There is a thin green line between all the choices for warm season turf in the south. I designed an educational garden to allow consumers to compare and differentiate the choices for their lawns. As you can see above, they are all green, with subtle differences in hue. All of them can be mowed to less than four inches tall. They all have blades of grass that form a fine-textured carpet on the ground. The big difference in all the warm-season turf choices is in the cultural practices needed to keep them thriving.
Before choosing turf for your clients, answer these questions: Once you do, your turf choice is simple.
• How much sun will there be?
• How much supplemental water can you provide?
• How much foot traffic will be involved?
• How often will mowing take place?
• How refined and manicured do you want the lawn to be? Do you want golf-course perfection?
• What is the budget for installation and maintenance?
• Does your client insist on green year-round?
• Does your client insist on non-invasive species?
All warm-season grasses do well in areas in perfect circumstances. With light traffic, well-timed irrigation, full sun, and frequent maintenance, any choice for turf will thrive. Unfortunately, providing perfection is expensive! For the real world, choose a warm-season grass that can compete best within the circumstances your yard can provide. Perfect, expensively maintained planting zones are not possible for typical lawns.
It takes some time to be able to identify different turf grasses. You can visit the University of Georgia Research and Education gardens at Griffin, GA to see them all side-by-side. Here are your warm season grass choices, based on the answers to the questions above, with quick facts about each.
For areas with part-shade, Zoysia is best. Zoysia is a wonderful, warm-season grass. For a refined look, use Zoysia. It goes dormant in the winter and turns a golden brown until the next growing season begins again. If you fertilize it too early in the spring, it will cause tender growth which can kill the grass during spring cold snaps. There are coarse and fine-textured varieties. Some of the fine-textured varieties require special mowing equipment. Golf courses sometimes use Zoysia because it creates the most carpet-like coverage of the ground surface. There are varieties of Zoysia that can be seeded, but the establishment takes several months. Use sod instead.
For less mowing, choose Centipede, and if you like to mow a lot, choose Bermuda. Centipede grass is a weed, but a nice-looking weed if it can be kept free of weeds. The spaces between the coarse-textured blades are larger than other grasses, leaving lots of opportunities for weeds to sprout. It only needs to be mowed every twenty days. You can seed Centipede, but it takes two years to establish a lawn that way. It is not worth the wait. Sod it.
For areas with drought and without irrigation, Bermuda is best. For heavy traffic, Bermuda wins again. For athletic fields, Bermuda survives better than most, but you must plan on re-establishing the lawn quite often. No turf can bounce back from prolonged, heavy traffic.
For a limited installation budget and a large area and on steep slopes, seed with Common Bermuda, unless your client does not want any invasive species used. Common Bermuda can be very invasive. You can find cheap, Common Bermuda Grass seed in all the southern discount stores, but be warned. Bermuda grass is basically a weed. If it is located next to flower beds, it will send long runners into the beds and then roots will grow deep into the ground. Anytime you try to remove the drought-tolerant sprigs, the broken left-over pieces regenerate into new, spindly, wiry runners.
Common Bermuda has become such a problem, turf scientists have developed more controllable hybrids to take its place. The hybrids cannot be established with seeds, and must be sprigged or sodded into a landscape. Its cousin, Hybrid Bermuda, is much better behaved.
Golf courses which use warm-season turf grasses use Bermuda for tees and fairways.
For an interesting coarse-textured lawn, choose St. Augustine. St. Augustine grass is a really nice, attractive, coarse-textured lawn grass. It is not reliably hardy past Zone 8, though. Use sod to establish it in warmer areas. I prefer it to centipede. It has a more refined look and it is really pretty on the right site.
If your client wants green year-round, your only option is to use a turf grass ill-suited for the south—Tall Fescue, a cool-season grass. It is an expensive choice, because you will need to reseed the lawn every fall as it declines in the hottest months of the year. Even though it is in a state of decline most months of the year, it does stay green. When you are tempted to seed with cheap Tall Fescue seed, remember Tall Fescue is not a warm-season grass.
When money is no object, some clients like to overseed dormant warm-season grasses in winter with Ryegrass, another cool-season grass, hoping it will die out when the weather heats up the next spring. Warm-season grasses go a dormant, straw color in winter. It is attractive enough, but green winter weeds stand out in contrast, highlighting flaws in your perfectly homogenous carpet of turf. Practical-minded turf people look at this as an advantage and are able to quickly spot treat or remove offending weeds. They also understand that overseeding weakens the underlying warm-season turf. It seems a little silly to attempt to emulate English lawns in winter when you live in the Deep South, but overseeding is still practiced in many warm-season yards.
Choosing the right warm-season grass is easy, if you know what you need for your specific, unique site. It takes some time to be able to identify different turf grasses. You can visit the University of Georgia research and education gardens at Griffin, GA to see them all side-by-side.