Panhandle Perspectives - August 24, 2017

Alternatives to bluegrass

Jim Schild and Gary Stone, Extension Educators, Scotts Bluff County

The single biggest use of water in the average western Nebraska household is irrigating the Kentucky bluegrass lawn.

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Jim Schild
Gary Stone

But there are two alternative turfs that allow homeowners to manage water more efficiently: tall fescue, a cool-season grass, and buffalograss, a warm-season grass. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Tall fescue can use more water than bluegrass, but its advantage is a deep, extensive root system, which can extend as deep as 2 ½ to 3 feet in western Nebraska soils. The effective rooting depth for Kentucky bluegrass is 6 to 8 inches.

This means you have a bigger soil profile you're able to manage, so you're not watering as frequently as the bluegrass, and you're able to take advantage if and when we get an extended rain or rainy period.

One of tall fescue's drawbacks is that it looks less attractive when stressed to the point of thinning out. As a bunchgrass, it tends to become "clumpy." Also, its leaf blade tends to widen, which is undesirable.

But some newer cultivars of tall fescue are rhizomatous - they spread by means of underground stems, similar to the way bluegrass fills in dead patches.

Buffalograss, once established, is one of the better alternatives for a low-water landscape. It is a soft, fine-bladed grass slightly lighter in color than Kentucky bluegrass. Buffalograss is another deep-rooted grass, so again, as with fescue, you're able to manage water a little differently and take advantage of seasonal rain to a better extent.

Perhaps the most noted of buffalograss's disadvantages is that the warm-season grass does not green up until around Memorial Day in western Nebraska. At the other end of the growing season, it goes dormant after the first hard killing freeze. In addition, weed control can be challenging the first year of establishment.

But on the plus side, buffalograss doesn't need to be watered in early spring and fall; its fertilizer requirement is half that of bluegrass or less; and mowing frequency is half or less of bluegrass, every two weeks instead of up to twice a week.

UNL Extension has two NebGuides on line related to establishing and caring for buffalograss lawns. Both can be found under lawn and garden section at extensionpubs.unl.edu:

Establishing Buffalograss Turf in Nebraska, G1946. This NebGuide discusses cultivar selection, converting Kentucky bluegrass to buffalograss and establishing buffalograss. (Direct link: http://extensionpublications.unl.edu/assets/pdf/g1946.pdf)

Management of Buffalograss Turf in Nebraska, G1947. This NebGuide discusses irrigation, mowing, fertilization and weed control after the turf stand is established. (Direct link: http://extensionpublications.unl.edu/assets/pdf/g1947.pdf)