Picking the Right Grass

For the good-looking, easy-to-maintain lawn, plant grass varieties that are well-suited to your climate and the lawn's intended use.

Almost all lawn grasses are classified as either "cool season" (meaning they do better in the North) or "warm season" (better adapted to southern gardens). Our grass information will help you select varieties that will grow well in your climate and under the conditions present in your yard.

A beautiful lawn usually contains a combination of distinct grass types, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. As you evaluate a grass mixture, look at the proportions of the varieties described below to evaluate which mixture will meet your needs and conditions best. Before you make your final decision, check with your local Cooperative Extension Service or local nurseries to find out about varieties adapted to your area.

Find the tools you need for a beautiful lawn.

Know Your Zone

Northern Zone In the Northern United States and in Canada, where summers are moderate and winters often are cold, cool-season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and tall fescue are the primary choices.

Southern Zone The Southern Zone, with hot summers and moderate winters, provides a climate where warm-season grasses thrive. St. Augustinegrass, Bermudagrass, centipedegrass, and zoysiagrass are the most common varieties.

Transition Zone This region has hot summers as well as cold winters, making it the most challenging region for lawns: Cool-season grasses struggle in the summer heat, while warm-season types can remain brown as much as half of the year and may be prone to winter damage. Tall fescue is a popular choice in the Transition Zone because it exhibits good tolerance of both cold and heat, and it stays green most of the year. Bermudagrass, zoysiagrass, and Kentucky bluegrass also are grown in the Transition Zone.

Consider the Site

Next, think about conditions in your yard. If there are no special challenges, then you should get good results from any of the primary grasses for your region. For difficult sites—those that have deep shade, a lack of water, or salty soils—other species will adapt better to the specific conditions.

Low-Input Areas For an out-of-the-way area that's hard to supply with water or fertilizer, buffalograss—hardy throughout much of North America—is an excellent choice. Fine-leaf fescues also are good for low-input sites. Centipedegrass is a good choice for low-maintenance sites in the Southeast.

Shaded Sites Fine-leaf fescues are the most tolerant of shady sites. In the South, most varieties of St. Augustine are fairly shade-tolerant (with the exception of the Floratam variety).

High-Traffic Sites In the North, blends of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass work well for high-traffic areas. In the South, Bermudagrass is preferred for its ability to recover rapidly from wear.

Seed companies often package mixes containing several species or varieties selected for a particular type of site—sunny, shady, dry, or high-traffic, for example. They do the homework of devising the best mixes in the right ratios, and the resulting lawn will perform better than if you'd planted a single species.

Salty-Sites or Sites Using Effluent Water Seashore paspalum is extremely salt-tolerant, making it excellent for sandy coastal sites affected by salt sprays, or where effluent water with high salt levels is used for irritation.

Use the Right Variety

Each grass species is available in several (sometimes a great many) varieties, offering variations in texture, color, and growth rate. Visually, the differences may be subtle, but newer varieties often have unseen advantages. For example, they might better tolerate diseases, pests, or harsh weather. No-name or generic seed, though cheaper, is usually not worth the savings because you might end up with an older variety prone to problems.

To get the best performance from species, such as tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, and Kentucky bluegrass, use a mix of varieties. Though you can create your own mix, it's more convenient to use prepackaged mixes, which are formulated for specific regions. Generally, you won't go too far wrong if you stick to recognized brands and buy seed from reputable garden centers, which tend to stock current varieties.

Calculate how much grass you need.

Cool-Season Grasses

Cool-season grasses are generally adapted to northern climates, where they grow vigorously in spring and fall and may turn brown in very hot summers. They are often sold as a blend of several varieties of the same species, such as several varieties of Kentucky bluegrass, or as a mixture of two or more different species such as Kentucky bluegrass and fine fescue. Growing blends or mixtures is a good idea—if one doesn't grow well or is destroyed by disease, chances are that the others will take over and flourish.

The most common cool-season grasses include fine fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and tall fescue. The new varieties of Kentucky bluegrass, unlike the old standards, are quite disease-resistant, keep their fine-textured looks without a lot of feeding, and have some drought tolerance. Fine fescue includes several grasses—chewings fescue, hard fescue, and creeping red fescue—that are often mixed with Kentucky bluegrass as they thrive in shade and drought. Perennial ryegrass is a main component of cool-season grass mixes. It germinates quickly and wears well.

Learn the best practices for starting a lawn from seed.

Kentucky Bluegrass

  • Texture: Medium
  • Germination time: Slow
  • Shade tolerance: Fair
  • Drought resistance: Fair
  • Traffic resistance: Good
  • Optimum height: 2 to 3-1/2 inches
  • Pros: Fills in bare spots on its own, tolerates harsh winters
  • Cons: Intolerant of shade, prone to thatch, languishes in heat, favorite food of grubs

Fine-leaf Fescue

  • Texture: Fine
  • Germination time: Medium-slow
  • Shade tolerance: Good
  • Drought resistance: Excellent
  • Traffic resistance: Fair
  • Optimum height: 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches
  • Pros: Needs little maintenance, tolerates drought and shade
  • Cons: Loses color in drought; may spread undesirably

Tall Fescue

  • Texture: Medium coarse
  • Germination time: Medium-slow
  • Shade tolerance: Good
  • Drought resistance: Good
  • Traffic resistance: Excellent
  • Optimum height: 2 to 3-1/2 inches
  • Pros: Not prone to thatch, tolerant of drought and heat, good pest tolerance
  • Cons: Doesn't spread into bare areas, may appear clumpy

Perennial Ryegrass

  • Texture: Fine-coarse
  • Germination time: Fast
  • Shade tolerance: Fair
  • Drought resistance: Good
  • Traffic resistance: Excellent
  • Optimum height: 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches
  • Pros: Tolerates traffice well, germinates and establishes quickly
  • Cons: Doesn't fill in bare spots on its own, poor tolerance of temperature extremes

Warm-Season Grasses

Warm-season grasses love heat and are well-suited to the hot summers of the South and Southwest. In areas with little summer rain, they will go dormant without supplemental water. With a few exceptions, warm-season grasses are not very cold-tolerant, and most undergo winter dormancy. Many varieties are unavailable as seed and must be planted as sprigs or sod. 

Zoysia is the most winter hardy of the southern grasses and is sometimes grown up to Zone 7. It stays brown all winter in cold-winter areas, however, and is slow to green up in spring. It's a dense grass that's somewhat tolerant of shade and grows best in the upper South. Bermuda grass is suited to Florida and the Gulf Coast and thrives when it gets abundant water. St. Augustine grass is a coarse grass, adapted to the humid coastal areas of the South. It is not tolerant of freezing weather or much shade but stands up to sun and high traffic. Bermuda grass is common to the mild-winter West Coast and southern regions.

Bermudagrass

  • Texture: Fine-coarse
  • Germination time: Slow—use plugs or sod
  • Shade tolerance: Poor
  • Drought resistance: Excellent
  • Traffic resistance: Excellent
  • Optimum height: 1 to 2 inches
  • Pros: Vigorous spreader, quickly recovers from wear, hybrid types are fine textured and less coarse
  • Cons: Intolerant of shade, prone to thatch, invades beds, may be too agressive

St. Augustinegrass

  • Texture: Coarse
  • Germination time: Slow—use plugs or sod
  • Shade tolerance: Fair
  • Drought resistance: Poor
  • Traffic resistance: Fair
  • Optimum height: 2 to 3 inches
  • Pros: Requires moderate maintenance, reasonably tolerant of shade
  • Cons: Susceptible to chinch bugs, does not survive dry summers without supplemental watering, poor cold tolerance, susceptible to disease

Zoysiagrass

  • Texture: Medium
  • Germination time: Slow—use plugs or sprigs
  • Shade tolerance: Fair
  • Drought resistance: Good
  • Traffic resistance: Good
  • Optimum height: 1 to 2 inches
  • Pros: Effective at choking out weeds, somewhat tolerant of shade, drought tolerant
  • Cons: Long domancy, requires annual dethatching or scalping, slow to establish and recover from wear, not well-suited to winter overseeding, turns brown in winter

Buffalograss

  • Texture: Fine
  • Germination time: Medium—use plugs
  • Shade tolerance: Poor
  • Drought resistance: Excellent
  • Traffic resistance: Poor
  • Optimum height: 2 inches
  • Pros: Tolerates climatic extremes, requires little fertilizer, pest control, or mowing, tolerates alkaline soil, native to areas of North America
  • Cons: Does not tolerate traffic well, slow to re-establish, goes dormant in winter and mid-summer (if not irrigated)

Centipedegrass

  • Texture: Medium-coarse
  • Germination time: Medium—use plugs or sod
  • Shade tolerance: Good
  • Drought resistance: Good
  • Traffic resistance: Poor
  • Optimum height: 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches
  • Pros: Needs little maintenance, invites few pests of disease problems, grows slowly for reduced mowing
  • Cons: Recovers slowly from wear, is easily injured by freezing weather

Sod, Seed, and Sprigs

New lawns can be established by sod or seed (or sprigs or plugs, if seed is not an option). Sod is the quickest way to establish your lawn, but it's also more expensive than the alternatives. Further, you are limited to the varieties that local sod growers have chosen to plant. One situation may demand sod: steep slopes. Slopes are prone to erosion, and heavy rains can wash away seed; sod will stay put.

Seed saves you money up front, and you may find a wider selection of varieties in garden centers. However, lawn planted from seed may take a year to develop a thick stand, and you may find yourself reseeding areas that didn't establish well. Also, weeds may be problematic until the young grass thickens.

Many warm-season varieties aren't available from seed, so they are sold as sprigs (stolons) or plugs. These are planted in the soil and gradually spread until they've filled in to form a solid lawn. Sprigs are sold by the bushel from garden centers; plugs are sold by the tray.

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