Plant Answers  >  Picking the Right Lawn Grass

Weekly Express-News Article
By Calvin R. Finch, PhD, SAWS Water Resources Director, and Horticulturist
Saturday, March 31, 2007

“Picking the Right Lawn Grass”

San Antonio is growing by about 3% every year. All those new homes require landscapes and most will want some type of lawn. After two years of drought, some of us with established landscapes are contemplating a change or at least we are going to attempt to repair our lawn. Here is some information on lawn grasses and alternatives to lawn grass that you may want to consider before you decide how to proceed.

New home buyers first of all need to know that every new home sold with a lawn after January 1, 2005, is required to have four inches of soil under the grass. That is a minimum of four inches, not an average depth. The ordinance also requires that new homes sold after January 1, 2007, must have a lawn grass that survived 60 days of drought in tests conducted by SAWS, Texas Turfgrass Producers, and Texas A&M. The grasses that survived and recovered best are all Bermuda grasses, buffalo grass, the wide bladed zoysia grasses, and Floratam St. Augustine grass. For more information on the ordinance and turf test, visit the SAWS website at

As drought-tolerant as some of the lawn grasses are, another great option is to replace lawn grass with groundcovers. The advantage is that they are even more drought-tolerant, some have more shade tolerance, there is less maintenance, and there are less pests and diseases to worry about. Some of the best groundcovers are Asiatic jasmine, dwarf Ruellia, monkey grass, “Texas Gold” columbine, English ivy, prostrate rosemary, and spreading juniper.

St. Augustine grass is the favorite San Antonio area grass. It has good shade tolerance, spreads quickly, is attractive, is easy to mow, and is easy to find. Unfortunately, it is also the grass that is most susceptible to iron chlorosis, insects, and diseases. St. Augustine does not go dormant in a drought. After a good fight it begins to die. One St. Augustine variety that was a high performer in the 2006 drought test was Floratam.

Zoysia grass has some shade tolerance and forms a light sod that responds well to manicuring. It is the most difficult grass to mow and does better with a sharp mower. Zoysia has better traffic tolerance than St. Augustine. Zoysia grass does go dormant when water is not available. The grass recovers quickly when the rains or irrigation resumes. The thick bladed zoysia selections such as Jamur, El Toro, and Palisodes performed well in the drought test.

Bermuda grasses fared very well in the drought test. They recovered quickly when water was available. Bermuda grasses have the best traffic tolerance of all our grasses. They also are the most versatile in terms of responding to intensive care such as in a golf course, and also surviving with minimal care. Bermuda grass does not have any shade tolerance. Bermuda grass can be seeded or sodded. Seed will only germinate after temperatures warm, after April 15 most years.

Buffalo grass is the most drought-tolerant of all the grasses and our only native grass. It will stay green with about 40% of the water required to keep St. Augustine green. Buffalo grass, however, is very prone to weeds because it does not form a thick sod. Buffalo grass requires full sun and does not have good traffic tolerance. Buffalo grass does best in heavy soils on western or southern slopes mowed very high to shade out weeds. Mowed high, the grass looks more like a groundcover than a manicured turf. Weeds can also be controlled by skilful use of herbicides.

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