The Best and the Worst
Cool-season grasses cover lawns where temperatures stay below ninety degrees almost all the time. Cool-season grasses go dormant or die during drought or high temperatures, so southerners are out of luck with the cool species. That doesn’t stop them from trying, though. You can seed cool-season grasses, so they are inexpensive to establish. They germinate when temperatures are in the fifties, so most landscapers seed them in the fall. The lush, green blades last through the entire winter, just like the yards we used to draw in kindergarten pictures. As long as temperatures are moderately cool these grasses stay green all year.
Being able to seed a beautiful turf is a great cost advantage, because seed is much less expensive than sod or sprigs. Suppliers attempt to reduce costs even more by mixing cheaper species seed in with the finest, most elegant turf grass of them all—Kentucky bluegrass.
There is no need for hard choices. Kentucky bluegrass is the best lawn grass possible, hands down. Why would you plant anything else? It makes a beautiful, run-barefoot-to-your-true-love-gorgeous lawn. It is refined and soft and a deep green. Its only weakness is a lack of shade-tolerance. The only other turf seed species that can compete, because it is slightly cheaper, is Tall Fescue, but the quality of a Fescue lawn cannot compare to Bluegrass.
Go for pure Kentucky bluegrass seed, without the added shade fillers. Seed suppliers will market their special seed mixes of Bluegrass and less-expensive, shade-tolerant Ryegrass aggressively, so don’t be tempted. Instead of trying to grow grass in the shade, turn those areas into mulched plant beds. Pick the best Bluegrass seed.
For those of you in the south who would like to take on the challenge of growing Kentucky Bluegrass, forget about it. It can’t be done. Really. Don’t bother.
Tall Fescue is another cool season grass that many people choose. Suppliers love to market this grass. There have been attempts at creating more refined version of tall fescue’s coarse-textured clumps to increase sales. Tall Fescue is a forage grass. It requires a good bit of management to prevent it from reverting back to a clumpy, mangy pasture look. One way to keep a more uniform look is to reseed every year to fill in the bare spots. This can get very expensive over time. Its genetic makeup goes against the idea of carpeted, flat coverage. It can become a persistent, ugly bunchgrass weed if not actively managed. It is really hard to remove without chemicals once established. Tall Fescue will always look like a second-class substitute for Kentucky bluegrass.
Southerners are lured into establishing Tall Fescue lawns by the promise of year-round green. A newly established plot in fall will lose about seventy percent coverage by late spring in the Deep South. The only way to support Fescue survival is to overwater it, which results in diseased growth. At yet, people will reseed again every fall. What is it about green blades in winter that is so alluring? The attraction is undeniable.
The hope of year-round green has created an industry in the south, providing temporary results for people fixated on the idea of having a beautiful English countryside twelve months of the year. Well-heeled southerners and some golf course superintendents over-seed Perennial Rye Grass at three to four pounds per thousand square feet every fall on top of their dormant, brown, warm-season grass sod to maintain the pretense. In the heat of summer, though, the Perennial Rye burns out and dies. By then, the warm-season species has finally “greened up”. It stresses the lawn to over-seed each fall,and a stressed lawn requires tender-loving care to recover. It requires a lot of effort and chemicals to provide a temporary winter green.
Use Ryegrass with caution. Some of the cool season varieties are adapting to southern climates and becoming invasive. The more you learn about them, the less appealing they become.
Bentgrass is a cool season grass used for putting surfaces on golf courses. It creeps by stolens to form a dense sod that recovers quickly from damage. It can be mowed very low. It takes a lot of skill to grow well, and a lot of maintenance to keep healthy. Unless you are a golf course superintendent, there is no need to know much about Bentgrass. If you are a golf course superintendent, you will spend a lot of time studying it, becoming a black belt in Bentgrass. It is fascinating to the people in the golf turf industry—not so for the rest of us.
They nicknamed a state after a turf grass—and the state if famous for Bourbon. They chose the grass instead of the whiskey! That alone should tell you something. There are over one hundred cultivars of Kentucky bluegrass, and they are all pretty. Choosing a cool-season turf grass is easy—make it Bluegrass.