While soil care and good maintenance practices like regular mowing and watering are keys to a beautiful lawn, the master key is the grass seed itself. The best grass seed for your lawn depends on where you live and the characteristics of your property.
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Some grass varieties like it cold, and some like it hot. Some prefer full sun, and some can tolerate shade. Some can tolerate drought, while others can't. There are so many grass seed varieties on the market that choosing the right one can be a daunting task, and it helps to look at the various factors you need to consider in detail.
When you're shopping for grass seed, you'll come across various blends and mixes that offer a variety of textures, growth rates, shade and water preferences and resistance to foot traffic. Mixtures and blended mixtures can combine different species or different types of the same species, all chosen to perform well in specific growing conditions. Choosing the right grass seed mix calls for knowledge about the species included, and in the end, it isn't unusual to opt for a single type of seed instead of a mixture because of its growing preferences, maintenance needs and appearance.
Warm-Season and Cool-Season Varieties
Climate is one of the most important factors to take into account when choosing seed for your new lawn, and most seed packets display the United States Department of Agriculture climate zones in which they grow best. Warm-season grasses prefer summer heat, growing best when the temperature is between 80 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit and turning brown when the temperature falls below 50 degrees, and they are the best option for southern climates with extreme heat. Some of the most popular are:
- Bahiagrass: A dense grass with good disease resistance.
- Zoysia: Slow growing, needs mowing infrequently and forms a thick mat.
- Bermudagrass: Tolerates cooler temperatures more than most warm-season varieties.
- St. Augustine: Tolerates sandy soil and salty air and grows well in the shade.
- Centipede: Slow growing, shade tolerant and low maintenance.
Cool-season grasses prefer temperatures between 50 and 80 degrees and can stay green even if the mercury falls below 32 degrees. They are best for northern climates and can grow in shady spots in some climates that are normally more suited for warm-season grasses. Available varieties include:
- Tall fescue: Stands up well to foot traffic and tolerates high heat better than other cool-season grasses.
- Fine fescue: Has a very fine texture and requires little maintenance.
- Kentucky bluegrass: Has a dark, blue-green color and fine texture and tolerates both cold and heavy foot traffic.
- Perennial ryegrass: Has a fine texture and is quick to germinate.
Tall fescue and zoysia are examples of transition zone varieties, meaning they can tolerate temperature extremes outside their normal comfort zones. Tall fescue is a cool-season variety with a fine to medium blade texture that will grow in hot, dry conditions, and zoysia is a warm-season grass with a medium texture that tolerates cold. In the United States, the transition zone encompasses the Northeast and parts of the Midwest, but microclimates can create transition zones in many other places.
Soil Texture and Acidity
Many grasses aren't fussy about soil type and will grow in neutral or acidic soil and thrive in sandy loam or clay, but others are more particular about the growing medium. Centipede grass and zoysia are the best grass seed for acidic soil with a pH down to 5.0, while carpet grass and St. Augustine grass are best for alkaline soil with a pH as high as 8.0. Before sowing your grass seed, it's a good idea to test the soil for acidity so you can adjust the pH according to the preferences of the variety you choose, using lime to raise the pH and a soil acidifier to lower it.
Some grass seed grows best in well-draining, loose soil, while other seed prefers poorly draining clay. You can test your soil texture yourself by determining how easily you can form it into a ball. Soil with a high clay content forms easily, while sand will simply fall apart. To refine the test, form the soil into ribbons by pressing it with your fingers. Clay will form into long ribbons, mixed soil forms into shorter ones and sand won't form ribbons at all. One way to loosen clay soil is to increase microbial activity using a product like liquid Jackhammer, or you can plant tall fescue, which is the best grass seed for clay.
Sun and Moisture Conditions
Some types of grass need full sun, and some can thrive in the shade. The two best warm-season grasses for sunny yards are zoysia, which grows slowly and densely enough to keep weeds under control, and Bermudagrass, a highly drought-tolerant variety and a vigorous grower that can quickly fill in bare spots in an existing lawn. The best cool-season grasses for sunny locations are tall fescue, another drought-tolerant species with long roots able to reach moisture deep in the soil, and Kentucky bluegrass, which goes dormant during dry spells.
Your yard may be shady and prone to heavy rainfall, in which case Bahiagrass is your best option for a warm-season variety, and ryegrass is the best cool-season one. Bahiagrass establishes itself quickly in damp, shady locations and can survive floods up to six days in duration. Ryegrass will grow even in dense shade and heavy moisture, but it doesn't stand up well to foot traffic and tends to thin out after a year.
All types of grass need water, but some can go for more or less prolonged periods without watering, which is a boon in arid regions, where water conservation is a priority. There are some drought-tolerant warm-season types of grass.
- Bermudagrass requires about 1 1/4 inches of water per week. It will go dormant for a period of two to three weeks after an extended drought before dying, but it regains its color when you water it again.
- St. Augustine grass can get by on only 1 inch of rainfall per week, and it will also go dormant for a few weeks during drought conditions before it dies.
- Zoysia grass needs only 1/2 inch of water per week, and drought-damaged patches of lawn can repair themselves once watering begins again.
Drought is less common in northern climates, but underwatering can still be an issue, especially in the summer months. There are cool-season grasses that hold up to a lack of water:
- Tall fescue typically needs 1 1/4 inches of water weekly, but it has roots that grow 2 to 3 feet in length and can suck moisture from deep in the soil.
- Fine fescue has moderate water requirements between 3/4 to 1 inch per week, and its underground rhizomes help repair drought damage and restore its deep-green color.
- Kentucky bluegrass needs 1 1/2 to 2 inches of water per week depending on the weather, and like fine fescue, it is self-repairing by virtue of its underground rhizomes.
Best Grass Seed for Traffic
Some lawns remain relatively untouched by human footsteps but not many, and unless a lawn is within a walled estate, it's bound to get some foot traffic. The cool-season varieties that hold up best to foot traffic are tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. These three types of turfgrass are the ones used most often on football fields in cool climates, so you know they're tough. If you're watching football in the South, the players are most likely getting tackled on Bermudagrass, but zoysia is also hardy enough for athletic fields and for well-traveled lawns in warm regions.
Transitional zones can be problematic for both warm-season and cool-season grasses alike because none of them are completely in their element. If your primary interest is a summer lawn, sowing zoysia and overseeding with annual rye every winter is probably the most wear-resistant combination, but if you want a green lawn all year, consider planting buffalo grass, a very hardy turfgrass native to the North American prairies. In places in which wear is extreme, such as pathways and areas around playgrounds, mulch may be a better option than grass.
Best Low-Maintenance Grasses
A low-maintenance lawn is one that requires little water and fertilizer, resists pests and disease and is slow growing, so it doesn't wear out the lawn mower. Kentucky bluegrass, the most popular grass seed in the United States, is lush and thick, and it's the opposite of low maintenance, requiring more than 2 inches of water in hot summer weather, weekly mowing and regular fertilizing, and it is susceptible to a number of diseases and insects.
Fescue grass, with its modest watering requirements, is probably the best cool-season grass to grow if you want to give your lawn the least amount of attention possible and still have it be green and lush. If mowing is not your thing, you can leave fine fescue unmowed, and your lawn will look like a meadow. It is so resistant to disease that it is often added to seed mixes to add disease resistance. Tall fescue needs regular mowing, but it adapts to a wide variety of soil types, doesn't need much water and varieties are available that are resistant to many lawn diseases.
In southern climates, zoysia grass is the most drought tolerant and requires little care, although it does have a habit of turning brown in the winter. Bermudagrass is also highly drought resistant, and it is slow growing and needs to be mowed infrequently. It has good wear and disease resistance and needs fertilizing only once or twice a year, but its downside is that it is shade intolerant and needs to be in full sun.
Grass Seed Mixtures
Seed mixtures fall into two categories: mixtures of blended seeds, which combine different varieties of the same species, and pure mixtures, which combine seeds of different species. The seeds are chosen to combine qualities to produce fast-growing grass, grass that can survive both sunny and shady conditions or grass that is highly disease-resistant.
Scotts Thick'R Lawn is a tall fescue pure-seed mixture that includes seed, soil improver and fertilizer. Apply it with a drop or rotary seed spreader to an existing lawn or use it to start a new lawn.
Pennington One Step is another fescue mixture with added ingredients to speed the growth rate. It's great for fixing bare spots in a hurry. It works best in sunny parts of the lawn but also works in shade.
Scotts Turf Builder is for lawn repair in colder regions. The mixture includes mostly ryegrass, but there is also some Kentucky bluegrass, which is an aggressive grower, and some fine fescue, which grows well in colder climates.
- Seedland: Soil pH For Lawns & Use of Lime Or Sulfur
- Kellogg Garden Products: Best Grass for Full Sun Yards
- The Lawn Institute: Grass Varieties
- Bob Vila: Solved! The Best Drought-Resistant Grass for Dry Summers
- Backyard Boss: How to Choose the Perfect Grass Seed for Your Lawn
- Sunday: What Is Your Grass Type?
- Tractor Supply Co: Tips to Keep a High-Traffic Lawn Looking Good
Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker and Family Handyman.