One-bag-fits-all seed mixes won't always yield a perfect lawn. Here are the best turf types for your yard.
Now's the time to reseed your lawn. So which seed do you choose? Looking at the slim selection in most garden and home centers, you'd never guess that there are hundreds of varieties available today, bred to address any problem you're likely to encounter: drought, damp, disease, heavy traffic, insect infestations, and too much or too little sun. You can even customize your turf for color and other decorative effects.
Plant scientists, including those at the University of Rhode Island, home of America's first turf research program, have turned out an amazing number of improved turf grasses over the past three decades. "Right now, if homeowners took advantage of current plant breeding successes, they could have a consistently beautiful lawn with a high degree of insect resistance and traffic tolerance, even under the most challenging circumstances," says URI professor of plant sciences W. Michael Sullivan, Ph.D.
The key is finding the right grass variety — or mix of varieties — for your conditions. In the U.S., turf grasses are divided into two basic categories: cool-season grasses for the North and warm-season grasses for the South. While all northern grasses can be grown from seed, many southern grasses, especially the improved ones, can only be grown as sod or from sprigs — small, rooted plantlets. If your lawn has mixed conditions — some sun and some shade, some spots where water collects — consider a species that grows reasonably well on various sites (such as a fine fescue for sun and shade). Or combine the strengths of two or more species with similar color and texture (for example, mix perennial ryegrass, for its quick germination and wear tolerance, with Kentucky bluegrass, for its longevity, cold hardiness, and sheer good looks).
Here, URI's Professor Sullivan puts the latest research to work for you, suggesting turf grasses tailored to specific situations. Most of the varieties are recent introductions, but some are longtime standards. If not available at a store near you, all can be mail-ordered in quantities from 1 to 50 pounds, for about the same price as over-the-counter mixes (sprigs, however, can cost three times as much as seed). Keep in mind that turf-grass performance varies according to climate. For the best varieties of any turf-grass species for your area, check with a local nursery or cooperative extension office.
Which grass will let me stripe my lawn like a baseball field?
Stripes are the result of light reflecting off blades of grass rolled in different directions. Perennial ryegrass has a shiny leaf blade, and in new improved varieties, such as 'Amazing,' the color is nearly as good, and texture nearly as fine, as Kentucky bluegrass. For the South, improved Bermudagrass has similar shiny characteristics, and the dwarf habit of 'Yuma' means more blade, less stem, and so more reflective area. You'll have to roll swaths of grass in opposing directions using a lawn roller or an old-fashioned reel mower with rollers. The effect can last up to a week.
Are any turf grasses made to thrive in shade?
In the North, 'Saber II' Poa trivialis, with fine texture and deep-green color, is probably the most attractive grass for moist shade. For dry shade, plant a mix of 'Jamestown II' Chewings fescue and 'Flyer' creeping red fescue. Both have fine blades and a rich green color, and are much more shade tolerant than tall fescue. For the South, plant sprigs of any named variety of St. Augustinegrass, or sow 'Pensacola' Bahiagrass. Bahiagrass can be planted from seed, but its texture is even coarser than St. Augustine. 'Pensacola' is the least coarse variety.
My lawn is like a desert by midsummer. Which grass will
survive without watering?
For the North, fine-textured, bluish-green sheep fescue such as 'Covar' puts down roots much deeper than many turf grasses, so it's more drought tolerant. To increase its ability to withstand heavy traffic, mix it with a medium-texture perennial ryegrass such as 'Dandy.' In the South, a deep-rooted Bermudagrass, either a hybrid like fine-textured 'Tifway II' or a coarser common variety such as 'Sahara,' withstands drought better than St. Augustinegrass and other southern standards. Keep in mind that all hybrid Bermudas must be planted from sod or sprigs.
Can I grow grass that early Americans grew?
Colonial bentgrass was one of the first turf grasses tended by American colonists. And with its fine texture and low-maintenance habit it still measures up well. Today's common varieties are very similar to that old-fashioned grass. For the South, common Bermudagrass resembles the Bermudagrass that was first brought to America from Africa in 1751. In the South as well as the Midwest, blue grama grass is another authentic option. It is a prairie grass and one of only a handful of native species currently used as turf. Its blades are grayish green with a fine texture.
Seed Questions Continued
What grass can I grow in my soggy backyard?
In the North, the short roots of Poa trivialis, a.k.a. rough bluegrass, allow it to survive damp soils that would destroy its Kentucky bluegrass cousin. The variety 'Sabre II' sports fine blades and a deep-green color. For the South, carpetgrass beats Bermudagrass in wet areas, and it can even withstand some shade, though its blades are light green and coarse.
I prefer not to use lawn chemicals. What's the best grass for me?
Some perennial ryegrasses, tall fescues, and Chewings fescues contain endophytes, microscopic fungi that repel pests. Most are also disease-tolerant. Look for the bright-green, fine-textured 'Jamestown II' Chewings fescue; the leafy, medium-textured 'Repell' perennial ryegrass; or dark-green, fine-textured 'Rebel Sentry' tall fescue. In the South, centipedegrass resists chinch bugs and diseases. You can grow common centipedegrass from seed, but improved varieties with finer blades and better color, such as 'AU Centennial,' 'Oaklawn,' and 'Tennessee Hardy,' must be purchased locally and planted by sprigs.
What's a good low-maintenance grass?
Colonial bentgrass is one of the most fine-textured, and therefore most attractive, northern turf grasses. It's also amazingly carefree. 'Bardot' colonial bentgrass needs very little fertilizer and requires only a few mowings per year, compared with a typical Kentucky bluegrass, which might need 20 or more mowings over the course of a six-month growing season. In the South, centipedegrass is known as the lazy man's grass because it thrives with virtually no fertilizer and requires infrequent mowings, perhaps twice a month.
Which grasses will stand up to heavy wear and tear?
Kentucky bluegrass is a tough performer in a pretty package. Its fine, deep-green leaves can bear heavy traffic; 'Midnight' is one of the toughest. A mix with 'Manhattan II' perennial ryegrass will withstand the most abuse. Though this variety's blades aren't as fine, its color is good, and it's not nearly as coarse as perennial ryegrass varieties of the past. Bermudagrass has made similar advances in the South. Improved varieties, including 'Sahara' and 'Yuma,' have much finer blades than common Bermudagrass. They also have a rich green color and can be planted from seed.
I'm looking for a slow-growing grass that can withstand neglect at my vacation house.
Hard fescues, particularly 'Attila,' grow slowly and need only a few mowings per year. They are often used as roadside grasses. The color is dark green; the blades are medium-fine. For the South, 'Texoka' buffalograss can grow an entire summer without mowing or watering. Its texture is fine; its color grayish-green.
For most of us, the label on a bag of grass seed might as well be written in a foreign language. Here's how to decipher what every label has to include as required by law.
Grass type: The label must list the percentage of every type of seed included. Named varieties (e.g., 'Glade' perennial ryegrass) are superior to unnamed generic grasses (e.g., perennial ryegrass). The words "Variety not stated" usually indicate poor quality. Make sure the germination rate exceeds 80 percent.
Other crop seed: Refers to pasture grasses, such as timothy, which are not normally used as turf. Ideally there should be none, but 1 to 2 percent is acceptable.
Inert matter: Includes chaff, dirt, and any other nonseed material. It should not exceed 2 percent of the content.
Weed Seed: It's virtually impossible to eliminate all weed seed from a mix, but more than 1/2 percent is too much.
Noxious weeds: States maintain lists of especially troublesome local weeds. The percentage should be zero.
Test date: The germination should have been tested for the current year.
Where to Find It
Ampac Seed Co.
('Amazing' perennial ryegrass)
('Dandy' perennial ryegrass)
('Bardot' colonial bentgrass)
(carpetgrass, creeping bentgrass, common Bermudagrass, common centipede, 'Flyer' creeping red fescue, 'Manhattan III' perennial ryegrass, 'Pensacola' Bahiagrass, 'Rebel Sentry' tall fescue, 'Sahara' Bermudagrass, 'Texoka' buffalograss, 'Yuma' Bermudagrass)
('Saber II' Poa trivialis, 'Jamestown II' Chewings fescue)
Summit Seed Inc.
('Attila' hard fescue)
Murff Turf Farms Inc.
('Tifway II' Bermudagrass)
('Midnight' Kentucky bluegrass)
Wind River Seed Inc.
('Covar' sheep fescue)