By Donna Dolinar, Wyandotte County Extension Master Gardener since 2006
When you speak with professionals about turf in Virginia, you will usually hear the term transition zone. That means a combination of hot and often dry summers coupled with cold and sometimes wet winters makes it a difficult choice. In general grasses are classified as cool season and warm season and since Virginia is a mixture, you have a lot of choices to consider.
This is a grass that becomes active early in the spring and flags during the heat of summer and then rejuvenates in the fall. If you opt for one of these varieties it is best to plant in the fall, early enough for the seed to take root. Planting in the spring will subject it to the struggle of the summer heat.
Tall Fescue – There are probably around 100 varieties (also called cultivars) of fescue. It has a deep root system and deals well with drought conditions. It can handle full sun and a bit of shade and should be cut to a length of 2 to 3 inches.
Kentucky Bluegrass – This is one of the most recognizable types of turf because of its color. It likes full sun and will go dormant during dry periods. It will take more maintenance and can attract diseases like dollar spot, red thread, and rust. Because it can form a thick layer of thatch over a few years, it will take some effort. Mow to a height of between 1 ½ and 2 ½ inches.
Perennial Ryegrass – This type of grass is best in full sun and at elevations over 1,500 feet. It is quick to germinate and to create a dense cover. It was prone to gray leaf spot disease in the 1990s but has since been bred to resist that condition. It hates heat and drought. It can be cut as low as 1 inch and is particularly lovely when cut in a striping pattern.
Warm Season Turf
As you might expect, these grasses are heat and drought tolerant and go dormant in the winter months. Generally they experience fewer problems with pests.
Bermudagrass – Bermudagrass is highly prolific and has great rejuvenation capabilities. It can become highly invasive. It grows by stolons (aboveground stems) and rhizomes (lateral root growth). It is usually started by plugs but seed is now available. It can be cut to as low as half an inch and loves sun and hates shade.
Zoysiagrass – For a warm-season turf, this is the most cold tolerant and can usually withstand Virginia winters. It is very dense and that density is one of the best weed controls around. However, it is very slow to establish. Once set, it becomes low maintenance and pest resistant. You can mow to about 1 to 2 ½ inches but it takes a very sharp blade to give you the best cut. It is one of the more expensive varieties.
Centipedegrass and St. Augustinegrass – These are only successful in the Tidewater region. Centipede is a yellow green and slow growing. It likes a more acidic soil. It does not do well in high traffic areas. Mow to 1 ½ to 2 ½ inches. St. Augustine is a great choice if you are trying to cover a shady area. It spreads quickly and becomes nice and thick. However, it is prone to pest and disease. Mow it a bit higher, to a level of 2 or 3 inches.
One of the best ways to be sure you have a decent looking landscape year round is to cultivate a lawn of combined cool season and warm season grasses. For each basic type of grass there are also a number of varieties that are developed to counter the problems that plague the cultivar.
For good advice, check out educational websites like Virginia Tech or one of its Cooperative Extension offices. Their recommendations are based on years of research and validated results. Don’t rely on a clerk at a big box store. When it comes down to actually purchasing the seed or plugs, turn to a turf supply store. They will have varieties that you can’t necessarily find on the open market. These supply houses have supplies that are pre-blended to give you the best mix. If you want something special, they can probably also put together what you want.