Bluegrass and Turf Type Tall Fescue
Bluegrass and tall fescue offer great cold tolerance. Tall fescue varieties are more shade tolerant than bluegrass varieties. Both perform better in the spring and fall, and retain a greenish color into the winter. Both suffer from high heat and humidity and are high water-use plants. Typical daily ET rates for bluegrass and fescue lawns for temperatures exceeding 90°F are between .25 - .38 inches of water, varying due to actual temperature, wind speed, solar radiation, soil type and humidity.
Even though we often hear the recommendation for eastern climates to lime the soil for cool season turf, both these turf grasses prefer slightly acidic soil conditions, rather than alkaline. Please do not follow the advice about liming your turf that is often given in national gardening magazines. Gardening is regional.
Soil amended well with organic material will help buffer the alkalinity, reducing the pH of the soil (as well as increasing the nutrient and water holding capacity). Blue grass and tall fescue grown in organically amended soil will therefore be greener without the addition of chemical nitrogen fertilizer.
Bluegrass spreads by rhizomes, but not as vigorously as Bermuda and zoysia grass. Many fescue varieties (but not all) are a clumping grass with no rhizomes or stolons and may need periodic over seeding to keep the turf thick.
Bluegrass and tall fescue are often lumped together when talking about ET rates. Xeriscape gardening information on water requirements for turf grasses separates the two grasses and often recommends tall fescue varieties over bluegrass; tall fescue requiring less water. I have a fescue lawn and have not gardened using bluegrass or bermudagrass turf.
A native grass to Africa, common bermudagrass, Cynodon dactylon. and it’s varieties and hybrids make up our main warm season turf grass. Bermudagrass has excellent heat tolerance and will grow in a wide range of soils. Hybrids and cultivars offer better turf qualities such as turf density, texture, appearance, color and disease tolerance than does common bermudagrass.
Bermuda grass may lack cold tolerance during severe winters and early fall and late spring rapid temperature drops. Bermuda grass is sensitive to the cooling temperatures of fall and goes dormant with the first frost. Blades turn brownish as nighttime temperatures begin to average 50°.
Highly invasive, Bermudagrass spreads by rhizomes and stolons. This characteristic increases maintenance and reliance on chemical remedies to retain the integrity of the bed boundaries.
Amend the soil for Bermudagrass the same as for bluegrass and fescue, as their food requirements are similar. However, Bermudagrass is often favored due to water requirements that are 75% of that for bluegrass and fescue.
The only North American native turf grass is buffalograss, Buchloe dactyloides. Native, but is not viewed exactly ideal for the Traditional Lawn. The widely held lawn concept, both in our minds and practice, is of the lush, green expanse. But should this be our concept? As noted in the beginning of this section, our concept of a lawn immigrated from England and Europe, where this European lawn concept suited their climate and conditions. Climate and conditions in North America, and in the semi-arid southwest, require a regionally appropriate lawn concept both in spirit and practice.
Buffalograss does offer many advantages for a low maintenance turf and is gaining acceptance and popularity in other Southwest areas. Buffalograss thrives in neutral or alkaline clay soil, even heavy clay soil. Because it is native to our shortgrass prairie region, it is well suited to our climate. Drought tolerance is its best feature. A lush buffalograss turf requires only 50% of the water requirements as does bluegrass and fescue. However, it will survive on a great deal less, going into dormancy that is readily broken by rainfall.
And with our busy North American lifestyles, buffalograss takes the weekly maintenance burden out of the landscape. Mowing requirements are infrequent; once a month is sufficient, once a year for a naturalistic landscape. Fertilization is not only unnecessary, but harmful. Topdressing your buffalo turf with ½ inch to ¾ inch of compost in the fall is helpful.
Understanding Buffalograss Overcomes Obstacles
There some have said there are disadvantages to using common buffalo grass as a lawn. Different turf grasses have different characteristics. To be successful, know your plant, it's growth habits and maintenance. It isn't that starting a buffalograss lawn is more difficult than bluegrass or fescue, just different. Our North American turfgrass has different requirements than the European or African models. When you approach putting in a buffalograss lawn by following its requirements, you'll be successful.
Many people become discouraged and disparage buffalo turf lawns because it of its irregular germination. While they await sufficient germination to crowd out undesired plants or weeds, they give up. Buffalograss seed requires watering to germinate just like other seed. The ability of buffalograss to germinate seeds over a period of years is one characteristic that enabled it to adapt well to the Great Plains climate and conditions. When faced with several years of drought or extreme cold, some seeds will remain to germinate and populate the plains. Weeding can become a big chore for a couple of years until it thickens up. Adding 1/3 blue grama to the mix helps the turf to fill in quicker (however, blue grama grows taller than buffalograss creating a lawn of unequal height). One alternative to uneven germination is to buy buffalograss sod, which is available in select varieties.
For some, the color and texture isn’t right either. Grass is supposed to be a deep green, not a bluish green, we think. We like thicker, wider blades (but not too thick or wide). Buffalo grass’s blades are thin, a characteristic indicative of a low water-use plant. Buffalograss needs to be mowed higher. Not quite the same feel under foot, although some prefer it.
Buffalograss isn’t shade tolerant, and being a warm season grass, goes dormant with the approach of cooler temperatures. It greens up in the spring about the same time as Bermudagrass, in May.
Turf growers are overcoming some of these less desirable qualities. Many new hybrids are entering the market or under trial testing that retain the drought tolerance and low maintenance while at the same time improving texture, color and cold tolerance. (Or to state this another way, turf growers are trying to re-invent buffalograss into the European model.) At this moment, cost of these new hybrids may be a prohibitive factor for some. The lawn of the future for area gardeners will most likely be a hybrid buffalo grass lawn. Legacy® and Turffalo® are two newer varieties that are available in plugs.
Ryegrass and Zoysia
Two other, much lesser used turf grasses for our area are perennial rye and zoysia.
Perennial ryegrass Lolium perenne, is a cool season grass and is often includes in cool season grass mixes and sometimes in over seeding warm season grasses. Rarely is it used by itself. Annual ryegrass, Lolium multiflorum, is used primarily in over-seeding warm season turf. New intermediate ryegrasses have been developed that die out quicker in spring time for better results over-seeded with warm season turf grasses.
Zoysia japonica and Z. matrella are two warm season grass species that are cold hardy for the Texas Panhandle, each with several varieties available. Zoysia grass has good wear and salt tolerance, and fair shade tolerance. The main drawbacks to zoysia grass is a longer establishment period, up to three years, it’s higher maintenance for more frequent mowing, and susceptibility to thatch with over watering and over fertilizing.
Whatever turf type you choose, the maintenance required should be factored into the decision making process. No matter what turf you choose, some maintenance is required.