What grass to plant here?

chrislovedMay 19, 2009

Hello everyone,

We are recreating our lawn after the sprinkler system gave up and in turn, is killing the lawn anyway. We are thinking about killing it all and reseeding it. We want it to be water-friendly, and since it will be in the front yard it doesn't have to feel as nice as Kentucky blue grass (but we want it to look nice and green if that's possible). What should we use? Also, how long does it take for grass seed to grow here, and when should we plant it? Thank you in advance for your help!

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Kentucky bluegrass is the most common grass here, but it uses a lot more water than some of the alternatives. Tall fescue and fine fescue can use less, but not a lot less. Also, most of those are bunch grasses so you need to periodically overseed or the lawn will get a clumpy look to it.

This is not a good time to be planting grass seed unless you're planning to go with a warm season grass like blue grama and/or buffalo grass. You'll have much better results if you plant the grass in late summer as soon as the heat breaks. I've had the best results with dormant seeding. Dormant seeding involves putting the seed down after it is too cold for the seed to germinate. The seed germinates in the spring as soon as it is warm enough. It is also able to use the natural moisture to germinate, so you don't need to water multiple times a day to get it to grow.

If you go with any of these next options, you'll want to kill the existing lawn first (I didn't and I regret it).

Blue grama and buffalo grass are probably the lowest water use grasses, but they will only be green from about mid May through early October (blue grama will probably be green a little longer). Blue grama is a bunch grass and buffalo grass spreads via above ground runners called stolons. You might be better off to use plugs (at least for the buffalo grass). There are varieties of buffalo grass that grow from plugs that don't produce any seeds. The seeded varieties can cause allergy problems and the seeds can make the grass uncomfortable for barefoot walking. Some people plant buffalo grass and blue grama together. If you go with seeds, buffalo grass seeds are huge (about the size of small peas) and blue grama seeds are like dust they're so small.

There are a number of choices for low water use cool season grass and some of them use almost as little water as buffalo and/or grama. Cool season grasses will stay green all year if you water them in the summer.

Crested wheatgrass is getting a lot of interest as a turfgrass. It's an import from Siberia. It has small seeds and is very easy to establish. Most crested wheatgrass varieties are bunch grasses, but some (roadcreast and ephraim are two I know of) are weakly rhizomatous (rhizomes are special roots that spread out and sprout nwe plants). It will live with no irrigation, but will need to be watered every other week to stay green. If it's not watered, it will go dormant, but spring out of dormancy as soon as it gets a little water. I would describe the color as yellow green. It has very fine blades (finer than KBG).

Streambank wheatgrass is native to this area. It will also stay alive with no irrigation but will need to be watered once or twice a month during the summer to stay green. If you have sandy soil, thickspike wheatgrass would be a better choice than streambank wheatgrass (there's some debate whether they're different species or different subspecies of the same species). It has large seeds (compared with crested wheatgrass, but smaller than buffalo grass) and is a bit more difficult to establish than crested wheatgrass (but easier than western wheatgrass). Streambank wheatgrass has very fine blades and is somewhat pale green or gray green in color. It will go stay green in drought longer than crested wheatgrass and will spring back about as fast.

Western wheatgrass is somewhat blue-green in color (almost more blue than green). The leaves are a bit coarser and it can be difficult to establish. Once established, it will stay green the longest of any of the cool season grasses without going dormant. Once it does go dormant, it takes more to bring it out of dormancy because most of its rootmass is deeper in the soil (so light rains won't snap dormancy). As with the others, it will probably live with no irrigation but require water once or twice a month to stay green in the summer. The seeds are about the same size as streambank wheatgrass. It's aggressively rhizomatous so it fills in bare spots well.

Sheep fescue is a bunch grass that is very low water use. Some varieties of sheep fescue are native to the intermountain west, but the one that is most often sold for lawns (Covar) is based on sheep fescue from Turkey. It may stay green with no additional water, but will probably need to be watered at least once a month in the summer to be sure it stays green. It's fairly low growing and some people leave it unmowed for a natural look. If you mow it, it will spread somewhat by way of tillers (tillers grow new plants right next to the existing plant so it's not going to fill large bare spots). Since it's a bunch grass, it will probably need to be overseeded periodically. It's fine bladed and is dark green. I think it's somewhat prone to tearing and also to thatch buildup. It has fairly small seeds and is pretty easy to establish.

The time required for seeds to germinate varies based on the seeds. The sheep fescue and crested wheatgrass will germinate the fastest (probably 1-2 weeks) and the others will probably take 3-4 weeks. I'm not sure about the buffalo grass and blue grama.

All of these grasses will do best when mowed high and some (buffalo grass, blue grama and sheep fescue) are sometimes left unmowed (although I would mow them periodically). They also use much less fertilizer (1/2 to 1 lb of actual N per 1000 sq ft per year instead of 1 lb per 1000 sq ft 3-4 times a year with KBG). If you overfertilize, you will probably have problems and may kill some of the grasses. Buffalo grass and western wheatgrass can tolerate more fertilizer but don't seem to suffer if they only get a little.

If you overwater these, they will suffer and may even die, although they can tolerate some periods of water (like winter/early spring).

    Bookmark   May 19, 2009 at 5:19PM
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I forgot to mention that I'm using streambank and western wheatgrass in the front and sheep fescue (with a little creeping red fescue, although I'm not sure any really got started) in the back.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2009 at 11:13PM
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aquawise(zone 4 Utah)

Do not plant KBG it is not a grass for this climate it is a water hog. Stay with a mix of fescue's or rye grass's. Buffalo grass is just glorified salt grass but it is a low water user, it is the first grass to die back in fall and the last to green up in spring.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2009 at 10:06AM
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"Do not plant KBG it is not a grass for this climate it is a water hog. Stay with a mix of fescue's or rye grass's. Buffalo grass is just glorified salt grass but it is a low water user, it is the first grass to die back in fall and the last to green up in spring."

I'm not a fan of KBG, but it's not as much of a water hog as its reputation says it is. KBG needs about an inch of water a week.

Tall fescue needs about 3/4 inch per week if it is able to develop the deep roots it needs. If not, it can actually require more water than KBG. At 3/4 inch per week, it doesn't have a big advantage over KBG.

I would think that rye would be a poor choice for Utah because of our summers. Rye has a tendency to die off in hot weather (tall fescue and KBG go dormant). Since rye a bunch grass, it would require frequent reseeding.

Most tall fescues are also bunch grasses, although newer varieties are weakly rhizomatous. If fescue does go dormant, it's less likely to recover from dormancy than KBG, so a fescue lawn may need to be overseeded periodically.

I think fine fescues are a pretty good choice, but they don't deal with heat all that well. They do really well with drought, but less well with heat.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say that buffalo grass is salt grass. Buffalo grass is a warm season short prairie grass that is only distantly related to salt grass. It doesn't die in the fall. It just goes dormant. It's dormant too long for my tastes, so I'm not saying it's a good choice, I just want to clarify.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2009 at 1:17AM
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aquawise(zone 4 Utah)

It is the native grass that grew here in our alkaline soil for eons. breeders have refined it to a finer texture and more turf like habit. When I say dies back in the fall that is to say its dormant stage. It was developed from our native salt grass, direct descendant of, so to speak. I have both growing here on my property and the likeness is obvious, Research shows that it was developed from native salt grasses.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2009 at 9:45AM
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Do you have a link to an article that shows that?

Everything that I've ever read about buffalo grass says it's Bouteloua dactyloides, and salt grass is Distichlis spicata, so they're not even in the same genus.

USDA plant profile for buffalo grass
USDA plant profile for salt grass

    Bookmark   June 19, 2009 at 11:45AM
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aquawise(zone 4 Utah)

Well plant some of both then tell us if you can see the difference! I have both and no one in 15 years can see any difference between them.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2009 at 9:58AM
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I'm not sure how to respond. You said that research shows that buffalo grass was developed from native salt grass and that it is a direct descendant of salt grass. I asked you for links to the research, you told me that you planted it and it looks the same and I should plant them to see if I can tell them apart.

That's not research showing that buffalo grass was developed from salt grass. That's anecdotal evidence that you think they look the same.

Buffalo grass was growing in much of North America long before Europeans settled here, so I don't understand the statements that it was developed from native salt grass.

You said that research showed that buffalo grass was developed from native salt grass and that it is a direct descendant. I posted links showing that they're not even the same genus. If you have some research that shows that buffalo grass is not a native grass, but was developed from salt grass, I'd be very interested in reading it.

Please post some links to the research to which you referred earlier so I can educate myself further.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2009 at 1:30AM
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aquawise(zone 4 Utah)

Graminum of which there are 10,000 types of grass, As I understand it they both belongs. Both grass are native here.
Not exactly from, more like a joining of the two, so to speak. I will try to find the article I read on the development of the cultivated (no longer wild grown) buffalo grass.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2009 at 11:33PM
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Thanks. I'd be interested in reading it. I've read of both of them and thing they both have a lot of potential as turf grass alternatives. It would be interesting if they could get them to cross somehow, but they just seem too distantly related to me. They're in the same family (Poaceae), but so is KBG. I know they've crossed KBG and Texas bluegrass, but those are at least the same genus.

When I searched for graminum, all I found was information on insects. Did you mean graminoid? I found that word: Grass or grass-like plant, including grasses (Poaceae), sedges (Cyperaceae), rushes (Juncaceae), arrow-grasses (Juncaginaceae), and quillworts (Isoetes).

I had read about salt grass a long time ago and forgot about it until your posts made me try to find a link between salt grass and buffalo grass. I had forgotten that it can actually be used to draw salt out of the ground and can also be irrigated with sea water.

I like a longer green season, so I've gone with cool season natives. They will stay alive with no irrigation, but I'll need to water a few times a summer to keep them green.

Just out of curiosity, when do these grasses turn green for you? I'm technically in zone 6, but list 5 because people read too much into zones. I suppose I may be guilty of the same thing in thinking zone 4 will be warm later than it is here. It just seems that a warm season grass would have a short season in zone 4. Maybe I'm assuming a shorter green season than I'd have, but my cool season grasses stay green all year.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2009 at 12:43AM
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aquawise(zone 4 Utah)

Thet are both "The last to green up and the first to turn brown here in zone 4" having said that! They start to green up around the first of june and die back in september or sooner. I like fescues and rye grasses for turf here. I have buffalo grass growing in a small patch and salt grass has moved in to join it and you have to feel it to tell which one is salt grass, as it is not as soft to the hand but to just look at them it is very hard to see any difference. Still looking for the book the I read about hybridization of grasses.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2009 at 11:07PM
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Thanks for the info.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2009 at 12:22AM
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Hi Chrisloved,
I'm not sure you're still around, but I echo bpgreen. However, I would add the following:
1. If you are planning a couple of landscape beds in the front, you might want to avoid KBG because it very aggressively will get in your beds - if not by runners, by seed. The other downside to KBG is it offers virtually no pest resistance. The water usage is really not bad - you can get away with one or two waterings per week except in temps > 92. If you decide to use KBG, the improved dwarf varieties are noticeably better than the cheap stuff at most stores, and usually needs a little less water. I'm planning to use this on my back lawn (probably var. Midnight) so that it will be self-repairing as this will be the high traffic area in my landscape.
2. Perennial rye is much better behaved, so I'm planning to use it my front yard where most of my beds are going to be. There are also now varieties available with endophyte enhancement - making them highly pest resistant. With this development, I now no longer promote the fescues except in deep shade areas. PR just makes a nicer lawn, and tolerates some shade well. Do get better varieties that aren't too snow mold susceptible.
3. Out front on my street there is a low area (no curb and gutter) that gets lots of natural water, and wants to wash away, so I'm planning to use tall fescue there, just to help the place look better and keep out the weeds while using less water.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2009 at 11:11AM
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