Cool-season grasses for northern climates

by Caroline Brown

Buying the right kind of seed is a prerequisite for using less fertilizers on your lawn. If you're seeding or re-seeding your lawn this spring, you'll want to make sure that you buy grass seed that's suitable for your climate.

Cool season grass species are adapted for use in areas with cold winters such as the northern U.S. and Canada, while warm season grasses are used in areas that are spared from cold winters, such as the southern and southwest U.S. and the west coast.

Here are a few seed suggestions if you live in a cool season climate. Later, I'll post information about grass seed for warm-season climates.

Some landscapers or books might say that you can grow certain warm season grasses in your area–examples are zoysia, bentgrass, and bermudagrass. However in truth they aren't suitable for cold-season climates. (I'm deferring to my master gardener's manual here–it's my bible).

If you buy grass seed at your local nursery or garden store, you'll likely be looking at bags with a mixture of seeds. This will help you understand how what's in the bag will perform on your lawn.

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis). This is the most popular northern lawn grass, with a medium to fine texture and medium to dark green color. It is at its best in open, well-drained, sunny areas and is not shade tolerant.

Rough bluegrass (P. trivialis). Similar in appearance to Kentucky blue (a little lighter green). However, unlike its Kentucky counterpart, it's highly shade tolerant and prefers moist soils. It will not do as well in dry, sunny areas.

Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne). Fine-texuture and dark green in color, perennial ryegrass is often used for overseeding lawns because it is very competitive with other grass types. It is wear and heat tolerant but only moderately shade tolerant. It prefers fertile (but not moist) soils. Don't confuse perennial ryegrass with annual ryegrass (L. multiflorum). I've read mixed reviews of annual ryegrass, but I'll defer to my master gardener's manual which says that its aggressive growth habit makes it invasive.

Fine fescues (Festuca species). Species include creeping red fescue, chewing fescue, sheep fescue, and hard fescue. They are extremely fine in texture and medium to dark green in color. They tolerate dry, unfertile, low pH soils and shade, and considered low-maintenance grasses. They don't perferom well in high-traffic areas, moist soils, or areas with high heat and humidity.

Tall fescues (Festuca arundinacea). Like fine fescues, tall fescues are also considered low maintenance. Tall fescue varieties range in color from light to dark green and in texture from fine to coarse. Coarser, light green varieties include 'Alta' and 'Kentucky 31.' It isn't normally mixed with other species in large amounts. It is only moderately shade tolerant, producing the best grass in open, sunny, well-drained areas.

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