Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
July, 2008
Regional Report

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An appropriately sized lawn can be a beautiful, useful addition to the landscape.

Which Turfgrass is Best?

Lawns are a controversial subject these days. They certainly have their detractors who point to the need for water conservation and to the environmental effects of pesticides, fertilizers, and exhaust from mowers and other lawn care equipment. Yet the vast majority of homes have a lawn, and these outdoor carpets provide not only beauty but utility as a spot for children to play or even grown-ups to gather. I am often asked which turfgrass species is the best to plant for a lawn area. There is no perfect turfgrass or even a perfect landscape plant, for that matter. Each species has its positive and negative traits, and each has a place in certain landscape settings.

Most of our turfgrasses in the lower South are warm-season species. The most popular types include St. Augustine, Bermuda, zoysia, and centipede. Let's take a look at these four warm-season species, their positive and negative traits, and the conditions where each would be best suited.

St. Augustine
This grass can take more shade that any other warm-season grass. If a spot is too shady for St. Augustine, it is too shady for a lawn and you need to consider other options, such as a shade-loving ground cover. Another positive trait of this turf species is the fact that it looks pretty good even with an irregular mowing schedule.

St. Augustine is among the least drought tolerant turf options, although in shady areas it is actually quite water thrifty. A drawback to this species is the fact that it is susceptible to several insects and diseases.

Bermuda Grass
Bermuda grass is a popular turf for sports fields and commercial landscapes. It has a great ability to recover from wear and tear if given adequate moisture and nutrients. The semi-dwarf types create a beautiful lawn but require regular mowing to maintain a good appearance.

On the negative side, Bermuda grass does not understand the concept of borders. Its tenacious underground runners quickly invade adjacent flower beds. Bermuda also has some insect and disease problems. This turfgrass needs full sun to look its best, and if it's shaded for part of the day, it will be thin and aesthetically unacceptable.

Zoysia makes a beautiful lawn that is durable and dense. It tolerates a medium-shade location quite well, but it's not as shade tolerant as St. Augustine. It tolerates moderate foot traffic too. Some of the more vigorous types are somewhat invasive, but not as much as Bermuda grass. Zoysia has moderate drought tolerance, but like Bermuda it tends to go brown to conserve moisture and then return when rain or irrigation arrives.

Zoysia's density and tough stems can make a lawnmower earn its keep, especially if you don't mow regularly. A reel mower is best, but you can get by with a standard rotary mower if you keep the blade extra sharp. The finer textured types can get rather lumpy if mowed at a tall height. It has a tendency to develop a thick thatch, especially if it is fertilized and watered a lot.

This turf is best adapted to the acid sands of the Southeastern U.S. It looks rather like a semi-dwarf type of St. Augustine. Centipede is tolerant of moderate shade but not of drought conditions. This turfgrass prefers to be a chartreuse green color. Efforts to "green it up" with fertilizer are detrimental to its health. Centipede can be propagated from seed, unlike St. Augustine or zoysia, which dramatically reduces the cost of establishing a lawn.

Centipede spreads slowly compared to St. Augustine so it may take a bit longer to establish a dense turf, but in time it can develop good density. Its slow rate of growth is a plus as it requires less frequent mowing. Did I just hear a group of teenagers shout, "YEA?"

If you choose to include turf in your landscape plan, remember that more is not always better. Think about what you want out of your turf area and how large it needs to be. Then choose a grass that best fits the location and level of maintenance you are willing to provide.

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