September means cool evenings, colorful trees, football and shorter days. September also means that it is the best time to take care of your lawn or establish a new one.
Many of the questions I receive concern which type of grass is best for the lawn and the best schedule for care. So this week, let’s take a little time to get some lawn details straight so that you can manage your lawn most effectively.
To be clear, I’m not telling you to be an extreme lawn-care junkie. Lots of Americans take the front lawn way too seriously. I’ve seen it called Obsessive Lawn Care Disorder.
This is big business too. People fret over their own lawns, attacking it with any number of weapons and chemicals from their modern arsenal, or they pay top dollar to lawn-care companies to do the dirty work for them — sort of like lawn-care mercenaries. The lawn-care (services, chemicals, tools) industry tops out at about $40 billion a year in the U.S. alone. That’s a lot of green.
In a book called “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” author Virginia Scott Jenkins talks about how lawns came about after the Civil War. They’re modeled after the “pleasure parks” of European royalty.
But these green spaces don’t have to have such a huge footprint, using up lots of chemicals, water and money. The first thing to know is that you have to pick the right grass for the area. If the grass isn’t happy, it won’t thrive and it will leave space for weeds and be open for attack from diseases and insects.
When I’m asked what type of grass someone should sow, my answer is always the same: It depends. There are several different types of grasses available and each one grows best in different conditions and serves different purposes. Many times, the answer is also a blend of grasses, rather than a single species. This helps keep the lawn looking good during different conditions.
Fine fescue looks just like it sounds. It has finer blades than other fescues and makes an excellent, high-quality turf. There are several different types, such as sheep, hard and red. These are some of the most adaptable grasses, as they can tolerate full sun or even heavy shade.
For areas of heavy shade, you can sow fine fescue in a pure stand without other grasses. They are also the most tolerant of stress, including cold, heat and drought. They can be susceptible to thatch buildup, but proper maintenance can limit problems. These grasses spread by rhizomes to fill in empty areas in the lawn.
I recommend fine fescue for use in any area except for high-use areas, such as areas where there’s lots of foot traffic, pet movement or play. Mowing height for fine fescues is 2 to 2.5 inches.
Kentucky bluegrass, despite sounding like it was born and raised in the Bluegrass State, is not native to the United States. Yes, you heard right — it hails from Europe and Asia and hitched a ride over with early colonists.
It is more moderately textured when compared to the other turfgrasses and is also a spreading grass. It requires a sunnier location than the fine fescue, and is also not as tolerant to temperature extremes or drought. It is cold tolerant, but not tolerant of heat or drought and will turn brown and dormant during the summer. It forms a dense, dark turf that many find attractive.
Due to its intolerance of high temperatures and its higher susceptibility to diseases, I would suggest always including this grass in a mixture rather than a pure stand. Mowing height for Kentucky bluegrass is 2 to 2.5 inches.
Perennial ryegrass is a competitive grass. Even though it is a bunching-type grass, it can be sown in mixtures with the spreading-type grasses and survive just fine. It is one of the toughest turfgrasses and performs well in high-traffic areas, despite being finer in nature that some of the other tougher grasses.
It comes up quicker than other grasses, so it is a good choice to add to a blend for a newly seeded area where you need grass quickly. It prefers a sunny locale, but can tolerate some light shade. It also isn’t the biggest fan of super-high heat or drought. The mowing height for perennial ryegrass is 2 to 2.5 inches.
Turf-type tall fescue is what many people turn to for lawns, though I don’t always think that it is the best choice. Tall fescues are clumping-type grasses that do not mix well with others. Unless you can maintain a pure stand of tall fescue, you could see clumps of it sticking out amongst the other grasses, as it tends to be coarser and darker than the others listed. Some of the newer varieties are finer textured, but still need to be in a pure stand.
A variety called Kentucky 31 is an old standby that many still use today, but it is a horrible turfgrass. Its coarseness better suits it to the pasture, not the lawn. It was probably top of the line when it was first developed and released, but that was in 1931 (yep, that’s where that number comes from).
Tall fescue can form a dense, attractive lawn when well maintained and stands up well to traffic. It can take full sun to partial shade. Mowing height for tall fescue is 2.5 to 3 inches, so this is not the grass for you if you enjoy subjecting your lawn to weekly scalping.
Zoysia grass has, unfortunately, found its way to the shelves of some of our garden centers. This is the only warm-season grass on the list, and it is only on the list so that I can tell you that you should never, ever under any circumstances plant this in your lawn.
Store owners who sell this grass and homeowners who plant it should be rounded up by nearby villagers with pitchforks and torches and run out of town.
Since this is a warm-season grass, it turns crispy brown at the first hint of cool weather in the fall and stays dormant way past the beginning of spring. It is common in lawns south of the Carolinas, but isn’t one that should be grown here. Despite this grass looking dead for half of a year, people still put it in their lawns because it is “low maintenance.”
It is heat- and drought-tolerant and barely grows — you may only need to mow it a few times per summer. While you may revel in its simplicity and throw aesthetics to the wind, your neighbors may not. Zoysia grass loves to spread and will soon work its way into the neighbor’s lawn and beyond. While good fences make good neighbors, there’s no fence that can save the neighbor from this crispy creeper.