heat and drought tolerance primarily. The very aggressiveness of Bermuda is also it's key disadvantage. When creeping Bermuda invades flower beds and ground cover, it's called "devil grass" by frustrated gardeners. Bermuda grass is tough and fast growing enough to be one of the most popular grasses for sports fields. It's good for pet owners for the same reasons: damage from whatever cause will repair quickly. Bermuda tolerates little shade and will thin quickly in shade; and it becomes dormant and brown through cool seasons. There are many varieties of Bermuda grass. Common Bermuda or "Arizona common" is widely available. It's a relatively coarse-bladed form. Medium textured varieties available as seed include 'Cheyenne', 'Guymon', 'Jackpot', 'NuMex Sahara', 'Sonesta', 'Sundevil', 'U3', and 'Yuma'. The softest and finest blade Bermuda—the kinds used for southern and tropical golf greens—are hybrids that are available as sod only. These include 'Tifgreen', 'Tiflawn', 'Tifway'.

Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) is a North American native grass that is well suited to the northern plains. Like Bermuda grass, it grows best in summer and is drought tolerant. But unlike Bermuda grass, it is very cold hardy and able to survive a North Dakota winter. Blue grama spreads slightly, but ultimately produces a clumpy, uneven lawn. Mowing it 3 or 4 times a year will make it more lawn like.

Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) is, like blue grama, a North American native grass, a once dominate grass of the vast American short-grass prairie. For obvious reasons, it makes good sense as a lawn grass in much of the low-rainfall West. The look is similar to Bermuda: slightly blue-green in the summer, then straw brown through winter. Several improved varieties are available; some sod only. The best seed varieties are 'Cody' and 'Tatanka'. A close runner-up is 'Topgun'. Top varieties to grow from sod are '609', 'Prairie', and 'Stampede'.

Centipede grass's (Eremochloa ophiuroides) prime virtue is its ability to survive and even thrive in acidic, poor soils. Because temperatures below 5°F kill centipede grass, only gardeners in the southeastern United States (and parts of Hawaii) grow it. A warm season grass, it turns brown in hot and dry weather, and is quick to enter dormancy in fall.

Fescue, fine- or needle-leaved. There are three types: chewings fescue (Festuca rubra commutata), creeping red fescue (F. rubra), and hard fescue (F. longifolia). Chewings fescue is desirable in low maintenance situations. It is particularly tolerant of sandy, acidic, and infertile soils. Hard fescue is very cold hardy and low maintenance. A naturally short grass, it requires less frequent mowing. Creeping red fescue is used most widely. All three are often mixed with Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass, adding greater shade and drought tolerance. Named varieties include 'Aurora', 'Bighorn', 'Claudia', 'Flyer', 'Ensylva', 'Longfellow,' 'Marker', 'Medallion', 'Reliant', 'Salem', 'Scaldis', 'Shademaster', 'Spartan', and 'Victory'.

Fescue, tall or broad-leaved (Festuca arundinacea). Traditional varieties, such as 'Kentucky 31' and 'Alta', are tough and coarse-bladed pasture grass. But now many improved varieties are available that nearly match Kentucky bluegrass in look and feel. Tall fescues are more heat and drought tolerant compared to fine fescues. Varieties to look for include 'Amigo', 'Avanti', 'Aztec', 'Bonsai', 'Cimarron', 'Cochise', 'Crewcut', 'Crossfire', 'Duster', 'Guardian', 'Monarch', 'Ninja', 'Pixie', Rebel Jr.', 'Shenandoah,' 'Tomahawk', 'Tribute', 'Twilight', 'Virtue', and 'Wrangler'. Some—such as 'Rebel III', 'Earth Save', 'Shenandoah', 'Titan II', and 'Tarheel'—are endowed with natural pest repellents, called endophytes.

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis). By far the most popular type of lawn grass for most of the northern half of the country. It is also planted further south, usually in areas with significant coastal influence, such as coastal southern California. It grows there, but long term survival is rare. Notably, it does not thrive in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascade Mountains. Cold-hardy, soft-textured, attractive dark green color. Look for named varieties—such as 'A-34', 'America', 'Asset', 'Blacksburg', 'Blue Star', 'Chateau', 'Classic', 'Eclipse', 'Glade', Julia', 'Loft's 1757', 'Midnight', and 'Princeton 104'—on seed label.

Ryegrass, annual (Lolium multiflorum). Annual ryegrass has one redeeming virtue: its low cost. For that reason it is often used to overseed dormant warm-seasons grasses in southern regions. Because it prefers cool temperatures, most will die out of a warm-season lawn once hot summer days arrive.

Ryegrass, perennial (Lolium perenne). The best varieties of perennial ryegrass have a desirable fine, soft texture, and dark green color of Kentucky bluegrass. While occasionally used alone, they are most often combined with Kentucky bluegrass and fine fescues. Look for varieties such as 'Commander', 'Dimension', 'Manhattan II', 'Palmer', 'Pennant', 'Pick 715', 'Riviera', 'Saturn', 'SR-4000', and 'SR-4100'. 'Manhattan II' is notable for being endowed with natural pest repellents, called endophytes.

Seashore paspalum (Paspalum vaginatum) is a native of South African sand dunes and is well adapted to similar environments in the United States It is noted for its tolerance of salty soil and irrigation water. It can survive on ocean water, and is well suited to partially recycled gray water. Its look and feel is similar to Bermuda grass, and it similarly spreads with both above- and below-ground runners. It is planted by sprigs, plugs, or sod.

St. Augustine grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum) is one of the most important grasses of the South and West. It's fast-growing, deep-rooted, and coarse-textured with broad, blunt-tipped blades. It is a spreading grass via above-ground runners. Seed of this grass is not available; plant it from sprigs, plugs, or sod only. Top varieties are 'DelMar', 'Floralawn', and 'Jade'.

Zoysia grass (Zoysia species) is often touted as a miracle grass, and while many of the claims of its virtues are true, there are also drawbacks. Three species available: Japanese lawn grass (Z. japonica), Manila grass (Z. matrella), and Korean grass (Z. tenuifolia). Korean grass is more a ground cover than lawn grass. It's wiry but fine-textured and creates interesting mounds as it grows. Only Japanese lawngrass is available as seed. While tough and resilient once established, it is notorious for its poor germination, short green season, and long dormant season. The newest varieties 'Zen 300' and 'Zenith', improve upon all three traits. Hulled and treated seed germinate in 2 weeks and can make a lawn in 2 months. The color of Japanese lawngrass is similar to bluegrass, but blades are much stiffer. Vegetative selections of Japanese lawngrass include 'Meyer' and 'El Toro'. Manila grass has stiff and flat leaves with a fine texture and deep green color. It makes a high quality lawn in tropical areas, but is planted from sprigs, plugs, or sod only. Other zoysias to plant in the same way include 'Cashmere', 'De Anza', 'Emerald', and 'Victoria'.