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Sandy's Garden

Low maintenance grass

Lawn grasses for low
maintenance lawns

By: Sandy Feather ©2010
Penn State Cooperative Extension

  
Q. What is the best type of grass to plant for a low maintenance lawn here in western Pennsylvania? We are looking for something beautiful and durable, something that would not require a lot of chemical inputs such as insecticides, fungicides and synthetic fertilizer. Is there such a turfgrass?
  
A. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to your question. As is true for any plant, it is important to choose the right type of grass for the conditions in your yard. How much sun does it receive? Is the soil well drained, or does rain collect in certain areas? Do you have a sufficient base of topsoil, or do you have mostly heavy subsoil? Four to six inches of topsoil is important for a healthy, lower maintenance lawn because decent topsoil has good physical characteristics, which allows for soil that drains well while retaining sufficient moisture.
  
 

The basics

Good soil structure is important for grass to produce an extensive, healthy root system. Are you willing to water when we get into hot, dry weather in summer months? Some grasses are more drought tolerant than others, but all lawns will brown out when we go for weeks without rain. A soil test will reveal your soil’s chemical characteristics – the level of specific nutrients and soil pH (acidity or alkalinity). These can be adjusted by tilling in the required amendments prior to planting. Those grasses with lower fertility requirements can get by with a single application of fertilizer, especially if you use a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the lawn rather than bagging them. Grasses also vary in their tolerance to hot, humid weather as well as their winter hardiness.

Freshly seeded lawn covered with mushroom manure
Newly seeded lawn with mushroom
manure topdressing

It is also important to consider how your lawn is used. Do all the neighborhood kids play in your yard, or do you have large dogs? Or is weekly mowing the most foot traffic your lawn sees? Some varieties of grass stand up to heavy use better than others. Lawns that see a lot of use generally require a higher level of maintenance – particularly fertilization and irrigation - than those that do not to help them recover and stay healthy.
   
In the Pittsburgh area we generally grow cool season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, fine fescues or turf-type tall fescue. These grasses are adapted to our winter weather, and typically put on the most growth in the cooler weather of spring and fall. Unless they receive supplemental water during hot, dry summer weather, they go semi-dormant. Warm season grasses are grown in the southern United States. Zoysia is the only warm season grass we can grow in our area. Most lawn experts do not recommend it here because it turns brown at the first frost and stays brown until late spring or early summer. That said, I know people who love their zoysia lawns.

Here is a brief rundown of each grass’s
strengths and weaknesses:

Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis) is considered by many to be the Cadillac of lawns while other criticize it as too high maintenance. It has a medium to fine texture, good color, and tolerates wear and winter temperatures well. It also tolerates our clay soil better than most other grasses. Kentucky bluegrass spreads by rhizomes (underground stems) that create a dense sod and allow it to recover from wear, drought, or insect and disease damage better than other cool season grasses. On the downside, Kentucky bluegrass requires a higher level of fertility than other cool season grasses for optimum performance. That means three to four pounds of nitrogen per thousand square feet in three or four applications through the growing season. Although its rhizomatous growth habit allows it to recover from damage better than other grasses, it also allows faster thatch build up. Thatch is a tangled mat of sloughed off stems, roots and rhizomes produced as grass plants grow. A thick layer of thatch interferes with the movement of water though the soil and can act a breeding ground for insect and disease problems. Kentucky bluegrass seed can be slow to germinate, taking two weeks or better. It grows best in full sun and well-drained soil, and prefers a mowing height between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half inches.

New sod
Freshly laid sod lawn: Sod is
primarily Ky Bluegrass

Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne) has a fine to medium texture and dark green color. It tolerates wear and hot weather well. Perennial rye seed can germinate in five to seven days under optimum growing conditions and it establishes quickly. It grows aggressively and is often used to repair damaged lawn areas. It tolerates cold weather, but can be severely damaged by ice as well as extended drought. Perennial rye is a bunch-type grass that does not spread by rhizomes, which means that it does not recover from damage as well as Kentucky bluegrass. It also means that it does not build up thatch as quickly, either. It has more moderate fertility requirements than Kentucky bluegrass, three pounds of nitrogen per thousand square feet in three applications through the growing season. Perennial rye is best in full sun and well-drained soil, and prefers a mowing height between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half inches.
  
Fine Fescues (Festuca spp.) include creeping red fescue (F. rubra), Chewings fescue (F. rubra var. commutata), hard fescue (F. longifolia), and sheep fescue (F. ovina). These are the finest textured grasses and have a medium to dark green color. They tolerate shade, low fertility, and low pH (acid) soil. They do not tolerate hot, humid conditions, poor drainage, or heavy wear. Some can build up thatch quickly. Creeping red fescue spreads by rhizomes and can fill in damaged spots like Kentucky bluegrass. The others are bunch-type grasses. Hard fescue is slow to germinate while the others are moderately fast. Sheep fescue is primarily used in low maintenance situations such as golf course roughs and is not often used for home lawns. Fine fescues require one to two pounds of nitrogen per thousand square feet in two or three applications through the growing season. Fine fescues are best in some shade (not dense, all day shade) and well-drained soil, and prefer a mowing height between two and three inches.
   
Turf-type Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is a relatively recent development. Plain tall fescue – the straight species – has long been used as a pasture grass. It is very tough and durable. A tall fescue cultivar called ‘Kentucky 31’ has been grown successfully on extremely difficult sites such as strip mine reclamations and highway median strips. It is too coarse to be considered a good lawn grass, but turf hybridizers have worked to refine the appearance while maintaining its tolerance for drought, poor soil and moderate shade. Turf-type tall fescue is the result. It is less coarse than old varieties and has darker green color. It is slow to establish its deep and extensive root system, and should be watered during hot dry weather for at least its first growing season. It still has a coarser appearance than the above-mentioned grasses and should be used alone to avoid a clash in textures. Turf-type tall fescue is usually considered a bunch-type grass, although some cultivars do produce short rhizomes. Turf-type tall fescue is probably the least thatch-producing grass used for home lawns. Turf-type tall fescue requires two-and-a-half to three pounds of nitrogen per thousand square feet in two or three applications through the growing season. It prefers full sun to part shade and well-drained soil, and a cutting height between two and three inches.

Seeded planting of Tall Fescue
Newly seeded Turf-type tall fescue

Zoysiagrass (Zoysia japonica) is the sole warm season grass. It puts on the most growth during the heat of summer. Zoysia spreads by rhizomes and stolons, which are stems that grow along the soil surface. It can form a dense, weed-resistant turf, and is drought tolerant once established. Zoysia spreads aggressively and can make a pest of itself in flower beds and shrub borders. It will also invade neighboring cool season lawns and can create problems with neighbors who fuss over those lawns. It is a prolific thatch producer and should be dethatched yearly. It has low fertility requirements, one to two pounds of nitrogen per thousand square feet in two applications through the growing season. Zoysia is grown from plugs, rather then seed. It can take three to six years to establish a dense stand. Meyer zoysia is the only variety of zoysia recommended for Pennsylvania. It is best in full sun to partial shade and well-drained soil, and prefers a mowing height of one inch – much lower than any of the cool season grasses will tolerate.

Summary

With the exception of turf-type tall fescue and zoysia, it is rare to grow a single species of grass in a lawn. It is more common to grow a mixture of grass species in order to avoid planting a monoculture. By planting different species of grasses together, you ensure that some portion of your lawn will survive drought, insects or disease if others do not. A good shade mix will contain a high percentage of fine fescues with a shade-tolerant Kentucky bluegrass cultivar such as A-34 (Bensun), Bristol, Eclipse, Glade, Nugget, Touchdown and Victa. If an area is only moderately shady, turf-type tall fescue can also be used. For full sun, a mixture of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass is best. You may encounter something called "Penn State Mix" in your shopping. This is simply a mixture of grasses long recommended by Penn State’s agronomy department for home lawns, but Penn State does not sell grass seed. Many seed suppliers and local garden centers offer their own versions of Penn State Mix. The basic mixture is one-third Kentucky bluegrass, one-third perennial ryegrass, and one-third fine fescue. Different suppliers use slightly different percentages of each grass species. It is best in full sun, but can also be used in light shade.

LINKS

Liming a lawn

Crabgrass controls

 

  

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