guide to warm-season grass

The Ultimate Warm-Season Grass Guide

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It’s no secret that healthy, thriving lawns can greatly add to your home’s property value, as much as 20% in most cases. While achieving an attractive lawn can be finicky and challenging at times, it is not out of reach for even the most novice of lawn enthusiasts.

Once you narrow down your region and ideal grass strain for your region and soil type, you’ll be well on your way to becoming the envy of your neighborhood. There are over 1,400 different types of grass species that exist on our planet, most of which will fall into a category of either warm-season grass or cold season grass.

Generally, if you live in the middle to lower half of the United States, the most common grass that you will see will be warm-season grass.

Warm-season grass varieties experience the most optimal growth during hot, summer months, and in year-round temperate climates.

Cool-season grass strains tend to produce shallower roots and are more susceptible to high heat and drought. When it comes to choosing the best grass variety for your yard, the first step is to consider what species would best survive in your particular region and climate.

If you are dealing with an existing lawn, you’ll also need to determine if it is salvageable or if it’s best to completely start over.

First, you’ll want to assess the grass-to-weed ratio. If weeds have only consumed 40% of your lawn, chances are good that you’ll be able to fix, improve, and maintain what you already have. Once you’re at a 50% or higher weed to grass ratio, it will be most advantageous to remove everything and start from scratch.

Whether you’re improving what you have or starting new, this Ultimate Warm Season Grass guide, you’ll discover all of the different strategies and tactics you can start applying today to achieve the lawn of your dreams.

Choosing A Warm-Season Grass Variety

Bahia Grass

Bahiagrass grows best in the Gulf coast or deep south. It is able to withstand high heat and drought, with a moderate tolerance for colder temperatures. It holds up better in the shade compared to Bermuda Grass, but does not hold up as well with heavy foot traffic since its growth comes mostly from stolons only.

Bahiagrass prefers more a more acidic pH level and can survive well in sandy soil. In regions where the soil is high in alkaline, it is highly susceptible to iron deficiency. The ideal soil pH level is within the range of 5.5 – 6.5 and the optimal height is 2 – 3”.

Bermuda Grass

You’ll find Bermuda Grass anywhere in the southern region of the United States spanning from far west to far east.

Its fast growth rate requires more frequent mowing, sometimes twice per week. It flourishes best in the high heat range of 95 – 100 F and is great at withstanding drought with a moderate tolerance for colder temperatures.

Additionally, it bears up well against heavy foot traffic due to the double growth action of having both stolons and rhizomes (meaning there are ground stems above and below ground). It grows best in sandy soils that are higher salinity and pH level, and does not do well in shade.

The ideal soil pH level is within the range of 5.8 – 7.0 and the optimal height is 1 – 2”.

Centipede Grass

Centipede grass is more finicky and is mostly found in the south east.

It is also one of the slowest warm-season grass varieties. It requires minimal mowing and fertilization and thrives in warm, tropical climates and full sun.

This grass is not ideal for areas with heavy foot traffic since most of its growth comes from stolons, which is growth that is primarily above-ground. It also has a low tolerance for cold, since it does not have a true dormancy period.

Similar to Bahia Grass, it prefers acidic, low pH soil and does not do well in soil high in alkaline. The ideal pH balance is within the range of 4.5 – 6.0 and the optimal height is 1 – 1.5”.

Zoysia Grass

Zoysia Grass does well in the transition zone, where cool, warm, humid and arid regions convene. It is more prone to thatch growth and is slower to recover when thinning becomes severe.

Due to it’s the slower growth rate, it requires less frequent mowing and less fertilizer.

The maintenance with this variety comes with the need to dethatch. One of the hardiest grass varieties, Zoysia Grass has a high tolerance for heat but prefers some shade. It does well during cold periods, droughts, and heavy foot traffic. Similar to Bermuda Grass, it prefers a higher pH and does well with salinity.

The ideal pH level is within the range of 5.8 – 7.0 and the optimal height is 1 – 2”.

Not found what you’re looking for? Check out my article on Cool-season grass.

To Seed Or To Sod?

That is the question. Grass seed and sod both come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages.

sod grass

Here are a few questions that you’ll want to ask yourself when choosing between sod and grass seed for your new lawn:

How quickly do I need my new lawn?

If you’re in a time crunch, sod will deliver quickly in both appearance and root establishment. Sections of sod are unrolled in rows that appear seamless once properly installed, so you’ll feel the instant gratification of a full, lush-looking lawn on day one.

Once roots become established within 2-3 weeks, it will be ready for foot traffic. Most grass seed can take up to 10-12 weeks before they’re able to withstand even the slightest disturbance and it will also take at least one full growing season to be ready for regular foot traffic.

What time of year do I plan to begin?

It will also matter greatly when it comes to the time of year you decide to get started on your lawn. Sod can be installed generally anytime in the growing season, except during high heat.

If you’re already in the middle of your peak season for heat, you’ll be much more successful with choosing grass seed to overseed.

How much time do I have for maintenance?

If you’re looking for a low-maintenance solution that requires minimal time, you’ll want to consider sod overseed.

Since it has been already grown to maturity, sod is generally very weed resistant. As roots establish quickly, weed seeds will be outcompeted by the thick root system of your sod. Grass seed is easy to install initially, but it will take more frequent and careful monitoring during the growth process to be truly successful.

Planting grass seed closer to fall when weeds are less active will help save on time.

How susceptible will my lawn be to erosion?

One unique advantage to consider about sod is that it protects the soil below it from erosion. If you’ve spent a considerable amount of time and money in amending your soil, sod might be your best insurance against water erosion or steep sloping.

If you’re planting grass seed on a slanted area or if you’re thinking about planting during a rainy season, it might be extremely difficult to keep your seeds in place before they establish any roots.

What’s my budget?

Since most of the work has already been done, you should expect to pay more for sod, as opposed to grass seed. It only makes sense.

And since installing sod is a laborious process requiring heavy lifting and the proper technique, it may be best to back your investment with the help of a professional. Grass seed can be a cost-effective option but will require a lot more of your time and greater chances of failed efforts.

Getting To Know Your Soil

testing soil

What is pH-Balanced Soil?

To help your lawn properly access the nutrients it needs for optimal growth, you’ll need to pay attention to your soil’s pH level, which will vary depending upon the region you live in. There are ways to alter or improve your pH level by adding different types of soil amendments such as lime or fertilizer.

Most grass species grow best planted in soil that is in the range of 5.8 – 7.0, a pH that is slightly acidic to neutral.

How to test your soil:

1) Plan ahead. When you test your soil several months in advance of installing seed or sod, you’ll allow yourself the time to properly amend your soil if needed. If you’ve recently added fertilizers of any type, you’ll want to wait at least 6-8 weeks before testing again.

Healthy, mature lawns should generally be tested at least once every 3 years. Seek out local experts who are familiar with your region’s most common soil characteristics and come up with an ideal baseline for your soil.

2) Assess each area. If you have a front and backyard, you should treat both as separate areas and test each one. Not only can soil vary between yards, but it can also vary in different areas of the same yard depending on how large it is and if there are other varying factors in certain areas.

3) Gather your sample. An optimal soil sample is comprised of 10-12 cores that have been pulled from random points of the area that you want to test. A proper core should be a cross-section of at least 4-6 inches.

Once you pull all of your cores together, break it up with your hands and remove any stems, thatch, blades, or rocks. A specially-designed core sampler will work best, but gardening shovels work well too, as long as they are not rusting or made of any galvanized metal.

A stainless-steel gardening shovel will do the job without contaminating the results.

4) Prepare for testing. Once you’ve mixed your cores together, pull and set aside approximately one cup from the mix. Make sure to stay organized throughout this process, especially if you’re taking samples from multiple areas.

Draw up a simple map or diagram before you get started and make sure to label each sample so that you don’t accidentally mix them up.

5) Interpret your results. Whether you choose to send your samples to a professional laboratory or use an at-home testing kit, you’ll want to understand all of the details that go along with each area of your lawn.

For example, if the area is next to a lot of tree coverage or shrubbery. If you’re choosing to do the sampling on your own, you’ll want to do a considerable amount of research in determining the best amendments for your soil.

Amending Your Soil

What are the different types of soil amendments?

Compost, dead leaves, and grass clippings are considered organic matter, and spread over your lawn to allow nutrients to decompose and circulate back into the soil naturally. Having a variety of organic matter in your soil can diversify the way the soil particles fit together, helping to maintain an ideal moisture balance.

Lime is a source of calcium that helps to increase the pH of your lawn.

It can help improve nutrient intake, especially when your soil pH is too acidic. If you’ve achieved the ideal pH level for your grass strain but want to increase water retention and loosen compacted clay-heavy soil, applying a layer of gypsum is a great option.

Elemental Sulfur & Ammonium sulfate contain sulfur, which can help to lower your pH balance over time when your soil is too high in alkaline.

Can you over-fertilize your lawn?

Over-fertilization can also cause an unhealthy growth spurt in the grass, creating a lot of unwanted overgrowth.

Once your lawn is mature and well established, a good rule of thumb is twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. If your lawn is still in its beginning stages, you may consider adding another dose of fertilization once during the summer.

To prevent burn out, wait to apply nitrogen and weed control until there is at least 50% green-up.

Besides fertilizer, what else can I do for my soil?

As soil becomes compacted, water, oxygen, and vital nutrients become less and less available for grass roots.

Aeration is when plugs of soil (much like core samples) are pulled up and out throughout your lawn to help promote new growth and a more successful application of fertilizer or other soil amendments.

Watering Your Lawn

Depending on the amount of rainfall occurring in your region, most warm-season grasses need at least 1 – 1.5” of water per week, even for drought-tolerant species.

warm season grass hose water

You can accomplish your watering needs by means of several different techniques and apparatuses.

You can water with a hand-held attachment that connects to a hose, or with an oscillating sprinkler system. Some sprinkler systems are even equipped with technology that uses weather forecasts and special sensors to customize your lawn’s water intake.

You certainly want to pay attention to the amount of rainfall you’ve recently had, to avoid overwatering.

What’s the most important thing I should know about watering?

If you want to water less often and with only the water your grass needs to avoid water waste, focus first on how you’re going to water deep, instead of how long and frequent.

Beneath all lush, green lawns is a deep, strong, and established root system. When water only reaches the surface of your soil, your lawn’s root system will be shallow and more prone to drought and erosion.

What system wastes the least amount of water?

One of the best and most efficient watering systems is known as drip irrigation, which allows water to flow out very slowly and soak into the root area of your lawn. 90% of the water being used goes directly to your lawn, compared to regular sprinkler systems that waste on average of 50% of the water being used.

Drip irrigation is also great for preventing the growth of harmful mold and fungi.

Does the time of day really matter?

The best time to water your lawn is during the early morning hours. If you water during the heat of the day, it will evaporate more quickly and your lawn will become thirsty. Grass blades are also constantly releasing moisture into the atmosphere through its stomata by means of transpiration.

If you water at night, the lack of sun and warmth for an extended period of time will provide the right conditions for the growth of pathogenic mold and fungi.

Check out my article on whether watering in the sun really does burn your lawn.

Mowing Your Lawn

How short should I go?

It’s not uncommon to want to keep your lawn short so that you don’t have to mow as frequently.

However, this will do more harm than good in the long run.

Although the ideal height may vary between strains, most experts recommend keeping at least 2-3 inches in height. If you cut your grass too short, it will be more prone to thinning, weed growth, water run-off, sun exposure, and noxious pests.

Keeping your grass longer will make your lawn seem thicker, healthier, and more lush overall.

Is it okay to mow when it’s wet?

You’ll want to plan your mowing times outside of your watering schedule and rainstorms.

If you mow your grass while it’s wet, it will not only be messy with grass and soil sticking to your blades, but it will also create scalping and unwanted soil buildup.

It’s best to mow when your lawn is dry, and often this is during the heat of the day when the sun has evaporated any water or dew.

Are dull blades bad for my grass?

When it comes to mowing your lawn, the ideal result is that each blade of grass has been given a clean cut. If your blades are dull, it will rip the blades instead, making your grass tips more prone to drying and visible browning.

A clean-cut also helps to prevent disease, promoting healthy growth and allowing your grass tips to heal quickly and seamlessly.

mowing warm season grass

Common Lawn Issues

How can I keep weed maintenance to a minimum?

It’s typically always best to pull weeds manually right when they are beginning to sprout.

For broad-leaved weeds such as dandelions, you can clip their leaves down which will weaken the plant and allow it to more easily be removed at the root. This is very important, as many perennial weeds will grow back even if the smallest amount of root is broken off and left in the ground.

One possible trick is to spread cornmeal over your lawn during the fall before your lawn enters its dormancy period. This has been known to kill weed seeds and also provides a healthy dose of nitrogen, a vital nutrient needed for your lawn.

What is thatch and how do I get rid of it?

If your lawn has ever been over-fertilized, grass blades tend to grow very rapidly and then die quickly. Synthetic fertilizers have also been known to kill good bacteria in the soil that promote healthy decomposition of organic matter.

Lawn Glossary

Acidic: When the pH of your soil measures between 0.0 – 7.0, it means it has a higher concentration of hydrogen ions. Although most warm-season grasses thrive best in acidic soil, it should be closer to the neutral range since grass cannot survive in soil that is too acidic.

Alkaline: When the pH of your soil measures between 7.0 – 14.0, it means that it has a lower concentration of hydrogen ions, and also that the soil has fewer nutrients. If your soil is high in alkalinity, your grass will be at risk for nutrient deficiencies.

Aerate: The process of removing small plugs of soil throughout your lawn in order to help your soil regenerate oxygen and intake new nutrients. It will promote new growth and a higher success rate when it comes to amending your soil.

Dormancy: Perennial warm-season grass varieties are able to enter what is called, a dormancy period. When the temperature begins to drop below 65F, the grass will begin to brown and root growth will slow, which protects the grass from frost damage.

Drip Irrigation: A highly efficient watering system where water flows out slowly, allowing for maximum soaking into the root area of your lawn.

pH Level: Data that comes from measuring the concentration of hydrogen ions, listed on a scale between 0.0 to 14.0, 7.0 being considered neutral. If a number is lower, it means it is more acidic and has a higher concentration of hydrogen ions. If a number is higher, it has fewer ions and is considered to be high in alkalinity.

In order to find out which soil amendments are best, one must first measure the pH of the soil.

Rhizomes: Grass stems that are below-ground. Grass that has both rhizomes and stolons (above-ground stems) helps the grass grow and recover quickly through double growth action.

Sod: Grass that has grown to maturity that is harvested to include a meshed layer of soil and root growth. It can be purchased in rolled-up sections.

Stolons: Grass stems that grow above-ground. Grass that has both stolons and rhizomes (below-ground stems) help the grass grow and recover quickly through double growth action.

Stomata: The pores in grass blades that allow the circulation and release of moisture during the process of transpiration.

Topdressing: When you apply a thin layer of soil over your lawn to aid in filling patches, reducing thatch, and balancing out water intake.

Transition Zone: The area between the Southern and Northern regions of the United States where cool, warm, humid and arid regions convene.

Transpiration – A normal, healthy function of grass that occurs more rapidly when the weather is dry and hot.

Moisture passes through the like humans, grass sweats, but it’s called transpiration. During transpiration, moisture passes through stomata (like the pores in your skin), releasing moisture into the atmosphere.

Thatch: Unwanted buildup that occurs as a result of layers of dead grass becoming entangled with living grass. Thatch buildup should be removed to keep your lawn healthy and thriving.

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