I get dozens of questions each week through my contact email. By far, the biggest question I get is “What type of grass seed should I use for my lawn?” Below I will list some of the most common and hardy turf grass varieties for lawns in the Midwest, zone 5. (you can stretch them to zones 4 and 6 too)
Keep in mind that there is a difference in adding seed to an existing lawn, filling in bare or thin spots, and starting a lawn from scratch. Whatever you do, never use only one type or species of grass in your lawn. Seed mixtures are best as one will pick up in place of the other during drought, disease or insect pressure. Temps should be above 60 degrees during the day and above 40 at night for best germination.
The primary grass planted in zone 5 is Kentucky Bluegrass. It’s a quality turf grass and makes a fine, soft textured lawn. It has the ability to fill-in thin areas without reseeding (a bare spot the size of a basketball will fill in within a couple months with proper watering, mowing and fertilizing). Newer varieties are more resistant to disease and drought as well. It performs best in full sun, but can be mixed with a fine fescue for use in shady areas. Bluegrass can take several weeks or more to germinate and establish depending on site conditions, so be patient and keep it moist.
If you use fertilizer with iron in it, your Bluegrass will turn a true “blue” color. Bluegrass can be seeded or sodded for establishment. 90% of sod you purchase from nurseries is mostly bluegrass.
Perennial Rye is the ultimate companion grass. It mixes and blends in with almost any lawn. Most of the perennial ryegrass used in lawns is in a mix of Kentucky Bluegrass or Turf Type Tall Fescue. Its fast establishment time works well with the slower establishment time of Bluegrass and Tall Fescue. It is also a fine textured grass that does well during drought. It is not as cold tolerant as Bluegrass but will survive just fine. This is why I always recommend seed blends!
Red, hard and chewings fescues are all used throughout the midwest. Their primary use is in blends with either Tall Fescue or Kentucky Bluegrass on shady lawns. While they can be planted alone, usually they are a part of a mix. Creeping Red is the most popular of the varieties because it looks best as turf. Hard & chewings are used in blends for areas in which increased shade or bad soil types are more of a problem. Here is an article on testing your soil and lime treatments. In addition, there is the Eco Lawn Fescue seed available that can be grown in shade or sun with similar astounding results. It is a good choice if you are unsure of your lawn’s sun and shade content.
Tall Fescue is a cool season grass with a coarser, wider blade texture. Leaves usually range as wide as 1/4 inch (like the cultivar called ‘Kentucky 31′), though most modern varieties are finer leaved (’Armada’ is a cultivar that is softer and thinner, see pictures here of Armada Tall Fescue). It has increased in popularity in the midwest due to its good drought and heat tolerance allowing the turf to stay green in hot summers that usually send bluegrass into dormancy. It is often used on home lawns, roadsides, parks and playgrounds. If you are looking for a turf type tall fescue seed that is both drought tolerant and softer under foot, the Eco Lawn Fescue seed is your best bet.
Turf Type Tall Fescue is very susceptible to leaf spot fungus in later Spring and rust fungus is summer. However, proper soil pH can reduce the effects and help it recover. My lawn is a mixture of Tall Fescue (Armada) and Perennial Rye. I apply a granular fungicide once per year to reduce disease in my lawn. I am also careful to only water my lawn in the mornings before 9AM. In addition, when disease is present, I catch my clippings instead of mulching so as not to spread the fungus.
(disclaimer: I do not recommend using this grass anywhere in the Midwest because it will not green-up until early June… but if you must…)
Zoysia Grasses are grown successfully from Northern Georgia to Northern Illinois. Zoysia makes a beautiful, thick lawn with a medium textured leaf. There are several lawns in Chicagoland that have been seeded or plugged with Zoysia and they do just fine.
Zoysia grass originated from areas in Southeast Asia, China and Japan. It is a low growing, creeping grass, heat resistant, and crunchy under bare feet. Zoysia is slow to establish but aggressive and chokes out weeds and doesn’t get grubs. Once it’s established, it’s extremely thick!
If you are starting a lawn from scratch, you can do like I did and use Turf Type Tall Fescue mixed with Perennial Rye. If you are seeding bare spots and are not sure what grass types your existing lawn contains, choose a seed with bluegrass and rye grass mixed and you’ll be just fine. Never buy anything labeled “quick grow” as this is oftentimes made up of annual grasses that die after the first season.
If you are doing a general overseeding after aeration, you can add a mix for sun or shade. It’s a good idea to add new cultivars to older lawns to improve their resilience.
If your lawn is bluegrass, DO NOT add tall fescue to it as the fescue will stick up above the rest and look funny.
For information on overseeding or reseeding your lawn, see this article: How to seed your lawn.
This has been another lawn tip delivered by Life and Lawns. Tell a friend!