Lawn Care

Tips on Growing Warm Season Grasses

Warm season grass

Do you grow cool season grasses like fescue in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area of North Carolina? Have you tried growing a warm season grass?

Warm season grasses are well suited to our climate because they are more drought-tolerant—using less water than fescue—and they have an optimum growth temperature of 80 to 95 degrees. They love our hot summers!

Fescue is a decent alternative for partially shaded areas, but it is a cool season grass with an optimum growth temperature of 60 to 75 degrees. Most years it needs to be over-seeded to restore any areas that didn’t make it through summer’s heat and drought.

Fescue lovers say they like the fact that it is evergreen. The reality is that fescue suffers and turns off-color in the summer unless you water it, which then encourages fungal diseases. Warm season grasses may be brown in winter, but fescue is brown in the summer when not pampered. I prefer green grass in the summer when I am outdoors more often, and that is one of the biggest challenges with fescue.

Warm season grasses generally require less mowing, fewer chemical applications (especially centipede grass), and no re-seeding. Zoysias have dense root systems that deter weeds, requiring fewer applications of herbicides. Warm season grasses have the ability to self-repair because they spread by sending out runners. Fescue is a clumping grass and cannot repair itself.

So how do you know which warm season grass is best for you? First, assess your site and grow grass where it makes sense. No turf grass grows in full shade.

Measure your direct sun exposure. Are you getting five-plus hours? Eight-plus hours? Warm season grasses love full sun, but some varieties of zoysia show decent shade tolerance as well. Centipede needs at least eight hours of direct sun but will surprise you with its shade tolerance under highly limbed pines allowing filtered sunlight throughout the day.

Do you have hot, dry sloped areas? Warm season grasses accept that challenge. High-traffic areas? Bermuda is the grass for you. There is even a new Bermuda variety available that needs almost no supplemental water once established. Do you like a plush, luxurious feeling lawn? Zoysia has the best look and feel.

And I always recommend doing a soil test. Our soils are notoriously poor, so amend your soil with compost and follow the recommendations from your soil test. The North Carolina Agronomic Division tests soils free of charge most months except from December through March when they charge a small fee.

Once you have installed a warm season lawn, you will need to change your care regimen. Most warm season grasses are fertilized three times in the growing months—May, July and August. Centipede needs only one application of a low nitrogen fertilizer in May, and that’s it. One of the chemical applications can be replaced with organic compost for a more environmental approach.

Apply a pre-emergent herbicide in February and August, and a post-emergent as needed throughout the growing season. Monitor your lawn for evidence of grubs, armyworms, and disease, as you would for fescue, and apply treatment as needed.

Mowing frequency varies. Bermudas should be mowed every four to seven days, zoysias every seven to ten days, and centipede every 10-14 days. That is why they call centipede “the lazy man’s lawn”.

Questions? Ask your local sod growers, the North Carolina Sod Producers Association at www.ncsod.org, or check out NCSU’s TurfFiles at www.turffiles.ncsu.edu.

Photo courtesy of Super-Sod.

Shannon Hathaway has been a horticulturist in NC for over 20 years. She is a sales consultant and lecturer at Super-Sod, and blogs at www.personaledens.com, or you can reach her at [email protected]