Choosing the Right Turf

Turfgrasses vary widely in how they adapt to different situations. They have their strengths and weaknesses. There is no perfect turfgrass, and no one grass that is best in all situations. It is a matter of choosing the best turfgrass for the situation and then managing it to achieve a practical, sustainable and aesthetic turf surface.

Homeowners and turf professional often choose their turfgrass on looks (colour, leaf texture, density, etc.), what it costs, and what they have seen advertised on TV. However there are more important factors to be considered. These include the intended use, the resources available and the level of maintenance you wish to provide, the climate, the soil type, any physical or environmental limitations (e.g. water availability and quality, areas subject to shade or high wear), surrounding plants, incidence of pests, diseases and weeds etc.

Following are two (2) uses that each contain some key questions specific to the intended usage that will serve as a guideline to helping you ultimately choose the right turfgrass:

It is important to have an idea of the type of yard you want. Do you want a lawn that is highly manicured and carefully tended, or are you looking for an average lawn with lower inputs of fertiliser and maintenance? Or perhaps you are seeking a more natural look. Do you want a single species giving a uniform texture throughout, or are you comfortable with multiple species either growing together or in problem spots (e.g. shade) in your yard?

While most turfgrasses will grow satisfactorily across a range of maintenance levels, there is an optimum level of management needed to maintain good turf quality for each grass. Maintenance levels are closely related to cost and time, with high maintenance turf costing the most and taking the most time to maintain. Major sports stadiums are not a good model to follow as a homeowner unless you are prepared to spend a lot of money on fertiliser and a lot of time mowing, perhaps several times a week. Realistically assess your ability to maintain your lawn, whether you intend to do the work or to pay someone else to do it. For example, unless mown regularly, most green couches will scalp badly in patches, leaving bare leafless stems that are unsightly and slow to recover. Blue couch, by comparison, is less affected by an irregular mowing schedule.

Because of differences in climatic and soil conditions, certain grasses will grow better in some locations than in others. While this may at first be confusing, it also means that there is usually a number of well-adapted grasses from which to choose a grass (or grasses) for your lawn; and these will almost certainly be stocked by a professional turf producer in your area.

Except for high altitude areas, generally speaking only 'warm-season' grasses are suitable for year-round growth in lawns within subtropical and tropical environments. Be aware that the 'cool season' grasses (ryegrass, fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, etc.) sometimes promoted in “shady lawn” seed mixes are temperate grasses. They can provide a quick short-term grass cover during the cooler months, but will die out once the heat of summer arrives without regular maintenance. Sometimes the humidity and heat is just too much and no matter how much attention to you provide the grass it is destined to fail.

Among the warm-season turfgrasses, green couch suits a wide range of climatic conditions, and some varieties can even be used in temperate regions where the combination of cold temperatures and winter rains prevail. Green couch, however, tends to struggle in the wet tropics of far north Queensland, mainly due to heavy cloud cover during the monsoonal months. The more tropical species like broadleaf carpet grass and centipede grass grow and maintain their green colour better in central and north Queensland where the winters are warmer than in south-east Queensland. Kikuyu grass, on the other hand, does not tolerate high summer temperatures and is best suited to higher altitude sites and the coastal subtropics.

For temperate regions a range of green couch and hybrid green couches are still an option. Since the millennium drought councils, sporting groups and homeowners alike have moved away from cool-season grasses to couch varieties because of the water savings and reduced maintenance. However, most warm-season turfgrasses in cool-season environments will go dormant (stop growing) and turn brown in colour during the cooler months. At this time, options for oversowing e.g. ryegrass can be applied to provide aesthetics or if this is just too hard, maybe a cool-season species of turf straight out is the option for you.

There are a range of cool-season turfgrass available to you as a consumer. These include ryegrass, fescue (tall and fine), Kentucky bluegrass and bentgrass (brown-top and creeping). Refer to turf the turf species difference page of search within the turf variety page for specific details on each species and varieties commercially available.

A number of soil characteristics need to be considered. Natural soil types vary from sands through to heavy clays and therefore drainage varies from good to poor. Water also has difficulty penetrating soil compacted by vehicles and pedestrians. Broadleaf carpet grass, for example, grows best in wet soils, and will often take over such spots in the yard, particularly where shade is also present.

The acidity or alkalinity of the soil (as measured by pH) has a major effect on the different turfgrasses. Some (like seashore paspalum and kikuyu) are able to grow across a wide range of pH from acid through to alkaline (i.e. from pH 5.5 or less through to pH 9.0 or more). Green couch prefers soils ranging from slightly acid (pH 6.5 to 7.0) to alkaline, yet some varieties can tolerate a pH level between 5.5 and 8.5 (McCarty and Miller, 2002). The extreme range is very similar for some buffalo grass varieties that can tolerate a wider range, from pH 4.5 to 8.5 (Busey, 2003). Many Australian soils are more acid than this, hence the recommendation to apply lime to adjust soil pH so that it is close to neutral (pH 7.0). However, other grasses like blue couch, carpet and centipede grass prefer acid soils down to pH 5.0 or less, so that liming of the soil in these cases is not beneficial.

Shade affects about 25% of turfgrass areas. Around the home, it is very likely that some parts of the lawn will be shaded by trees or buildings, and this could restrict the selection of grasses suitable for those shaded spots in the yard.

Turfgrasses vary greatly in their tolerance of shade, and the appearance of your lawn will indicate whether or not it is affected by shade. All grasses, near the limits of their shade tolerance, react similarly. A shaded lawn produces fewer shoots giving it a more open appearance; the remaining shoots become etiolated (elongated) with leaves angled upwards, which further reduces light interception; and turf recovery within these areas is nearly non-existent.

The sun-loving species including green couch, blue couch, kikuyu, and centipede grass - start to show the damaging effects of shade at about 30% shade (or 70% of full sunlight), though a few more tolerant cultivars will grow satisfactorily at about 50% shade. Buffalo grasses and the zoysias will grow in heavy dappled tree shade (c. 60-80% shade); whereas sweet smothergrass, broadleaf carpet grass and the Panicum laxum variety 'ShadeGro' are the most shade tolerant species, growing successfully under trees where shade exceed 80%.

Most domestic lawns do not receive traffic heavy enough to cause excessive wear and the possible loss of some patches. Exceptions are where children's play is concentrated or dogs run on a regular pattern. In those areas, grasses with good wear tolerance such as green couch or zoysia should be used.

Shade, however, compounds wear problems, because a shaded grass is already under stress. Although sweet smothergrass, for example, grows well in shaded areas, it is less tolerant of wear in shade than it is in full sun.

Different grasses require different mowing practices. All will grow faster and require more frequent mowing during summer, especially if fertilised and watered. Most green couches require more regular mowing than blue couch to keep them short and leafy. At the other extreme, centipede grass requires less frequent mowing to maintain a lawn in good condition.

If you choose a short-growing grass that requires mowing at about 10-15 mm, you also need a mower that can be adjusted down to this height. Similarly, mulch mowing is less effective where the grass has a high shoot density, because the recycled clippings are not as easily or evenly distributed and tend to remain as unsightly lumps of cut material on the lawn surface.

Stoloniferous warm-season grasses (blue couch, buffalo, sweet smothergrass and carpet grass) and some cool-season grasses will run into a garden bed unless there is an edging strip to act as a physical barrier, but their runners are easily pulled out and removed. Physical barriers around a garden bed, however, may not be sufficient to stop invasion by the strong underground network of rhizomes on grasses like green couch, kikuyu and zoysia grass.

Texture, density and colour are characteristics that contribute to the visual appearance of the lawn. The choice here is a matter of personal preference, but there will also be times when other factors (soil, shade, wear, etc.) mean that compromise here will be necessary.

Texture is a relative measure of leaf blade width and may be coarse, medium, or fine. Blue and green couch are medium (sometimes fine) textured grasses; buffalo, kikuyu, carpet, sweet smothergrass and centipede grass are coarse textured. The texture of most lawn grasses also becomes finer with closer and more frequent mowing. Because they have narrower leaves, finer textured grasses are generally more attractive if well maintained. As a general rule, however, fine textured grasses also require a higher level of maintenance. So under a low maintenance regime, coarser textured grasses will be more attractive.

Density relates to the number of shoots per area of the ground. Species with a high density and finer leaf texture generally produce better quality lawns. They are also less likely to be invaded by weeds than for grasses with a more open sward. Grasses with a lower shoot density and coarser leaf texture generally require a higher mowing height to produce a good quality lawn.

Colour is determined by the overall appearance of the leaves that make up the surface of the lawn. Many people prefer a dark green colour, but many such grasses also appear more susceptible to lawn grub attack during summer. Colour preferences are not just a personal issue; they also vary between regions, in part due to previous exposure to different grasses. For example, Queenslanders are more likely to accept a blue-green colour (typical of blue couch, which grows widely in the state) than Victorians, who are more definite in their preference for a dark green lawn.

Content included on this page has been modified; original content was published in Lawns and Lawn Care, a homeowner's guide (no date) and on the web by the former Dept of Primary Industries and Fisheries. Permission for use has been granted by the now Dept of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Busey, P. (2003). St. Augustinegrass, Stenotaphrum secundatum (Walt.) Kuntze. In M.D. Casler and R.R. Duncan (ed.). Turfgrass Biology, Genetics, and Breeding. p. 302-330. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ.

McCarty, L.B. and Miller, G. (2002). Managing Bermudagrass Turf: Selection, Construction, Cultural Practices, and Pest Management Strategies. Sleeping Bear Press, Chelsea, MI.

Are you looking for a hybrid bermudagrass or fine fescue suitable for a golf, bowls or croquet green; or a medium-textured turfgrass that you can play amateur or professional sport on? There are many turfgrass to choose from that will best suit your environment, usage and budget. Choosing the right one is essential to make you facility playable and most importantly safe for its users.

While most turfgrasses will grow satisfactorily across a range of maintenance levels, there is an optimum level of management needed to maintain good turf quality for each grass. Maintenance levels are closely related to cost and time, with high maintenance turf costing the most and taking the most time to maintain. For example, major sports stadiums in northern states grow ryegrass in winter, whereas southern states predominantly grow ryegrass year-round. The cost to maintain a ryegrass field, including mowing, fertilising and watering alone, is significant in comparison to other turf species. You need to decide, not just how you want your field(s) to look but honestly how practical is will be to maintain them on a budget.

Because of differences in climatic and soil conditions, certain grasses will grow better in some locations than in others. While this may at first be confusing, it also means that there is usually a number of well-adapted grasses from which to choose from a professional turf producer in your area.

Except for high altitude areas, only warm-season (C4) grasses (those adapted to subtropical and tropical conditions) are suitable for year-round growth in subtropical and tropical environments. Cool-season (C3) grasses (ryegrass, fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, etc.) are better suited for temperate regions, yet some C4 grasses are also well adapted. Green couch varieties have in recent years following the millennium drought been chosen because of their drought tolerance compared with the majority of the C3 grasses.

Unfortunately sports turf and shade do not mix. Turfgrasses vary greatly in their shade tolerance of shade. Less shade tolerant turfgrasses produce fewer shoots giving it a more open appearance; the remaining shoots become etiolated (elongated) with leaves angled upwards, which further reduces light interception; and turf recovery within these areas is nearly non-existent.

The amount of sunlight varies through the day, from season to season, and from place to place. Approximately 70% of total daily radiation is received between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. in summer, or between about 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. in winter, so these are the crucial periods to observe whether your area to be turfed is sunny or shaded. A sunny winter day receives only about 60% of the radiation of a sunny summer day, but seasonal differences in cloudiness compensate partially for this because cloud reduces light levels by 40% or more.

"Traffic stress is a general term that covers two components: soil compaction and wear (Beard, 1973). While soil compaction and wear may occur simultaneously on the same turf site, one is usually the dominant stress on the turfgrass plants (Carrow and Petrovic, 1992). Wear injury involves direct damage to shoot tissues (e.g. by mechanical pressure, abrasion, scuffing, tearing, or divoting) and dominates the effects of traffic stress on high-sand root zones (e.g. elite sports fields) and when moisture becomes limiting on heavy soils, while soil compaction dominates on fine-textured soils at high moisture contents, particularly at or above field capacity" (Roche, 2009).

Numerous studies have been undertaken on the wear tolerance and recovery of turfgrasses suitable for sportsfields. One of these articles that present their findings on a range of green and hybrid green couch grasses can be seen below.

Wear Tolerance and Community Sportsfields (1.5 MB)

Wear tolerance and recovery capabilities of a turfgrass are important, yet so too are the mowing requirements. The morphological-agronomic diversity of C4 grasses is vast, but also within a species of turf significant variation exists, particularly between old and new varieties (Roche, 2012). Regular mowing improves turf quality; nevertheless it can be a financial burden on clubs resources and be very time consuming for turf managers during an active growing season. It's important to choose a suitable turfgrass to meet your usage needs and available resources.

Content included on this page has been modified; original content was published in Lawns and Lawn Care, a homeowner's guide (no date) and on the web by the former Dept of Primary Industries and Fisheries. Permission for use has been granted by the now Dept of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Roche, M.B., Loch, D.S., Penberthy, J.D.L., Durant, C.R. & Troughton, A.D. (2009) Factors Contributing to Wear Tolerance of Bermudagrass [Cynodon dactylon (L.) Pers., C. dactylon x transvaalensis Burtt-Davey] on a Sand-Based Profile under Simulated Sportsfield Conditions. International Turfgrass Society Research Journal, Vol. 11: 449-459.

Roche, M.B., Penberthy, J.D. and O'Brien, L. (2012). TU08018: Traffic Tolerance of Warm-Season Turf Grasses under Community Sports Field Conditions. Final Project Report for Horticulture Australia Ltd (HAL).

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Turf Area Calculator