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The perfect lawn grass?

Lawn grasses are changing. Pictured above are six grasses you can buy as sod in this part of the West today. None is perfect, but together they indicate a movement toward more climate sensible lawn grasses that began in the late 1970s.

The biggest change is the "turf-type" tall fescues. Virtually unknown in 1980, they have replaced bluegrass in many areas. From the always promising, always tough zoysias, we now have a fast-growing, rotary-mowable selection, 'El Toro'. One of the most promising new grasses of the '70s, seashore paspalum (also called Adalayd and Excalibre), is now finding a niche, albeit a small one.

You can still buy dichondra, but it is so dependent upon water and chemicals it's going the way of the highway gas guzzler.

Some native grasses, such as buffalo grass, make useful lawns in specific climates. Low-growing herbs and low shrubs can cover the soil vaguely like a lawn. But for all the efforts to find anything superior to turf, nothing has yet appeared. A well-kept lawn remains the best possible surface for bare feet, toddlers, water fights, pets, picnics, and play.

Advantages of sod

Sod became popular as the way to install a lawn because it's fast.

It's also easier to schedule a planting job with sod since unlike seed lawns, which are best sown in the fall or early winter you can plant a sod lawn just about any time. Four of the six grasses pictured above are only available as sod (or as stolons).

Weeds, the nemesis of a seeded lawn, rarely become a problem when you start with sod. Resources available to commercial growers nearly guarantee that the sod you buy will be weedfree. And when you lay the sod, you bury the weed seeds already in your soil, usually for good. (But common Bermuda and kikuyu, unless destroyed by herbicides, can come up from beneath a sodded lawn.)

One disadvantage of sod is cost. Most kinds cost about 30 cents per square foot; seeding a lawn costs only a small fraction of that. But if you use seed, you should also figure in the time and money to completely eliminate the weeds that would come up with the germinated grass seedlings, and of babying the new lawn seedbed for a couple months. Also, seed lawns can sometimes be difficult to get started; many home gardeners like sod because they failed earlier with seed.

Plastic netting is used by sod growers with the hardy grasses (bluegrass, rye, fescue) to reduce the time needed for a harvestable crop (they spread netting out over soil, then sow seeds directly onto it). Since it holds grass and soil together, netting also allows growers to cut sod thinner and so, it is claimed, root into your soil faster.

For some home gardeners, netting is a nuisance. Where the grass wears thin in shady areas, or where the mower cuts too deeply, netting can become exposed, tangle mowers, or catch sandals, shoes, or toes.

If you're using a sod with netting, make sure soil is level before you plant. High spots will soon wear thin and expose the netting. Use a sharp knife to cut into the soil and through the netting so that you can pull out exposed sections.

Warm-season grasses: tough, fast, winter brown

Common Bermuda is clearly the most widely adapted lawn grass for most of the low-elevation West. In really hot-summer climates, it's the one that takes over a bluegrass or dichondra lawn in summer as soon as your maintenance slacks, and sometimes when it doesn't.

Its bad reputation is well earned: it's invasive, makes ugly seed heads in early summer, and turns brown for most of winter. Bermuda (and kikuyu) can survive on fractions of the amount of water and fertilizer given most lawns. They easily have the best chance of surviving a sustained, summer-long drought.

Hybrid Bermudas are the fancy relatives of the common. They possess almost the same degree of toughness. They're only available as sod or stolons that you can plant now until November, then after March. You can plant Bermuda sod year-round on the Southern California coast.

As is the case with common Bermuda, the hybrids won't look well kept unless you give them fairly generous helpings of water and fertilizer. Four kinds are commonly available. In the desert, it is 'Midiron' (same as 'Easy Turf'). In California, 'Santa Ana' grows fastest, tolerates smog, and has the shortest dormancy; 'Tifgreen', the best seller, is said to be the most attractive, and makes a good putting green. 'Tifway' is recommended for sports fields.

All Bermudas are invasive, so border your shrub and flower areas and stay on the lookout for shoots appearing where you don't want them. Mow hybrids with a front-throw reel-type mower set to cut 1/2 to 3/4 inch high. Feed monthly with 1/2 to 1 pound actual nitrogen. Overseed for winter color. In the low desert, supplemental iron is beneficial.

Seashore paspalum has much to recommend it: color that comes close to bluegrass; excellent drought, heat, and wear tolerance. Back in 1980, Sunset wrote that "this one has yet to prove itself." Now it has. If you're near the coast (Sunset Western Garden Book zones 17 and 24), have very salty soil, or both, plant Seashore. If not, plant something else. It needs a front throw reel mower set to about 3/4 inch, and about 4 pounds actual nitrogen per year (never after early May or before late October).

St. Augustine is the most shade tolerant of all warm-season grasses. It is not as drought or wear resistant as it looks, and diseases can lay siege. Newer, more resistant varieties will be available next spring. Plant until November, or in spring through summer. Set reel mower to cut at 3/4- to 1 1/2-inch height. Feed 1 pound actual nitrogen per month spring through fall.

Zoysia has never counted for much in the West because of its pitifully slow growth. Once you have a lawn of it, slow is great, but until the new, relatively fast 'El Toro' came along, sod farms wouldn't touch it. Excessively long dormant period is the other complaint about zoysia. According to sources at UC Riverside, dormancy of 'El Toro' is about the same as of Bermuda, and it's easy to overseed. Plant sod in spring. Mow with reel or rotary mower set to cut 3/4 to 1 inch high. Feed 1 pound actual nitrogen every other month spring through fall. This fall availability remains minimal; it is expected to improve by spring.

Zoysia sprigs occasionally offered in newspaper advertisements by Eastern sources are not adapted to our climate.

Cool-season grasses: soft, thirsty, hardy, winter green

Tall fescue has most of the advantages of bluegrass, but it takes a lot more heat and is generally more trouble-free. Almost throughout the West, it is being promoted as drought tolerant. It does recover from drought better than bluegrass or rye grass, but it needs just as much water as they do to grow well and look decent. Any of the Bermudas or zoysias can thrive on a much stricter water budget.

Only available since 1980, this is by far the most popular lawn grass in Southern California, and nearly so in northern California. In low-desert and mountain regions, it is less adapted. It has good green color year-round. Plant sod any time, though fall or spring is most favorable. (Or start from seed sown in fall: 8 to 12 pounds per 1,000 square feet.) Mow with a rotary mower set for 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-inch-high cut. Feed 2 pounds actual nitrogen in spring, 4 pounds again in fall, and 2 pounds in winter (never more than 1 pound actual nitrogen at a time).

Bluegrass-rye mix is the warm-climate adaptation of the cold-winter regions' bluegrass lawns. Bluegrass is still the visual standard against which all other grasses are measured: green year-round, soft, verdant. The look of the mix is identical, and the rye grass reduces the spread of the major summer disease of bluegrass here.

Plant sod any time, but fall is best. Use a rotary or reel mower adjusted to cut 1 1/2 to 2 inches high, higher in the summer. Feed 4 pounds actual nitrogen through fall months (never more than 1 pound at a time).
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Sep 1, 1987
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