My standard answer is: “There are many factors involved and they all have their pros and cons, but there is no perfect grass because if there were, we would all have the same thing!”
Having said that, many of you may be in the process of deciding what type of grass to plant in the yard, or you may want to change what you have now.
Basically, there are four different warm season grasses you have to choose from for a permanent lawn in the Augusta area: centipede, zoysia, St. Augustine and bermudagrass.
Do not look for a cool season grass like fescue or bluegrass to give you a permanent lawn in spite of all the advertisements you see in the spring and fall. Only in rare, small and isolated instances would they work.
And don’t be fooled by other grasses touting their amazing abilities like Canada grass. Canada grass is nothing but a mixture of creeping red fescue, Kentucky bluegrass and annual ryegrass. This mixture might be fine for cooler climates up north, but not for the Augusta area as a permanent lawn.
The first consideration is the options of how you are going to plant. With the four grasses, you can get sod or plugs but only a few have seed available. There is no seed for St. Augustine, hybrid Bermuda, and most varieties of zoysia. So you can only seed centipede, common Bermuda and one variety of zoysia called Zenith (also available in sod). There are seeded types of Bermuda that are advertised as turf type (similar to hybrid but not quite the same or as good) such as Sahara.
When deciding on which grass is best for you, we can start the process of elimination based on how much sun/shade your yard gets. For example, all four grasses will grow in full sun, but they vary in their shade tolerance.
I have always said St. Augustine is the most shade tolerant followed closely by zoysia, but this now needs some clarification based on years of turf shade studies at our research station in Griffin, Ga. St. Augustine is more shade tolerant than most zoysia varieties, but there are four zoysia varieties slightly more shade tolerant than St. Augustine – El Toro, Zeon, Zorro and Jamur. El Toro leads the way here and is most often used on shady tee boxes on golf courses. After these two grass varieties comes centipede then Bermuda. If you have a fair amount of shade you can only choose between St. Augustine and zoysia. But keep in mind that they need a little sun. No turfgrass will grow in 100 percent shade in spite of the efforts of many people.
Centipede is only slightly shade tolerant. I think of centipede as okay for pine tree shade with high limbs on the tree letting in some full sun and filtered light. It doesn’t do well when you have lots of hardwoods unless the limbs are really high off the ground letting in a lot of direct sunlight. Many people mistakenly think centipede is more shade tolerant than it is.
If you have much shade at all you must eliminate Bermuda. Bermuda needs a good sunny exposure, probably at least 8 hours of full sun per day to look its best. The two shade tolerant bermudagrass varieties TifGrand (that I wrote about three years ago) and Celebration probably need about 6 hours of sun. TifGrand and Celebration are about the same in shade tolerance as centipede.
If the grass you have in your yard is not getting enough sun it will “open up” and gradually thin out, most of it a slow process over a period of years.
How much time do you want to dedicate to maintaining a lawn? Centipede has often been called the lazy man’s grass. It needs less mowing, fertilizing, and overall care than the other three.
When it comes to fertilizer, I know of centipede lawns that have not been fertilized in years and they look fine. Actually putting too much fertilizer is detrimental to centipede. Next in fertilizer needs is zoysia, followed by St. Augustine, with Bermuda needing the most. There is what we call high and low maintenance fertilizer recommendations for all four grasses.
How much do you want to mow? With St. Augustine, zoysia, and centipede you can get away with mowing less often, particularly with centipede. Usually every weekend is fine with these three. To keep hybrid Bermuda looking its best you probably need to mow twice a week or at least every four to five days. Bermuda is the only grass that shades itself out. If you don’t mow often enough and only mow every weekend, especially when the grass is growing rapidly, you get the browning appearance from cutting off the leaf blades thus leaving brown stems. But that can be acceptable to most people. It does not necessarily look that bad, it just won’t have the most optimal appearance.
Another consideration you might want to take into account is the water needs of the grasses. It varies significantly from top to bottom. Bermuda is far and away the most drought tolerant in this category. Next comes St. Augustine followed by centipede and zoysia. In comparing zoysia with Bermuda, the Bermuda roots grow much deeper than zoysia thus making it much more drought tolerant.
Disease tolerance is another factor to consider. Before take-all patch disease got so bad, zoysia was considered the most disease prone. But now I must rank St. Augustine first followed by zoysia. There could be debate between centipede and Bermuda but based on my experience I feel that Bermuda is somewhat less prone to fungus than centipede.
For wear resistance, Bermuda wins this one hands down. This is obvious with it being the choice grass of golf courses and athletic fields. Zoysia is next with St. Augustine rated slightly better than centipede.
There are even more factors to consider but these are some of the main points you can use when deciding which grass to plant for your lawn. Many times I ultimately tell a homeowner to go with what they think looks the best.
Reach Sid Mullis, the director of the University of Georgia Extension Service office for Richmond County, at (706) 821-2349 or firstname.lastname@example.org.