In past generations, Southern yards of the more advantaged families often featured mulched gardens of camellias and azaleas with paths winding amongst them. Country and poor people had areas fenced for chickens and gardens devoted to growing food. A well-kept yard was swept to keep it free of sticks and leaves. Numerous children and pets mostly played outdoors, their feet packing the earth into a hard surface difficult even for weeds to get a foothold.
A boost in economic prosperity for the South came with the end of World War II. With the increase in automobile production and affordable mortgages for returning servicemen, people began leaving the city core and moving to suburbs. Fewer people farmed, and more and more Southern fathers had white collar jobs. A lawn signified that you didn’t have to grow your own food and that you had the leisure time to devote to watering, fertilizing, weeding, and mowing your footprint of respectability.
Today we are becoming more aware of water conservation and cautious about using pesticides at our homes. To keep a lawn healthy requires an inch of water a week during the growing season, either from rainfall or irrigation. Although many of us are experts in using the apps on our smartphones, the mysteries of irrigation timers are obviously beyond the understanding of some as we often see sprinklers happily spraying water during thundershowers. Fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides, and glossy riding lawn mowers are additional tools every homeowner now employs in order to attain a yard up to the neighborhood standard. As we face more severe weather, more exotic and harder to control weeds and insects, and an aging population, we may want to rethink the extent of our commitment to framing our house with more lawn than we use for outdoor recreation.
The first question for any homeowner is what kind of grass to grow. In the Midlands, we can choose among four prime candidates, all of which are warm-season turfgrasses that have some degree of dormancy during the winter and are actively growing and green (when all is well) from late spring to early fall. All of these are native to semi-tropical regions, and unlike our woody plants, they don’t fully green up until mid-May.
The most commonly grown of these is centipede grass. It was first planted in the United States after its seeds were found in the returned suitcase of a USDA employee, Frank Meyer, after his disappearance in China, where he was on a collecting expedition. Known as poor man’s grass, centipede can go dormant in drought and recover. It does not achieve real dormancy in winter, which means post-emergent weed control can be challenging. A heavy hand with nitrogen fertilizer in amounts other grasses require is harmful and can lead to what my friend and fellow Extension Agent Tony Melton refers to “as loving it to death.”
It requires one light application of fertilizer per year, which must be done based on a soil test, as high levels of phosphorus can lead to centipede’s decline. It grows best in soils relatively low in pH, again saving time and money spent in applying lime. It has moderate shade tolerance. One major pest is large patch fungal disease. Sadly, it has poor tolerance to traffic — so no football or soccer on these lawns. The natural color of centipede is Granny Smith apple yellow-green, but if your daughter is having a backyard wedding, you can darken it with an application of iron. Centipede is susceptible to damage from herbicides, so you must carefully read the label to determine the reduced rates it tolerates.
Zoysia grass has good tolerance to traffic. It wants to be cut with a reel mower, which actually cuts like scissors, but if you absolutely promise to sharpen your mower blades monthly, you can keep it at its desired 2-inch height with a regular machine. Many new hybrids are available, with textures ranging from coarse to fine, and although they perform best in full sun, some new hybrids offer good shade tolerance. Many choices are now available with this turfgrass, which is becoming more and more popular. Our team leader once had his daughter do a barefoot test at a research plot with several different grasses, and zoysia felt the best to her.
St. Augustine is the most shade tolerant grass we can grow, but the operative word is tolerant. It prefers full sun but can perform well with a daily exposure of four to six hours, depending on the cultivar. St. Augustine has a good green color and a wider leaf blade than centipede. Some newer cultivars have smaller leaves and can be cut shorter than the standard 3 to 4 inches. This grass requires frequent fertilization. Weed control is difficult as only a few post-emergent herbicides are safe to use on this grass. In addition to large patch, St. Augustine is susceptible to grey leaf mold, and it can be quickly devastated by chinch bugs. It is our least cold tolerant grass, too. You really need to do constant monitoring to keep this grass healthy, but a St. Augustine lawn can be lovely in shadier landscapes.
Vigorous to a fault is perhaps the disadvantage of bermudagrass. When grown with the recommended intensive maintenance program it demands and in the full sun it requires, this grass needs to be cut twice a week in the growing season and should be monitored frequently for thatch build-up. This is the “go to grass” for sports fields and golf courses as it has great tolerance for wear and tear. In a home landscape, you might want to use metal borders around flowers and shrub beds to keep it from invading those spaces. More cultivars are available than you can shake a stick at, and you can find a listing of them if you Google search “Bermudagrass Fact Sheet 1208 Clemson HGIC.” Certain ones are very susceptible to nematode and Bermudagrass mite damage for which there is no control.
For the best results you should always test your soil to get fertilizer recommendations. These tests determine what’s currently available in your soil and give detailed and precise directions on amounts and frequency of nutrient applications and pH adjustment. So called “turf builder” mixtures are not correctly formulated for our lawns and result in your spending more money and applying more than necessary and potentially harmful amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Weed and feed products do absolutely no good at all as pre-emergent herbicides need to be put out in mid-September and the first of March — times when fertilizer should not be applied. Slow-release fertilizers cost more but extend the time period the nutrients are available. Don’t fertilize until the grass is completely greened up (usually mid-May) and able to take up those nutrients. Don’t fertilize after mid-August as grass needs to start its transition into dormancy for cold temperature tolerance.
Allowing the grass clippings to fall back on the lawn can provide up to 25 percent of nitrogen needs while adding always beneficial organic matter to the soil. Individuals should not remove more than one-third of the grass leaf blades at one time. They should mow when the grass is dry. Cutting wet grass tugs on the roots, which then tend to clump. For diseased turf and/or a heavily weedy lawn, collect and dispose of those clippings according to local ordinances. Check mower directions to determine if the collection bag can safely be removed.
One inch of water a week is needed in the growing season. Get a rain gauge, as what falls from the sky is part of that equation. In the absence of rainfall, make two half-inch applications per week on sandy soils. On heavier soils, one inch at one time is sufficient. This practice will encourage the roots to grow deeper into the soil and make your grass healthier. Water any time after dew fall, but always complete watering in early morning. Extending the wet period is a perfect scenario for large patch fungal disease that attacks all warm season grasses. For more tips, including calculating how much your irrigation system or sprinklers are putting out, read Fact Sheet 1225 Conservation Turfgrass Irrigation Clemson HGIC.
For more detailed information on the turfgrasses we can grow in Zone 8, please use Clemson’s vast array of fact sheets on these and other topics. For specific questions, the staff at the Home & Garden Information Center is remarkably patient and helpful. Call them at (864) 656-9999 and press 1 to get a real live person.