Turfgrasses for the Carolinas

Prepared by Millie Davenport, HGIC Horticulture Extension Agent, Clemson University. 09/13.

HGIC 1223

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For over 50 years the lawn has been an integral part of the landscape. In many ways it can be viewed as the canvas of the landscape. Lawns are used to define the shape of an area, provide pathways between landscape beds, and for designating play areas. Luckily, Carolina residents have several turfgrass species to choose from to suit their landscape needs.

Cultural requirements vary for each turfgrass species, meaning that some perform better in certain regions of the Carolinas versus others. So, knowing your region and climate will give you a preliminary list of turfgrasses to choose from (see Table 1).

Table 1. Turfgrass Species Recommendations by Region
  Bermudagrass Centipedegrass St. Augustinegrass Zoysiagrass Tall Fescue
Mountains X     X X
Piedmont X X X X X
Sandhills X X X X  
Coastal X X X X  

Selecting the best turfgrass species for your conditions is the first step in establishing an attractive and problem-free lawn. Start by evaluating your site conditions. These include seasonal temperature extremes, moisture availability, saltwater, and amount of sun or shade.

Next, determine the amount of foot traffic you anticipate the area will receive. Certain grasses continue to grow better than others after being walked or played upon. It is also important to make note of the proximity of tree roots to the lawn area. Avoid planting a lawn in areas with tree roots. Instead, extend the mulched area underneath trees to a width of 2 to 3 times wider than the tree canopy.

Next, determine what level of maintenance you plan to commit to in caring for the lawn. Some species require more frequent mowing, fertilizing, and watering than others. Higher maintenance grasses, such as bermudagrass and zoysiagrass, also have a higher tendency for thatch development. Thatch is the spongy build-up of sloughed-off plant matter between the soil surface and green grass leaves. Contrary to popular belief, grass clippings do not contribute to thatch. When the thatch layer builds up beyond ½” thick, it will cause a decrease in turf vigor by restricting the movement of air, water, fertilizer and pesticides into the soil. Excessive thatch also restricts root development, provides a favorable environment for insect and disease development, and may result in winter kill of sections of the lawn. Once actively growing and fully out of dormancy, grasses with thick thatch layers will need to be monitored and dethatched as needed in the month of May. For more information on controlling thatch refer to fact sheet HGIC 2360, Controlling Thatch in Lawns. See Table 2 for maintenance details by species.

Table 2. Maintenance Details by Turfgrass Species
  Bermudagrass Centipedegrass St. Augustinegrass Zoysiagrass Tall Fecsue
Mowing Frequency very high low moderate low to moderate high
Mowing Height ¾ to 1½” 1 to 2” 2½ to 4” ¾ to 2” 2½ to 3½”
Thatch Tendency high medium medium high low
Wear Tolerance excellent poor fair excellent good
Shade Tolerance very poor poor good (cultivar dependent) fair good
Salt Tolerance excellent poor excellent good good
Cold Tolerance fair poor poor to good(cultivar dependent) fair to good good
Drought Tolerance excellent poor fair good fair

Drought tolerance is an important factor to consider in any region of the Carolinas. Bermudagrass and zoysiagrass have the best drought tolerance and centipedegrass has the poorest. Regardless of turfgrass species, drought tolerance is improved by following proper maintenance techniques.

Mowing

Maintaining the proper height for your turfgrass species will encourage a healthy lawn. Only ⅓ or less of the leaf blade should be removed at a time (see Figure 1). For example, when a centipedegrass lawn reaches 3 inches tall, it should be mowed to the recommended 2-inch height. If lawns are scalped by mowing too low, the roots can be damaged which will require more frequent irrigation. Never mow when the grass is wet, and always use sharp mower blades. Tall fescue and St. Augustinegrass grown under shady conditions may benefit from being allowed to grow to the upper end of their mowing height range. For more information on mowing lawns refer to fact sheet HGIC 1205, Mowing Lawns.

Mowing height range
Figure 1. Remove only ⅓ of the leaf blade.

Irrigation

To encourage drought tolerance, irrigate the lawn deeply and less frequently to encourage deep root development. Lawns and landscapes need one inch of water a week in the mountains and piedmont and 1½ to 2 inches in the sandhills and coastal plain. Water should be applied early in the morning to promote the growth of deep roots, to minimize evaporation, and to reduce the chances of fungal disease development. If you are not sure how to tell when the lawn needs water, you can use one of two methods. First, to examine the lawn using footprinting, you walk across the lawn and look back to see if your footprints appear. Footprints will appear in the lawn when it needs to be irrigated. The low levels of water in the leaf blades prevent the grass blades from springing back up when walked on. The second method is done by pushing a screwdriver into the soil. If the soil is dry, the screwdriver will be difficult to push into the soil, indicating that irrigation is needed. For more information on irrigating lawns refer to fact sheet HGIC 1207, Watering Lawns.

Fertilization

Ideally a soil test should be performed to determine what fertilizer is needed according to the turfgrass species. Then, use a slow-release fertilizer according to soil test results. A slow release fertilizer is long lasting and less likely to burn the grass blades. Fertilize when grass is dry and water in thoroughly after application.

Warm-season turfgrasses (bermudagrass, centipedegrass, St. Augustinegrass, and zoysiagrass) should be fertilized during the warm months such as May and July. Do not fertilize warm-season grasses before they are fully greened up in the late spring, or after August 15th except for the Coastal Region, where you can fertilize until September 1st. Do not apply high-nitrogen winterizer fertilizers during the fall. Cool-season turfgrass (tall fescue) should be fertilized in late September, early November and late February. In the absence of a soil test, follow the fertilizer guidelines in Table 3. For more information on fertilizing lawns refer to fact sheet HGIC 1201, Fertilizing Lawns.

Table 3. Fertilization of Turfgrasses
Turfgrass Pounds of Actual Nitrogen per application Fertilizer Formulation Fertilizer Amount per 1000 square feet per application
* At the above rates of fertilizer, bermudagrass and tall fescue are typically fertilized 3 times per year. Centipedegrass, St. Augustinegrass & zoysiagrass are typically fertilized twice per year in the upstate and 3 times per year on the coast.
Bermudagrass 1 16-4-8 6 lbs
Centipedegrass ½ 15-0-15 3 lbs
St. Augustinegrass 1 15-0-15 6 lbs
Zoysiagrass 1 16-4-8 6 lbs
Tall Fescue 1 16-4-8 6 lbs

Planning ahead and following the proper maintenance steps will provide you with a healthy Carolina lawn.

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