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The Lowest Maintenance Turf? University Results Are In

I’ve long had a section in my lawn care talks titled “Grow the Right Grass.” The shpeel emphasizes the fact that not all species of grass are created equally, much to the surprise of the average homeowner.

Most people do know that some grasses grow well in sun and others are better suited for shade. Other profound differences exist, however, in the amount of fertilizer, water and mowing they require. A study by the University of Rhode Island confirms that, for the sustainable lawn movement, certain grass plants are preferred.

“Some grass species do better than others under low-input management,” said Rebecca Brown, Assistant Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics at URI. “I recently completed five years of trials that found that hard fescue, tall fescue, colonial bentgrass, red fescue and koeleria (prairie junegrass) were able to maintain 100 percent turf cover on poor soil with no irrigation or pesticides after establishment — and only 1-2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per year applied as organic granular fertilizer.”

She went on to explain that Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass were not able to maintain solid cover under the same conditions she described. The standard recommendations for bluegrass call for 4-5 pounds of nitrogen per year.

“It is also important when choosing grasses for low-input management to use improved varieties (of grasses),” she said. “The improved varieties have denser growth and better disease resistance than “common” types — which are mostly varieties from 30-plus years ago. These improved varieties will do a better job of competing with weeds.”

The professionals all visit the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program to keep up with the latest development in breeding for lawn grasses. Homeowners are advised to purchase grass seed at reputable dealers rather than large box stores, which are far more likely to sell the common types for the lowest price.

We’ll have more information from the URI trials in the days ahead.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1023
  • It’s Only Natural Landscaping

    Great advice Paul-
    When purchasing seed what is the best way to determine whether it is “Improved” versus “Common”?

  • Paul Holowko

    Hey Jim,
    The best way to purchase seeds is in diversity with your local ecology in mind. I’ve been growing my lawn organically for years. I use three type of grasses for my climate. I mix them together and reseed every fall. Fescue, Bluegrass (not Kentucky bluegrass, takes too much water) and Tall Fescue. When one grass goes dormant, another one takes over. So, my lawn stays green though out the year. In San Jose, CA, our dormant time of the year is in midsummer, not winter. Our growing season starts in the 2nd week of January and quits around July. In the East Coast, your growing season can start around Apr. or May depending how North you are. Reseed in the fall and allow the seed to germinate for any frosts. It will give the grass a chance to smother out weeds.
    One word about weeds. Weeds have two uses. They can tell you what kind of soil you have and they can fix nitrogen for you. The type of weeds that naturally grow on your lawn grow the best in your soil. For example, dandelions are like a Brassicas with a long tap roots and function by bringing up minerals from deep in the soil up to the surface. That means you have very clay soil with a possible superficial water shed. If you have clover, you have natural nitrogen fixtures. Once your soil improves, dandelions will go away by themselves because the soil is not right for them anymore. The same goes for Bermuda grass. It’s a forest pioneer grass.
    Paul Holowko

  • Kevin Yager

    When choosing from the hard fescue, tall fescue, colonial bentgrass, red fescue and koeleria how might the reader know which is best suited for their region? Seems like choosing the best species would have a lot to do with one’s own regional climate.

    Also what would happen if one used zero pounds of nitrogen per 1000 sq ft? Which grasses work best under that condition?

    • Paul Tukey

      This was a trial at URI and all these grasses would perform well in a Northern climate. They would also do well in other regions of the country out of direct sun for the full day. All these grasses in the trial did not have any nitrogen applied and still maintained a stand of turf. I have tall fescue at my home and, after the year it was established, I have not applied anything. I do allow clover to grow and I recycle the grass clippings, so the grass is getting some nitrogen. is a great on-line seed reference.

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