Around here we have two options for lawns. What determines them is the amount of work entailed and when we have the most time for it. Different grass species have different growth requirements.
Warm-season species like Bermudagrass, St. Augustine or centipede grass grow great in summer heat. However, as soon as night temperatures are consistently below 50 degrees F they turn brown. They stay that way until night temperatures are consistently warm in the spring.
Tall fescue, perennial ryegrass and annual ryegrass are the most commonly used cool-season species. Occasionally red fescue works well in dry shady places. Kentucky bluegrass is sometimes used but with limited success. These grasses stay green in winter but they don’t tolerate summer heat very well. Bluegrass has very poor tolerance to heat.
So we have a dilemma, or maybe we don’t. Personally, I don’t care if my lawn is brown in winter. I don’t have to mow it. I’m not trying to play ball on it either, so I’m not abusing the grass.
For those who want a green lawn throughout the year there are two options. The first and easiest involves establishing one of the newer turf-type tall fescue cultivars. There are several on the market and they are far superior in heat tolerance and uniformity to the old fashioned Kentucky-31 variety. They’re also less clumpy looking. The best time to plant fescue in this area is around the first of October, so we’re well past that.
Another method of generating a green lawn year-round is by overseeding. This works best with Bermudagrass. It’s less effective with St. Augustine or centipede because they are coarser and maintained at higher cutting heights.
In late summer mow the lawn slightly lower than normal and rough up the ground surface. Plant five to ten pounds of perennial ryegrass into 1000 square feet of existing Bermudagrass sod.
To get a good catch of ryegrass you must irrigate the turf for a few weeks. This will also help the Bermudagrass recover some before it goes dormant. A light fertilizer application at this time is also helpful. Monitor the water carefully as disease can be a problem.
Annual ryegrass establishes quicker than the perennial type. However, annual ryegrass is coarser textured and has a more upright growth habit. This means you’ll have to mow it more frequently. Seeding rate is usually slightly more than for overseeding with perennial ryegrass.
When soil temperatures rise above 50 degrees in spring the cool-season grass can be eliminated by allowing the turf to grow at least four inches tall and scalping it down to a height of an inch to an inch and a half. Bermudagrass plants will not be hurt by the abrupt razing, but the practice will stress the ryegrass so that the warm-season grass will take over.
If I wanted to maintain a healthy sports turf I’d do this. However, management of both species is tricky. Why risk injuring healthy turf? If I absolutely had to have a green winter lawn I’d go the fescue route.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.