What kind of grass?

milenka(6)October 27, 2008

Hello , I live in SLC UT and i need a little help deciding what tipe of grass to buy. Do you know if there is a grass that is drought tolerant ,doesn't grow to fast , and is good loking for a long time? Do I ask to much?? :-)

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How important are the qualities you want? I don't think you'll find a grass that will stay green in SLC all summer with no additional irrigation, but there are several that will stay alive with no additional water. Most of these grasses will stay green with very little additional water, but they won't look quite the same as the traditional Kentucky bluegrass (KBG) lawn. I'll lay out the options I know and try to give you the pros and cons of each.

The first decision you'll need to make is whether to use a warm season grass or a cool season grass. Cool season grasses will have the longest period of green, but will need more water during the summer. There are a couple of warm season grasses that are native to Utah and are used in lawns, but they tend to have a fairly short green season here. They'll probably turn green in May and go dormant in October.

I'll start with KBG, which is the grass that you and your neighbors probably have now. The biggest drawback to it is that it needs a lot of water to stay green. It's fairly drought tolerant, but deals with drought by going dormant and turning brown. Also, in our conditions, if you don't give it at least some water, it will die. A KBG lawn needs to be watered at least once a week (probably twice a week in summer, but not daily as most people around here seem to water) to stay green. I think you'll need to water at least once or twice a month to keep a dormant lawn alive. It spreads via rhizomes (specialized roots that shoot out from the plant) so if you get a bare spot, the grass around it will fill in.

Tall fescue is often touted for its low water usage. It is probably the choice that looks the most like KBG (other than KBG, of course). If you water properly, KBG can stay green with about the same amount of water as most tall fescues. If you have soil conditions that won't allow the fescue to develop deep roots, the KBG may use less than the fescue. One tall fescue will stay green much longer than KBG, but it's a forage type grass and doesn't make an attractive lawn (at least in my opinion). One disadvantage to most tall fescues is that they don't spread, so they need to be overseeded periodically. There are some newer varieties that spread, but they spread more slowly than KBG. A fescue lawn will need to be watered at least once a week to stay green (maybe 2x a week in summer). If you let it go dormant, it would probably need to be watered monthly to stay alive.

Both KBG and tall fescue need to be mowed about once a week or so during most of the growing season. They also have similar fertilizer requirements, and should get about three lbs of N per 1000 sq ft per year.

Keep in mind that if you let the lawn go dormant, it will be very dry during fireworks season. Also, there may be ordinances requiring you to keep the lawn green.

Now, I'll give you some of the less traditional options. Most of these are native to Utah and all require very little fertilizer.

Cool season grasses (green most of the year):

One grass that has been getting used as a low water alternative is Crested Wheatgrass. It's an import from Siberia. It will stay alive with no additional water but will need to be watered every other week or so to stay green. It's very fine bladed, and somewhat yellow green. It goes in and out of dormancy pretty readily, but can stay dormant for extended periods of time without harm. It is primarily a bunch grass, but there are some newer varieties (Ephraim and Roadcrest are two that come to mind) that are weakly rhizomatous). I think crested wheatgrass grows a little more slowly than KBG. There are a lot of seeds per pound compared with native wheatgrasses and it germinates more easily than natives.

Streambank wheatgrass is a native grass that has been getting more use in low maintenance lawns. It has fine blades and is sort of light green in color. It will live with no additional water but will need to be watered once or twice a month to stay green. It grows more slowly than KBG and doesn't need to be mowed very often. It should be mowed fairly high, although occasional short mowing (for overseeding, etc) won't kill it. It spreads via rhizomes. It has large seeds (not many per pound) but the seeds germinate fairly readily. Streambank wheatgrass does best in loam and clay soils. If you have sandy soil, thickspike wheatgrass would be a better choice (very similar to streambank wheatgrass, but does better in sand).

Western wheatgrass is another native. It has somewhat coarser blades that are blue-green in color. It will stay alive with no additional water and will stay green longer than either streambank or crested wheatgrass, but will still need to be watered once or twice a month to stay green all summer. It deals with drought by having very deep roots, and most of the root mass is not near the surface, so if it does go dormant, it doesn't come out of dormancy as readily as streambank and crested wheatgrass. It has large seeds (not many seeds per lb) and is more difficult to get good germination than the other choices. It grows much more slowly than KBG and may only need to be mowed a couple of times a year. I like the color and the way it deals with drought, but it isn't used as a lawn grass very much, probably because of the difficulty in getting it started and the width of the grass blades.

Sheep fescue is a native, although the cultivar that is usually used for lawns (Covar) originated in Turkey. It's a bunch grass, but if it is mowed periodically, it will tiller aggressively and could out compete rhizomatous native grasses. It is very fine bladed and dark green (about as dark as KBG). Some varieties are bred to be ornamental and are blue, but there are lawn varieties that are dark green. It will stay alive with no water, but will need to be watered once or twice a month to stay green. It is slow growing and only gets to about 4 or 5 inches tall, so it can be left unmowed. It may need to be overseeded periodically to fill in bare spots.

Creeping red fescue is another fine bladed fescue. It needs more water than Sheep fescue. It might stay alive with no water, but it would be better to water it once a month or so while it is dormant to ensure that it survives. It probably needs to be watered twice a month to stay green. It spreads via rhizomes (although not as fast as KBG). It grows slowly and you might be able to leave it unmowed, but it would look better if it is mowed a couple of times a year.

Warm season grasses (green from May-October):

Blue grama is a native, fine bladed grass that will stay alive with no irrigation and may even stay green with no water, but will do better if it is watered once a month during the summer. It is green, but not as dark as KBG. It is a bunch grass, but if you mow it, it will spread slowly. Some varieties will grow fairly tall, but others might be able to be left unmowed in a lawn (if you don't mind a somewhat wild look). It wouldn't need to be mowed very often if you mow it. It has very fine seeds (like dust) that can be difficult to spread. It germinates easily and quickly. If you have a lawn that is all blue grama, it'll probably need to be overseeded periodically.

Buffalo grass is another native. It is fine bladed and is sort of a gray green. The seeds are huge (almost as big as peas) so it takes a lot of seed to get a lawn established. It requires a lot of sunlight. It spreads via stolons (above ground runners). The pollen can be bad for people who have allergies, but if you get an all female variety (only available as sod or plugs) that is not a problem. It only gets about 4 inches tall, so it doesn't need to be mowed, but some people mow to get rid of the seed heads. The seeds are enclosed in burrs, which can be uncomfortable for barefoot walking (for the seeded varieties).

Blue grama and buffalo grass are often planted together.

If you're interested in any of these options, I'll find some seed suppliers. There's a place in SLC that has the best prices I've ever found for streambank wheatgrass. Blue grama and buffalo grass are usually available as seed, sod and plugs. There's a sod farm in Sandy that has a variety of alternative seed and sod options. I don't know the makeup of the grasses in their selection, but I think they're mostly native grasses.


Pros: Best looking, spreads
Cons: high water need, high fertilizer need, weekly mowing

Tall fescue
Pros: Nearly as good looking as KBG, May require less water
Cons: May need as much or more water as KBG, similar fertilizer and mowing needs, requires overseeding for uniform lawn, bunch grass

Crested wheatgrass
Pros: low water requirements, low fertilizer requirements, slower growth than KBG and tall fescue, easy to get started, will live with no irrigation
Cons: I don't like the color, deals with drought by going in and out of dormancy quickly, most varieties are bunch grasses

Streambank wheatgrass
Pros: low water, low fertilizer, nice green (but not dark), fine blades, fairly slow growing, spreads
Cons: larger seeds, not as easy to get started as crested wheatgrass or traditional lawn grasses

Western wheatgrass
Pros: Low water, low fertilizer (but can benefit from a little), attractive blue green, very slow growing, spreads
Cons: Coarser blades, very difficult to establish from seed

Sheep fescue
Pros: Low water, low fertilizer, fine blades, dark green, low growth, does well in shade
Cons: Bunch grass

Creeping red fescue
Pros: low water relative to KBG, spreads, low growth, does well in shade
Cons: Needs more water than Sheep fescue and wheatgrasses

Blue grama
Pros: Very low water, low fertilizer, fairly slow growth, does well with buffalo grass
Cons: Bunch grass, short green season

Buffalo grass
Pros: Very low water, low fertilizer, low growth, does well with blue grama
Cons: Needs LOTS of sun, seeded varieties can cause allergy problems

On a final note, I'd like to say that if you decide to go with one of the less traditional grasses, you should do as I say, not as I do. First, kill the existing lawn. I have tried to seed into an existing lawn and have probably spent far more on seed than if I had started from scratch.

For what it's worth, I've planted a mix (roughly 50-50) of western and streambank wheatgrass in my front lawn and have opted for 80% sheep fescue and 20% creeping red fescue in the back.

Most of the native grasses do well with a dormant seeding if you want to go that route.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2008 at 1:44AM
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Hi milenka, I think that after the great answer that bpgreen has given to your question, I think that Owning a beautiful lawn in the house has transformed more into a status symbol for people living in the suburbs today, so could be interested to read more about beautify your lawn, Ive found a blog that contents many articles about gardening and other topics, see you. The link is:
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    Bookmark   October 29, 2008 at 12:17PM
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Call Mitch @ 801-975-8055. He is a genius when it comes to salt lake city lawns.

    Bookmark   November 6, 2008 at 12:05PM
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