Looking for a more resilient and less needy lawn? Try zoysia or bermuda grasses.
Bermudagrass is valued for its tolerance of summer heat and drought. New varieties make it a viable turf choice in colder regions. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
By Adrian Higgins
As a turf-grass scientist at Virginia Tech, Mike Goatley has spent years looking at the various types of grass used for America’s archetypal landscape feature, the lawn. His preference comes down to just one: zoysiagrass. “It’s my favorite lawn,” he says.
It is easy to see why. Zoysia is a fine-bladed, low-growing, heat-tolerant grass that is more environmentally friendly than the more common turf-type tall fescue. It requires less water, fertilizer and pesticides, and it doesn’t need mowing as often. Its density all but shuts out weeds.
You can keep it at an impeccably smart one-inch high, a height that would quickly kill off the three-inch fescues. So why doesn’t everyone have a zoysia lawn?
One reason is that it is not reliably hardy north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Another is that zoysia goes into winter dormancy and turns straw brown for the better part of half the year.
This is particularly true in a band named the transition zone, which, on the East Coast, stretches roughly between North Carolina and Maryland, where fescues and other cool-season grasses suffer in the heat of summer and warm-season ones, such as zoysia, turn brown in winter and start to die if temperatures dip into the single digits. In much of this area, turf-type tall fescues have become the dominant choice over the past 40 years, but that is beginning to change.
As summers get hotter and winters trend milder, zoysia and a second warm-season grass, bermudagrass, have a greater appeal than before, especially with the development of hybrids that stand up to drought and are more cold hardy. In the Mid-Atlantic, bermudagrass is already commonly used for athletic fields and golf courses because of its manicured resilience. It, too, turns brown after the first freeze of fall.
Wait, you say: Isn’t bermudagrass a running, weedy, deep-rooted nightmare in lawn and growing beds alike? Yes, that is the common bermudagrass or wiregrass, and it is closely related to the desirable hybrids. The garden-ready versions have been developed to be finer, thicker and greener.
Jack Warpinski, a grower for Central Sod Farms in Centreville, Md., says that, although zoysia and bermudagrass account for just 10 percent of his crop, “10 years ago, I rarely even got a call asking about warm-season grasses.”
This type of grass is “definitely increasing in popularity, and I do foresee it continuing to grow over the next 10 years,” he adds.
Grady Miller, a professor of turf science at North Carolina State University, echoes that view. He pegs the shift to droughts more than a decade ago that fried cool-season lawns from Kentucky to Maryland.
Ambika Chandra, who heads a zoysiagrass breeding program at Texas A&M University, says that, “with new genetics and climate change and everything, I do anticipate more people looking to warm-season grasses in the transition zone and farther north.”
These turf experts know the lawn has a bad rap for its reliance on pesticides, fertilizers and especially water in a nation where many states are facing dire drought-related problems. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that landscape irrigation accounts for almost one-third of residential water use, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons a day.
With new turf hybrids, “we truly believe that grasses can be very effective and still be part of a good land steward ethic,” says Dennis Martin, a turf-grass expert at Oklahoma State University who is working on developing better bermudagrass varieties.
In his own two-acre suburban property near Raleigh, N.C., Miller grows some cool-season bluegrass and fescues in shadier locations, but in sunnier spots, he has both zoysia and bermudagrass. He mows them at two inches, but they can be kept shorter: three-quarters of an inch for bermudagrass, an inch for zoysia. But cutting them shorter means mowing more often, preferably with a reel mower.
Establishing and maintaining them also requires a different approach. Tall-fescue lawns can be laid as sod during most of the year, but they’re more typically (and economically) seeded in late summer and early fall. They require feeding to remain thick, with fertilizer applications in the fall and often in the spring, too. Crabgrass, dandelions and other weeds need constant checking. At this time of year, fescue lawns need watering every few days in the absence of sufficient rainfall to remain lush and green.
Seed varieties of zoysia and bermudagrass are available, but the best way to start either type is with sod or plugs. Bermudagrass can also be started in May with sprigs — fragments of runners that look raggedy at first but develop into a thick green lawn within 90 days. Zoysia takes longer to knit together, so a lawn of zoysia plugs (six to 12 inches apart) will take at least two growing seasons to fill in, and until then, the gaps must be kept weeded. Experts I talked to recommend splurging on zoysia sod to reduce the hassle.
Warm season grasses are more expensive. Prices at Central Sod, for example, are around 50 cents a square foot for tall fescue, 85 cents for Tahoma 31 bermudagrass and $1.25 for a zoysia variety named Zenith. For a modest 1,000-square-foot lawn, that would translate to around $500 for fescue, $850 for bermudagrass and $1,250 for zoysia. That doesn’t include delivery costs or, moreover, all the work required to prepare a lawn bed to receive sod.
Some sources recommend feeding bermudagrass as much nitrogen fertilizer as tall fescues (but in the summer rather than the spring or fall), but Martin says that, given the vigor of new varieties, “you can drop that nutrient load by one-half.”
Oklahoma State’s latest hybrid, the aforementioned Tahoma 31, is becoming a firm favorite in the transition zone. “A lot of golf courses in the area and some home lawns are putting this in,” says Warpinski, the sod farmer.
The grassy expanse between the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall was renovated recently with Tahoma 31, chosen for its cold hardiness and its ability to bounce back from public events in an era of climate change. “That’s why I’m a big proponent of bermudagrass in the Mid-Atlantic area,” says Elliott Dowling, an agronomist with the United States Golf Association who consulted on the project. “If you’re managing a golf course or the Capitol lawn, it’s undeniable that summers are hotter and longer than they used to be.” The association funded the development of Tahoma 31.
Neither bermudagrass nor zoysia thrives in shaded sites, though zoysia will take a little shade.
Apart from the winter browning, the price for a lush summer lawn is keeping these warm-season grasses in bounds. Bermudagrass in particular needs frequent edging to prevent encroachment, though zoysia, once established, will creep as well. Both have underground rhizomes and surface-level stolons, which makes them able to repair themselves from damage from drought, dogs, people and disease.
The spreading tendency can be a problem if your warm-season lawn abuts a neighbor’s cool-season lawn. “Without some sort of barrier, over time, that warm-season grass is going to invade your neighbor’s lawn,” Miller says. “As more and more people switch, we have seen problems.”
But if I had a discrete and sun-baked lawn area of modest size, where fescues struggle to look good, a warm-season grass would be tempting, especially with new hybrids bred for superior traits.
Since the 1950s, the predominant variety of transition-zone zoysia has been Meyer, but Chandra and other researchers have been busy developing new hybrids to give zoysiagrass more resilience while still looking good.
“In developing these new and improved genetics, we are looking for lower inputs of water, pesticides, fertilizer and still perform to expectations,” she says. A hybrid developed with colleagues at Kansas State University, Innovation, was released in 2017 and is now in full production. “We are excited about this particular one,” she says. It was selected for its long season of deep green appearance, density and cold hardiness.
The winter browning is the price of cold hardiness; the grass plants protect themselves against freeze damage by shutting down.
There are three ways of dealing with this offseason condition. One approach is to overseed in the fall with a ryegrass that will hold green color through the winter, then die off with spring mowing. Some experts, however, believe this will compromise the long-term vitality of the warm-season grass, particularly zoysia.
The second option is to paint your turf, which is not quite as bizarre as it sounds. This is done routinely for televised sporting events, even if viewers don’t realize it. Many new and improved colorants are now on the market, and although lawn-care companies offer this service, it can be achieved by a homeowner with a backpack sprayer, Goatley says.
“The quality and availability of new colorants and dyes is unbelievable,” he says.
The third way is to learn to love the straw-colored state and, at the same time, telegraph to the world your love of grass that is kinder to the environment. Just remember to keep it corralled, especially the bermudagrass. “You need to be prepared to manage it,” Goatley says, “because it’s going to move and move very quickly.”
By Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins has been writing about gardening, landscape design and related environmental topics since the late 1980s. He joined The Washington Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the “Washington Post Garden Book” and “Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden.”