For years our lawns have been on a binge-and-purge program. At the first sign of spring, we rush to the garden center, load up on fertilizer, and blanket the lawn with it. Sure, the lawn greens up, but the more we feed, the more we mow.
For decades, experts recommended fertilizing four, five, or six times per year with up to 10 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet total over the course of the year. But lawns can get by ? and even look great ? with much, much less fertilizer. You don't believe it? Well, ask Glenn Smickley, superintendent of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club at Lake Manassas, Virginia. This showcase private course hosts major professional tournaments, so it must need lots of fertilizer to keep it looking good, right? Wrong. Smickley applies just 1 pound of actual nitrogen per year (per 1,000 square feet) over most of the course.
Or ask Eugene Roberts, owner of Fairwood Turf Farm in Glenn Dale, Maryland, one of the East Coast's best-looking sod farms. For him, grass is a cash crop. It has to grow quickly and look good. So he must pump it up, right? Wrong again. He too applies 1 pound of actual nitrogen per year per 1,000 square feet.
Both lawn-care professionals know that the secret is finding a turf grass that's well adapted to your particular climate. So here's a list, by region, of some new varieties ? and some old species that were once disparaged as weeds ? on the cutting edge of low-maintenance lawn care.
Dr. Reed Funk, turf breeder at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says that Kentucky bluegrass has gotten a bad rap as a high-maintenance turf grass. "I grew up in the intermountain West," he says, "and I remember lots of Kentucky bluegrass and clover lawns that were never fertilized, and they looked fine." Clover was a key component. Now scorned as a turf weed, that legume was once considered an important part of a low-maintenance turf mix because of its ability to add nitrogen to the soil. Some turf experts are recommending that clover be added to low-maintenance seed mixes again.
Today's Kentucky bluegrass varieties get by with even less help. Some of the best varieties for minimum maintenance are 'Bartitia', 'Belmont', 'Caliber', 'Colbalt', 'Challenger', 'Midnight', 'Monopoly', 'Ram-1', and 'Unique'.
For nonirrigated lawns in the high plains of Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and the Dakotas, Funk recommends two natives, buffalo grass and blue grama grass. Buffalo grass, reaching only 4 inches high, thrives with little or no mowing and no fertilizer or supplemental water, although it goes dormant in late fall.
You can make an instant lawn of buffalo grass using sod, or for a fraction of the cost and a couple months of establishment time, use seed. Both 'Prairie' and '609' have been available for a few years, but they're still the best sod varieties you can buy. The best seed varieties include 'Top Gun', 'Tatanka', and 'Plains'. The first two make lower, denser lawns; the latter is taller but has deeper roots. It's best suited to highway slopes and similar sites.
Blue grama grass has a fine texture but a grayish color. It withstands heat and drought and requires only infrequent mowings at a 3-inch height. Only common blue grama is available; no improved varieties have been released.
Fine fescues have a well-deserved reputation as low-maintenance grasses. But perhaps the most trouble-free of all, hard fescue, has been overlooked until recently. "If anyone in the Northeast wants a true low-maintenance grass, hard fescue is the way to go," says Richard Hurley, of Loft's Seed Company in Bound Brook, New Jersey. This grass has wiry, needle-like blades like other fine fescues, but it grows slowly and has a mature height of only 6 inches. "At my vacation home, I often make only two mowings per year: one in the third week of May, one in mid-June," says Hurley. "In fact, sometimes I don't even use a mower; I just knock off the seed heads with a string trimmer. When I'm done, I get more compliments than you could imagine." 'Biljart', 'Discovery', 'Reliant II', and 'SR 3100' are good varieties.
Though common Canada bluegrass is found in pastures throughout the cooler areas of the North, it grows most vigorously and forms a dense turf in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 and 4. New varieties, such as 'Reubens', have better color and finer texture than the species, but they retain the ability to grow well in poor conditions, including low fertility, acidic soils, low moisture, and cool temperatures.
Another potential lawn grass for northern regions is the ultra shade-tolerant Poa supina 'Supernova', a perennial and spreading relative of the famous weed, annual bluegrass (Poa annua). Tests at Michigan State University established that 'Supernova' can grow in deep shade far better than any other lawn grass. It needs cool temperatures and moisture. Availability is limited, but you can find it as a component of some shade-area lawn mixes for northern regions.
Southerners in the know call centipede grass the lazy man's grass. That's because this light green grass grows slowly and requires less mowing and fertilizing than most other warm-season grasses. Centipede grass is very well suited for the sandy soils of the Southeast and Gulf states. It is coarsely textured, low growing, and somewhat cold-tolerant (to 5° F).
You can grow common centipede grass from seed, but improved varieties, such as 'AU Centennial', 'Oaklawn', and 'Tennessee Hardy', must be propagated by sprigs, which are individual plants, runners, cuttings, or stolons that are planted at spaced intervals.
Throughout the upper South, blends of turf-type tall fescue have replaced Kentucky bluegrass as the fancy lawn of choice. Only an expert could tell them apart, yet the fescue is much less demanding and less problem-prone.
Turf grasses have a tough time in California. Warm-season grasses can withstand the heat of the summer but have other problems. Zoysia is slow to establish and browns out in the winter, and Bermuda grass survives so well that it's as invasive as a weed. Tall fescue, a cool-season grass, is good-looking and heat-hardy but requires irrigation to make it through the dry season. So researchers have been looking for unconventional alternatives.
Zoysia is a good-looking and tough option but browns out from October to March. In California, 'De Anza' and 'Victoria' are new varieties garnering lots of attention for their short dormant season. Also from California is 'El Toro'. New from Texas is 'Diamond', noted for its ability to grow in shade. The oldest improved zoysia, 'Emerald', is still available and still good.
Throughout the inland regions of Southern California and the Southwest, Bermuda grass is hard to beat. Again one of the keys to success is not to overdo the water and fertilizer. For minimal maintenance, look for seed varieties such as 'Yuma' and 'Sundevil'. Hybrids like 'Tifgreen' look great at their best but are high-maintenance types.
For cooler areas, perennial fairway wheatgrass is gaining many fans. Shorter, denser, finer in texture, and slower to grow than most wheatgrasses, it's particularly well adapted to cool, semiarid regions such as the high plains, and the deserts of eastern California and Oregon. It tolerates drought and grows vigorously with minimal fertilization.
Throughout most of the country, bent grasses are considered high maintenance. But some types, especially colonial bent grass, are well adapted to the Northwest's climate. There, they are low-maintenance turf grasses. "Bent grass has the lowest fertility requirement of any grass we grow here," says Tom Cook, turf breeder at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "Even without fertilizer, it will produce color 10 months of the year." He hasn't fed his bent grass lawn in 10 years, and he says it looks fine. Good varieties include 'Allure', 'Egmont', and 'Exeter'.
Reed Funk casts a vote for velvet bent grass, pointing out that 50 years ago it was touted as one of the most promising of all low-maintenance species for cool areas. Breeding of velvet bent grass has lagged in recent years, however.
These new grasses may save time and effort in the long run, but who has the time and energy to rip up the old sod and replace it? Fortunately, getting new grasses into the lawn doesn't require a top-to-bottom makeover. Instead, you can gradually introduce new grasses to your lawn by overseeding ? sowing seed directly over your existing lawn.
To overseed, just rake the entire lawn vigorously with a metal garden rake. Then sow the grass seed at 1-1/2 times the recommended rate. Top-dress lightly with sand, topsoil, and sifted compost, and keep the lawn well watered until the new sprouts emerge. The new, more vigorous and perhaps better-adapted grass will gain a foothold and eventually replace the older grass.
Warren Schultz's most recent book is A Man's Garden (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001; $40). He lives in Essex Junction, Vermont.
Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening