Turfgrass Varieties for Cold Season Lawns
This is my site Written by Geoff on January 1, 2000 – 6:17 pm

We have had several people ask us what variety of grass or species to use in seeding their lawn or, they have asked why their newly seeded lawn failed in one season. Another question often asked is whether they should use one variety or a mixture in seeding. All good questions but not easy to answer. This month we are going to try to address these and other lawn seed questions. Our discussions will be based on our experiences here in Southwestern Lower Michigan, Zone 5. What is discussed will hold true for all cool season lawns. 

Here in Michigan, only a few species of grass are useful for home lawns. The proper selection of grass species is one of the most important decisions to be made when establishing a lawn. Since a lawn is meant to be permanent, it is important to select a grass species adapted to the area. The species selected must also be capable of meeting our aesthetic requirements. Also, it is important that we set realistic expectations from our lawn. Not all environments are the same, even in the same neighborhood. How often we have heard ” Mr Smith across the street has such a beautiful lawn why does mine look so bad?” Well, maybe Mr Smith has only two trees in his lawn, an in-ground sprinkler system, or spends 40 hours a week working on it. Many lawn problems result from the failure to address these subjects during the grass selection process. 

Which grass is best for your lawns? The choice depends largely on characteristics of the grass and the intended site for it to grow. Grasses vary in growth habit, appearance quality, ease and rate of establishment, maintenance needs, adaptability to shade, wear tolerance, ability to recover from damage, cold hardiness, and susceptibility to pests and diseases. The initial consideration in lawn establishment is which grass species to plant. After selecting the species, consider the appropriate varieties within the species. As with most plants, each turfgrass species has a number of hybrids, each of which are subtly different genetically. Choose ones which are best suited for the areas to be seeded. Shady, wet, poorly drained areas or regions of the lawn with poor soil, pH extremes, drought susceptibility, all require careful selection. 

As a general rule, turfgrass mixtures and blends are better than using a single species or variety. Seed mixtures are combinations of two or more species of grass, such as Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye grass. Blends of grass seed are combinations of two or more varieties of a single lawn species. Cultivars may offer a variety of traits that set them apart from others in the species, including resistance to diseases or other stress, or improved color or hardiness. When combined in blends, each cultivar offers a variety of features to contribute to a diverse stand of lawn grasses able to withstand a number of stresses and problems better than one cultivar by itself. Combining grass species and cultivars together helps create a uniform, yet diverse stand of grasses in a lawn. 

Our description of those species best suited for cool season lawns found in our region comes from Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet HYG-4011 Turfgrass Species Selection by William E. Pound and John R. Street. 

Kentucky Bluegrass – Kentucky bluegrass is the primary lawn turfgrass grown in Ohio. With proper management, Kentucky bluegrass forms a fine-textured, high-quality, long-lasting turf. This species produces rhizomes (underground stems) that give rise to new bluegrass plants. This ability enables bluegrass to rapidly recuperate from injury and fill in thin areas in the lawn. Kentucky bluegrass is winter-hardy and capable of withstanding temperature and moisture extremes. During hot, dry periods it tends to become dormant and lose color. If high quality is desired during the summer period, lawn irrigation is often necessary. Kentucky bluegrass requires moist, well-drained soil to develop into high-quality turfgrass. It will not tolerate extremely acid or alkaline soils or heavy shade. Germination and establishment rates are slow, and weeds may develop if seeded in late spring or early summer. Kentucky bluegrass requires a medium to high level of management with routine applications of fertilizer. Kentucky bluegrass performs best in full sun, some cultivars are adapted to shade. 

Recommended Kentucky Bluegrass Cultivar: 

  1. Blacksburg
  2. Princeton 104
  3. Midnight
  4. Eclipse
  5. America
  6. Asset
  7. Aspen
  8. Loft’s 1757
  9. A-34
  10. Able 1
  11. Freedom
  12. Glade

Perennial Rye Grass – Perennial ryegrass, like Kentucky bluegrass, is a fine-textured species with the potential to develop into a high quality lawn. Perennial rye grass has rapid seed germination and seedling establishment qualities. This species has a bunch-type growth habit, which enables it to grow densely . The cold tolerance and disease resistance capabilities are less than for Kentucky bluegrass. All perennial rye grasses require well-drained soils of medium to high fertility. The maintenance, fertility and pH requirements are similar to the improved Kentucky bluegrasses. Perennial rye grass has better drought tolerance than Kentucky bluegrass but normally requires irrigation to maintain quality during the summer. In recent years many improved perennial rye grasses have been commercialized. These improved cultivars have greater cold tolerance, better density, darker color and better disease resistance than the older, common rye grass selections. 

Recommended Perennial Rye Grass Cultivars: 

  1. Saturn
  2. SR-4100
  3. Pennant
  4. SR-4000
  5. Manhattan II
  6. Commander
  7. Dimension
  8. Palmer
  9. Pick 715
  10. Riviera
  11. Dasher II
  12. Fiesta II
  13. Repell
  14. Blazer II
  15. Omega II

Tall Fescue – Tall fescue has been used traditionally as a low-maintenance grass in areas where a coarser texture is not objectionable. This species is coarser textured than the other recommended turfgrass species. Tall fescue tolerates soils of low fertility, persists well under low maintenance and possesses good tolerance to insects and diseases. This species germinates and establishes quickly but slightly slower than perennial rye grass. When mature, tall fescue has excellent wear tolerance and, due to its deep-rooted nature, tolerates drought and will remain green throughout the summer without supplemental irrigation. Juvenile tall fescue seedlings are not cold-tolerant and will be prone to winter kill. However, well-established seedlings and mature lawns will endure most winters. Recently, a number of improved “turf-type” tall fescue cultivars have been commercialized. All tall fescues grow rapidly in the spring and require more frequent mowing than Kentucky bluegrass. 

Recommended Tall Fescue Cultivars: 

  1. Hubbard 87
  2. Guardian
  3. Shenandoah
  4. Crossfire
  5. Avanti
  6. Amigo
  7. Cochise
  8. Aztec
  9. Monarch
  10. Tribute
  11. Eldorado
  12. Phoenix
  13. Thoroughbred
  14. Rebel II
  15. Chieftain

Fine Fescue – Red, hard and chewings fescues are fine-leaved turfgrasses that grow well under conditions of shade, low soil moisture, low fertility, and soils with unfavorable PH. The fine fescues require well-drained, slightly dry soils, with minimum levels of management. Excess applications of fertilizer, frequent irrigation or establishment on poorly drained soils will result in a decline in quality and plant density. With correct management, the fine fescues can make an attractive turf of fair to good quality. Fine fescues are commonly used in mixtures with the other cool-season turfgrasses on low maintenance or shady lawns. 

Recommended Fine Fescue Cultivars: 

  1. Aurora
  2. Reliant
  3. Spartan
  4. Longfellow
  5. Scaldis
  6. Bighorn
  7. Victory
  8. Waldina
  9. Biljart
  10. Enjoy
  11. Flyer
  12. Mary
  13. Banner
  14. Shadow
  15. Waldorf

The decision on what mixtures and blends of Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and fine fescues to use must be based on site conditions and use factors. Some suggestions are summarized below. 

Full Sun Areas: 

  1. Kentucky bluegrass blend (3-5 cultivars) Use 1.5 lb. of seed per 1,000 sq. Ft.
  2. Kentucky bluegrass blend/perennial ryegrass Use 3 to 4 lb. per 1,000 sq.ft
  3. Tall fescue blend (high traffic areas or hot, dry sites) Use 6 to 8 lb. of seed per 1,000 sq. ft
  4. Fine fescue blend (low maintenance lawn – infrequent mowing)Use 6 to 8 lb. of seed per 1,000 sq. ft
  5. Kentucky bluegrass/perennial ryegrass/fine fescue Use 6 to 8 lb. of seed per 1,000 sq. ft

Sun/Shade: 

  1. Kentucky bluegrass/fine fescue blend Use 4 to 5 lb. of seed per 1,000 sq. Ft.
  2. Tall fescue blend Use 6 to 8 lb. of seed per 1,000 sq. Ft.

Deep Shade: 

  1. Fine fescue blend (dry shade) Use 6 to 8 lb. of seed per 1,000 sq. Ft.
  2. Rough bluegrass (wet shade) Use 2 to 4 lb. of seed per 1,000 sq. Ft.

The following are blends and mixtures we have had good luck with: 

Sunny Blend 

  • 25 % Freedom Kentucky Blue Grass
  • 25 % America Kentucky Blue Grass
  • 25 % Blazer II Perennial Rye
  • 25 % Manhattan II Perennial Rye

Shady Blend 

  • 25 % Freedom Kentucky Blue Grass
  • 25 % Manhattan II Perennial Rye
  • 25 % Chieftain Tall Fescue
  • 25 % Flyer Fine Fescue

Another turfgrass we have not talked about is Poa trivialis L, a fine textured, light green turf with high shoot density. It spreads by stolons and does not form as tight a sod as Kentucky bluegrass. It is a long-lived perennial that is well adapted to wet, shaded areas. Its low temperature hardiness and fall color retention are excellent, but rough bluegrass does not tolerate drought or high temperature stress. Sabre, Laser and Colt are the recommended cultivars. They should be used in mixtures that are planted in poorly-drained, shaded sites. We have had very good results using this in high shade areas but it must be kept wet. If you let it dry out it will all but completely disappear. This is not for the average home owner. 

Another important consideration in selecting a turfgrass is how much time and money you want to spend on your lawn. We have put in lawns which looked beautiful until sold to a new homeowner who did not have the time or interest in maintaining it. Within a short period of time the lawn looked rough and ragged. Good lawns take a lot of work they just do not happen. Sometimes it is necessary to sacrifice the aesthetics in order to have a lawn you can manage.

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Modified: March 8, 2009 at 9:16 am UTC

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