Plant Answers  >  Buffalo Grass—Not for Everyone
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By Calvin Finch, PhD, SAWS Conservation Director, and Horticulturist
Week of February 28, 2005
Buffalo Grass—Not for Everyone

Buffalo grass is the most drought tolerant grass available on our market but it is not the best grass for most situations. You may be surprised to hear those sentiments from a Water Conservation advocate, but here in a 30-inch rain zone, we have so many plant options that it is possible to have low water use and satisfying landscapes as well.

The good news about buffalo grass is that it is a native grass that prospers on about one half the water of St. Augustine grass. Buffalo grass also has the capability to go dormant in droughty weather just like zoysia and Bermuda grass. For those of you who hate lawn mowing, buffalo grass does best when it is mowed infrequently and is about 5 inches tall.

Does that sound good so far? The bad news is that buffalo grass does best when it is treated like a groundcover. At 5 inches tall there is no potential to make a buffalo lawn look manicured or to use it as a ball field or croquet field. As a groundcover, it is also not nearly as attractive as evergreen groundcovers like Asiatic jasmine or dwarf Ruellia. They are more attractive than buffalo grass as a groundcover; use even less water and even can be used in the shade. Buffalo grass requires full sun.

What happens when you mow buffalo grass at less than 5 inches tall? Buffalo grass does not make a thick sod so it is prone to have weed invasions. Mowed at 2 or 3 inches tall, the lawn is soon overrun by broadleaf and grassy weeds, Bermuda grass is especially problematic. To have a buffalo lawn at less than 5 inches, you must become very skillful with pre-emergent herbicides. Applied 3-4 times per year pre-emergent herbicides will keep buffalo grass relatively weed free.

Buffalo grass is a native grass but it does not make a thick sod anywhere across its range. The purest stands occur in regions where rainfall is under 20 inches per year. There are fewer plants to compete with. The best way to use buffalo grass in South Texas is in full sun on heavy soils on dry slopes with a Southern or Eastern exposure. Otherwise, one of the groundcovers, zoysia grass or Bermuda grass will probably be more effective. Buffalo grass can be grown by seed or sod. Prairie, Stampede and 619 are the common selections.

Zoysia grass has the most shade tolerance after St. Augustine grass. It uses about as much water to keep it green as St. Augustine, but it does have the capability to go dormant in a drought. When rains resume it will quickly green up. Zoysia makes a thick sod and usually is not troubled with weeds. Zoysia has excellent traffic tolerance but is the hardest grass to mow. Most selections do best if mowed with a reel mower but all can be mowed with a rotary mower if the blades are sharp and you mow every week. Mow zoysia grass at 2 inches tall. Emerald is a beautiful fine bladed wiry selection (the most difficult to mow), but El Toro and Jamur are probably the best selections overall. Zeon is fine bladed like Emerald.

Bermuda grass requires full sun to prosper. It requires about 66% of the water of St. Augustine to stay green (half inch/week in the summer). Bermuda is the golf course grass in South Texas. Mow it at 1.5 inches or shorter and your lawn can look like a golf course. Bermuda has the best traffic tolerance of all our grasses. Use it for yards with dogs or kids if there is full sun. Like buffalo and zoysia grasses, Bermuda can tolerate droughts by going dormant. It is not as thick as zoysia grass so has more weed problems than that species (but not nearly as much problems as buffalo grass). Unlike zoysia grass Bermuda can be seeded. Common Bermuda seed is inexpensive at $8-10/lb. Apply 2-4 lbs per 1,000 sq feet. Cheyenne and Sahara are more expensive versions of common Bermuda that do not seem to be as aggressive. Like buffalo seed, Bermuda grass needs warm soil to germinate, usually about May 1st. Tif hybrid Bermuda (419) sod is the usual lawn choice.


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