The Garden Guru: The truth about lawn grass

Posted Friday, Oct. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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This is one of those times when I feel like a politician. Whatever I say, there’s going to be somebody out there who takes exception. But here I go anyway, speaking my piece. I’ve been in North Texas for 43 years, and I’ve experienced a lot in the world of Texas gardening. I’m pretty aware of the plants that grow well here, and I’ve made a list of those that don’t. Some of the entries in my hall-of-lame list are turf grasses, and they’re the ones I’d like to include in today’s chat.

The losers

I’ve watched unusual lawn grasses come and go, and in some cases, they’ve taken lots of consumers’ dollars down with them. Floratam St. Augustine was introduced jointly by the highly respected University of Florida and Texas A&M systems back in the late 1970s. St. Augustine Decline had moved into North Texas, and as is common with viruses, there was no way to stop this one. It devastated St. Augustine, but we were told that Floratam was the answer to our prayers. Then we found out that that was only if you happened to be praying in Houston, San Antonio, Corpus Christi or other South Texas cities where the Floratam wouldn’t freeze, die, dry up and blow away in the winter. (Do I sound peeved? Was I sad that I had recommended it? The resounding answer to at least one of those questions is “Yes!”) Floratam was a bust in North Texas, and homeowners weren’t happy.

Jump 15 years beyond this, and we hear that Prairie and ‘609’ selections of buffalograss will provide us dependable turf grass without need for as much water as Bermuda or St. Augustine. That sounded good, because, as you may have heard, Texas has droughts now and again. But what we didn’t know and should have been told was that common Bermuda grass, if it’s anywhere nearby, will invade and conquer buffalograss turf. Homeowners who had been mowing their buffalograss and watering it occasionally, just to give it at least some semblance of being a lawn, found that it quickly changed over to Bermuda, and that there was no way to prevent the takeover short of hand-digging. And few among us choose to hand-dig Bermuda.

Somewhere in there, the seed breeders started to tell us that fescues would be the solution. You could plant them from seed. They’d be green all winter, and they would tolerate shade. All of that sounded fine, but then we found that fescues require more water than we really want to put on North Texas lawns. Plus, they struggle to remain green during the summer, and they play out in the shade just as badly as St. Augustine.

I tried fescue several times over the years, but I finally decided just to switch over to ground covers that could handle the shade in my landscape, and I’ve never been happier. (Since I know you’ll ask: mondograss, liriope, purple wintercreeper, wood ferns, aspidistra and even a few beds of Asian jasmine.)

In recent years, we’ve heard loud buzzing for a grass that sounds a lot like some other type of buffalograss, along with claims that it thrives in the shade. Oh, I’m out on that one, for a variety of reasons — at least until I see living, growing proof in North Texas landscapes for three or four years.

And it goes on. Someone asked me last week about a grass seed that claimed to be ecologically friendly, but when I did a little research on the company website, I found it was produced in Canada, and that it featured fescues. I’m sorry, but I’ve heard that tune before, and I really don’t think I’m up to hearing it again.

Finding a winner

So, what’s the solution, if all of these grasses are not? The truth of it is that we still don’t really have a grass that scores an A-plus. It’s only my personal rating scale, but I think we have a couple of A-minus or B-plus types (Bermuda and St. Augustine, respectively). And there are zoysias such as Palisades and JaMur that have entered the picture. They may represent the hope of the future.

Here are the questions you should ask before trying a new type of turf grass:

• What type of grass is it? (It’s amazing how hidden that fact may be when you start searching.)

• Can you go somewhere locally to see it growing successfully, and if so, how many years has it been there?

• Does it meet your expectations of a lawn grass? (Some of the ecologically driven grasses, for example, are mowed at 4 to 8 inches — if they’re mowed at all. That sounds more like a pasture.)

• And most importantly, is it better than your existing grass?

Finally, there are those who don’t think we should have lawns in the first place. While I respect everyone’s right to an opinion, I personally don’t believe that it’s sinful or un-Texan to want a patch of green grass around us. Those lawns are for recreation. And cooling. And for preventing runoff and erosion. And for beauty. It would be a stark, hot and drab town if all the lawns were replaced with boulders, cacti and concrete.

Oh, sure, we can reduce the square feet of turf grass we have, but there is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying your lawn, and it’s time that someone spoke up on its behalf.

So that’s what I’m thinking, and I’m hoping I’m not too far out of the pack.

Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens” magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227.

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