Finding the right grass for your lawn

Soon, the hot and sunny summer will give way to cooler fall temperatures, color-changing leaves and the autumn rituals of leaf raking and football.

As we prepare for the home stretch to the end of summer, it is time to start thinking about lawn care and establishment.

Unlike gardening, where you concentrate most on growth during the warm season, fall and spring are the times to focus on lawn growth in our area. Sure, you have to mow the yard throughout the summer, but much of the seeding, establishment and fertilizing occurs in the cool season.

And this is where a lot of people mess up. I have lots of people call me each year, bemoaning the fact that they can’t get grass to grow in their yard. They often ask what is wrong, what they need to add or spray to make it work.

Sometimes it is as simple as fertilization or liming, but often it is timing. About 75 percent of the time, those people will tell me that they tried to sow the grass outside the peak windows for lawn establishment.

The grasses that do best and form the basis of our lawns are cool-season grasses. Fall (September) is — for our area — the best time for sowing new grass seed. April is the second best.

Outside of that window, you have a very high likelihood of new lawn failure. Plant it too late in the spring, and temperatures and lack of water will dry up and kill new grass seedlings. Plant it too late in fall, and the grass won’t have time to establish before the winter weather sets in. It may not be hardy enough to survive.

So if you are planning on any type of lawn restoration or establishment, you’d better start thinking about it. Your short window of opportunity is opening and won’t stay open long.

Of course, as an extension agent, my mantra is to always start with a soil test. If you’ve done a soil test, I would say to start off by applying the necessary amendments to get your soil in working order. If you haven’t done so, you could apply a small amount of amendments, or sow first and amend later.

If you haven’t done your soil test, go ahead and do so right now. (However, due to the College of Agriculture’s move to a brand new building in Morgantown, soil testing may be delayed a few weeks as they set up the brand new lab). You can find the directions and forms to submit a soil sample for free testing at

If you don’t need to sow new grass, it is still time to test the soil. That’s because the ideal time to fertilize the lawn is also in the fall (and spring). While the grass blades may not be growing above ground, roots can still grow through the winter.

Applying fertilizer, especially the needed lime, phosphorus and potassium, will help grow healthy roots over the winter that will give your lawn a healthy head start.

For nitrogen, it is best to apply about 2/3 of it in the fall for that winter growth, then the remaining 1/3 in the spring for a jump-start. If you wait until spring to apply everything, you’ll get a very fast growing lawn that you probably won’t enjoy mowing several times a week.

When people call me about lawn maintenance, it is often because they have an issue that needs addressed. Sometimes these problems are caused by fertility, and sometimes by selecting the wrong species of grass.

Probably one of the most common questions I get is about moss growing on the lawn instead of grass. There are a few reasons this occurs.

First is shade. Lawns with moss are often shaded by large trees, which is the ideal habitat for moss. If cutting down all your trees isn’t in your future, there are some things that can be done. The first is a soil test — another thing that makes moss grow is a low soil pH. Adjusting it upward with lime can sometimes slow moss growth.

Once you get the fertility in check, there are actually grasses you can plant for that shady area. Fine fescues, such as chewings fescue or red fescue can thrive in shade.

If you have heavy shade, sow 100 percent fine fescue when you establish a lawn. If you have a lawn with sun and shade, use a mix of fine fescue and Kentucky bluegrass. You can also throw a little perennial ryegrass in for good measure.

Another problem is clumps of grass throughout the yard. Sometimes these are weeds like crabgrass, but some of the grasses you sow can also be the culprit.

Tall fescue, which is a common lawn grass, is a clumping grass and does not mix well with others. Many homeowners make the mistake of mixing it with others. You either need a lawn with 100 percent tall fescue (which is good for heavily used lawns), or a lawn with zero percent tall fescue.

Probably the most major complaint is about broad-leaf weeds in the lawn. Some people are fine with weeds (“If it’s green, it’s a lawn”). Others want a pure lawn.

Once the weeds have crept into the lawn, about the only way to control them is through an application of a broad-leaf herbicide. You can either spot spray for individual weeds or do a full lawn spray if they are pervasive.

Many of the lawn weed killers will only kill the weeds and will not kill the grass. You’ll have to find a special spray if you want to kill hard weeds like violets or Creeping Charlie — the regular stuff doesn’t kill those.

It can be trickier when a weed you don’t want is a grass. Crabgrass is an annual that can be controlled with a pre-emergent herbicide applied before the seeds germinate.

My major grass weed is Bermuda grass, which is a warm season creeping grass. It will choke most things out, but it isn’t useful as a lawn in our area since it turns completely brown at the first hint of cold weather (like Zoisia grass, which I detest but some people plant on purpose). You’ll have to find a specialized Bermuda grass killer (which is available) to kill it.

Of course, I’m no big fan of lawns, anyway. I did finally go through with my threat and eliminated the lawn in the front yard last year. Goodbye grass, hello edible landscape. But that’s a story for a different time.

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