Lawn: grass varieties

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They’re not all the same!

If you are renovating or reseeding your lawn, it’s important to pick the right kind of grass for your situation. Each of the four most popular cool-season lawn grasses has its strengths and its weaknesses. Consider the following before you choose which grass will work best for different areas of your lawn. (See chart below for summary):

Shade tolerance.

Grasses are sun-loving plants. They need an absolute minimum of 4 hours of direct sun a day. Areas that get much traffic require at least 6 hours. If your light is marginal, fescues tolerate shade better than bluegrass or ryegrass.

Drought tolerance.

If you don’t plan to water during summer droughts, or your soil does’t retain much water, fescues again are your best choice.

Wear tolerance.

Fine fescue doesn’t stand up well to traffic. Chose one of the other species for lawn areas that take a lot of wear and tear.

Establishment.

Perennial ryegrass is quick to germinate and protect the soil — an important consideration on slopes that are vulnerable to erosion. Kentucky bluegrass is the slowest. The fescues fall between the two.

Growth habit.

Kentucky bluegrass spreads by underground stems called rhizomes. It forms a tough sod. When damaged, the rhizomes can creep back in to cover the bare spot. The other grasses are bunch grasses that don’t spread as well or form as dense a sod.

Leaf texture.

Fine fescue has very thin, fine leaves. Tall fescue’s leaves are coarse. Ryegrass and bluegrass fall in between. In addition, you also need to consider how much time and money you plan to invest in your lawn, and how good you want it to look. The fescues are good choices for low-maintenance lawns that you won’t have to fertilize often, and that you won’t mow closer than 3 inches to the ground. At the other end of the spectrum, Kentucky bluegrass makes a fine-looking lawn, but require more careful management to stay healthy. Plan to fertilize it three or four times a year, and keep in mind that it is more susceptible to drought and pests. When you purchase grass seed, it is often a mix of several species. Read the label to find out what’s in the bag before buying. Never purchase a mix that is more than 20 percent perennial ryegrass. Because it germinates quickly, it will overwhelm the other species in the mix if there is too much in the mix. (Also avoid annual ryegrass. I will germinate and grow quickly, but usually dies over winter.) Some typical mixes matched for different situations:

Sunny, medium- to high-maintenance lawn:

  • 65% Kentucky bluegrass blend (several different varieties)
  • 15% perennial ryegrasses
  • 20% fine fescues

Seed at 3 to 4 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Sunny, low-maintenance lawn:

  • 65% fine fescue blend
  • 15% perennial ryegrasses
  • 20% Kentucky bluegrass blend

Seed at 4 to 5 pounds per 1,000 square feet. or

  • 100% tall fescue blend

Seed at 7 to 10 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Shady areas:

  • 100% fine fescue blend

Seed at 4 to 5 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

 

Summary of cool-season lawn grasses
Kentucky Bluegrass Perennial Ryegrass Tall Fescue Fine Fescue
Shade tolerance Poor Poor Good Excellent
Drought tolerance Poor Poor Some Some
Wear tolerance Good Good Good Poor
Establishment (days) Slow 30 to 90 Fast 14 to 21 Ave./Fast 21 to 30 Average 21 to 50
Growth habit Rhizomatous Bunch Bunch Bunch
Leaf texture Medium-Fine Medium Coarse Very Fine
Seeding rate (lb./1000 ft.2) 1 to 2 5 to 9
3 to 5
Nitrogen fertilizer (lb. N/1,000 ft.2/year) 3 to 4 2 to 6 2 to 4 1 to 2