Although there are a multitude of grass brands, there are basically 2 types of grass: Cool and Warm Season Grasses with each type better suited to particular climates in North America.
There is a “transition zone” between northern and southern turf regions, which follows the lower elevations of Virginia and North Carolina west through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas and includes southern Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas. In this transition zone, neither warm nor cool season grasses are uniformly successful. However, several of the northern or “cool season” grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass and tall fescue, do well across Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Missouri. Tall fescue is the best choice in Tennessee, North Carolina, northern Georgia, northern Alabama and the Texas panhandle. In the lower elevations of these latter states warm season grasses do well too.
Cool Weather Grasses
On average these climates have cold winters and warm/hot summers. Usually also have regular intervals of rain throughout the summer months, but grasses will tolerate some extended periods of draught by going dormant. Cool-season grasses prefer cool areas and shade. They may turn brown during hot weather, but hold their green color during cool days much more than warm season grasses which lose their chlorophyll when temperatures drop below 50°F. Cool weather grasses require intensive watering to maintain their appearance during hot weather. As a general rule, warm season grasses are considered more drought-resistant than cool season grasses, but both may be able to withstand periods of drought or high heat once they have established deep roots.
Here is a partial list of cool season grasses.
||Most common cool season grass. High quality lawn, available in blends. Spreads moderately and will fill in bare spots. Goes dormant in hot, dry weather as well as winter. Does poorly in extremely shady areas. Not recommended for extremely hot climates. Water Use: High
||Shade tolerant, but does require some sun. Very fine leaves. Very good in draught situations. Water Use: Low to moderate
||Common perennial ryegrass usually only lasts one season. Germinates quickly and can be used as a temporary ground cover while the slower growing bluegrass plants take hold. Water Use: Moderate to high.
||Often found in low priced grass seed. It does not over-winter in cold climates. Water Use: High
||Works well in shady areas. Does not blend well with other lawn grasses. Water Use: Moderate to high.
||Not good in cool season regions. Do yourself and your neighbors a favor and do not plant this grass in the north. Very invasive root system. Turns brown as soon as temperatures cool and does not turn green again until late spring. Water Use: Moderate to high
||Readily available in most stores, but is not the most desirable grass for home use. Once established there is no selective way to remove the plant. It has a coarse blade and is often used along roadways and playground areas. Water Use: Moderate to high.
||Originally meant for golf course greens. Will tolerate very low mowing, however, when grown to normal height found on most homes, it becomes shaggy. Does not tolerate hot, dry weather, nor cold winters. Not designed for normal home use, unless your home is on a golf course green and you plan on mowing your lawn every other day at 1". Water Use: High
Warm Weather Grasses
Warm season grasses do best during the warm summer months. In some ways, growing and maintaining a good-looking lawn in the South is more involved than in the North. Choosing grass varieties is trickier; many grass varieties do much better when started as plugs or sod than from seed. Good soil is critically important for growing a low maintenance lawn in this region. Some southern gardeners seed their existing lawns with ryegrass each fall to maintain green color during the winter months. This is called “winter over-seeding.”
Warm-season grasses stay green only during the growing season and they start to turn tan as temperatures drop below 50°F and brown out as temperatures reach freezing. Warm season grasses grow best in sunny areas and generally require less water than cool season grasses.
Here is a partial list of warm season grasses.
||Prefers full sun, draught resistant, can withstand heavy traffic. Water use: Low to moderate
||Well suited to the arid Southwest. Water use: Low
||Very low maintenance, very tolerant to high temperatures, moderately resistant to drought, will tolerate some shade, but prefers full sun. Not good for heavy traffic. Water use: Low to moderate
||Good for coastal regions, thrives in heat, does poorly in cool climates. Excellent to fair under drought conditions. Moderately good to heavy traffic. Very shade tolerant Water use: Moderate.
||Low maintenance, works well in hot, humid climates. Exceptionally heat tolerant. Moderate to good in drought conditions. Good, slow growth in partial shade. Very shade tolerant and is superior grass for heavy traffic areas. Water Use: Moderate to high
Anyone can plant a bluegrass or fescue lawn and these grasses make a lot of sense in wet humid climates. If you live in a dry arid region why not try something a little different? Native grasses can be a great alternative to traditional lawns and will use much less water. Native prairie grasses may be good options as ornamentals or non-functioning lawn areas. Some common grasses that ar native to North America include blue gramma, switchgrass, and buffalo grass. Here are some tips for locating native grass seeds in your area.
Hints for Locating Native Grasses
- When calling seed suppliers about native grass seeds, it helps to be very specific about the kinds of seeds you want. Many folks who answer the phone at a supplier's office will not know the true meaning of the word "native." They may assume that any grass they have in stock is native because they grew the stock locally. Do a little research before you call.
- On rare occasions, the clerk who answers the phone will actually try to talk you out of using natives and into using seeds of introduced grasses that they are more familiar with. Be gentle but firm with them!
- In general experts recommend using grass seed from stock which originated from no more than 300 miles of your location, preferably from within 100 miles. This is not always possible. Often the supplier will tell you where the general area in which it was harvested, so be prepared to dig a little deeper to find out where it came from before that. Ask your supplier if he knows where the seed stock originated. Call all the suppliers, even if they are headquartered far from you, they may have seed combined from fields all over your region.
- Call more as many suppliers as possible. Prices vary and so does the variety of seeds. Sometimes a supplier will tell you there is no more seed of a particular kind of grass available in the state, but another supplier may have it. Occasionally one of the suppliers will have a rare harvest of a different prairie grass. So ask around.
www.american-lawns.com Additional graphic possible. Permission granted.
Vickers, Amy. Handbook of Water Use and Conservation. 2001. Water Plow Press. Amherst, MA.