Wow, I learned through experience. Lawns can be complicated.
I originally chose a tall fescue grass lawn. It was a good choice for a shady and sunny lot, available in sod or seed, and a prevalent choice in my neighborhood.
However, I noticed while spending time and money watering, re-seeding, fertilizing, and spraying, a neighbor had nice green grass all summer long and he mowed periodically and only occasionally fertilized. The downside: I noticed his grass went dormant during the cool months and turned brownish.
Happy to make this trade-off, I chose St. Augustinegrass to replace my tall fescue. Since then, I have had multiple neighbors install St. Augustinegrass or consider it.
Lawn Grass Options
Basically a grass is either a warm-season grass (green-growing in warm months, goes dormant in the cool months), or a cool-season grass (green year-round). There are many other attributes to consider, like shade tolerance, foot traffic tolerance, and maintenance. Seasonal appearance is usually a big factor.
St. Augustinegrass is a wide-bladed, coarse-textured, medium-green grass that is found primarily in the coastal climate. A Raleigh cultivar was discovered to be cold tolerant and suited to the Piedmont area of North Carolina. This cultivar is what I and my neighbors have in our lawns. St. Augustinegrass adapts best in fertile, well-drained soils. It survives our typical winters well and is rated well for drought tolerance. While there are several-warm season grass options, I chose it because it is the best suited for sunny and shady areas. A cautionary note: it is not particularly tolerant of foot traffic.
Low Maintenance Grass
This grass is a comparatively low maintenance option.
• Fertilize once or twice per year.
• Use pre-emergent or post-emergent weed products as needed – make sure they are labeled for St. Augustinegrass as it can be damaged by some commonly used products.
• Although fast-growing, it will not invade your beds aggressively and is easy to remove where you don’t want it.
• Light watering once established, unless in a severe drought situation.
• Reseeding is not required. If bare spots develop, they will fill in on their own, or it can be ‘sprigged’ or ‘plugged’ during the warm months; small pieces of the grass are placed in the soil to root and grow in over time.
It can be susceptible to large patch disease, so treat accordingly if you see this in mid-to-late summer.
Installing St. Augustine Grass
This grass must be installed by sod, ‘sprigging’, or ‘plugging’. The seed is not available. It is best installed from April to July, and then water in well for a period of time. Once established, you will need to occasionally water it in severe drought situations.
Preparing an area for a new lawn ideally includes doing away with the old lawn or vegetation, having a soil test to determine if amendments are needed, having those added by a professional or doing it yourself—rent a tiller—and grading if needed for drainage. Then the lawn is installed.
One other consideration is the current weather patterns. St. Augustinegrass grows above ground by stolons. There is concern that a heat burst in the winter or spring season, followed by a cold burst can stunt the growth for the season. Alternatively, if our climate is overall tending warmer, it seems even more suited here.
St. Augustinegrass is not well-known with many lawn contractors, nor found in many nurseries, but persevere, there are nurseries that are willing to have it delivered. One source for locating the grass is the NC Sod Producers Association website. Do this investigation first so you can plan ordering and preparation so that installation occurs at a warmer time of year. And compare prices; renovating a lawn with sod can be expensive.
Your local North Caroline Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners office is an excellent source of information. They can guide you on soil tests, types of grasses, and reference materials available. A great reference is Carolina Lawns: a Guide to Maintaining Quality Turf in the Landscape put out by the NC State extension office.
Cathy Burton grew up in a family with deep roots in the landscaping business. She has been a Wake County Extension Master Gardener for 10 years and loves to work in her quarter-acre urban garden in Raleigh.