Best Turfgrass for Central Virginia

Question: What are the best types of turf for Central Virginia, and how do I go about choosing one for a new or totally renovated lawn?

Selecting the right turf type for a Central Virginia lawn can be a bit complicated. Virginia happens to be in a ‘climatic transition zone,’ with winters just cold enough and summers just hot enough to make deciding between a cool-season turf and a warm-season turf quite challenging. Let’s explore the tradeoffs between the two types for our region.

To get started, first take a soil sample from your yard and have the nutrients analyzed at the Virginia Tech soil lab. Read here for sampling instructions. The Horticultural Help Desk at our local VCE office can also provide information on picking up a soil test kit, taking a soil sample, or help with interpreting the results.

By obtaining an analysis before you put in your lawn, you (or your landscaper) will know how to prepare the soil to be most receptive to your selected grass. If you are in a new construction area, you may also need to remove building debris and other refuse. Ideally, topsoil depth should be 6-8 inches and it should be allowed to settle for 2-3 weeks before seeding or sodding.

What and when to plant?
Turf falls into two categories: cool-season and warm-season.

Cool-season grasses prefer temperatures in the 60-75 degree F range. The best time to seed cool-season grasses is late summer. Seeding can take place in early spring, but competition from crabgrass and summer drought make establishing seedlings more difficult. Their most active growing periods are 1) late summer to early winter and 2) early spring to early summer. These grasses can even stay somewhat green during Central Virginia winters. But, during the hot period of mid-summer, they tend to go dormant and turn brown, unless watered very regularly

On the other hand, warm-season grasses prefer temperatures in the 80-95 degree F range. The best time to seed warm-season grasses is May to July in Central Virginia. This type of turfgrass is dormant in the winter, and these grasses will lose their green color for 3-5 months. There is nothing you can do to change this!

The two recommended cool-season grasses include:

  1. Kentucky bluegrass — dark green and lush with fine to medium blades, needs full sun, is medium to high maintenance and may go dormant in the heat of the summer. It does not tolerate poor soil and is an aggressive creeper. Good candidate for high traffic areas.
  2. Tall fescue – fine to medium-bladed and dense, also may go dormant in the summer. It does not have quite the recuperative qualities of Kentucky bluegrass and consequently may need occasional over-seeding. It does well in full sun to moderate shade, low to moderate maintenance and has a deeper root system allowing it to tolerate drought better than other cool weather grasses.

NOTE: Tall fescue is the dominant grass in the Central Virginia home market and is often mixed with Kentucky bluegrass.

Warm-season grasses have fewer pest problems, use water more efficiently and tolerate extreme summer weather better than cool-season grasses.

Warm-season grass choices include:

  1. Zoysiagrass – fine to medium texture, likes full sun, but also tolerates shade, turns fully brown with the first hard frost and greens up in May. It has the best cold tolerance of the warm weather grasses used in Virginia. While it has low fertilizer and irrigation requirements, it is a very slow creeper. Once established, its density discourages weeds, and it has few insect and disease problems. It is slow to recuperate and is not recommended for high traffic areas.
  2. Bermuda grass – A fine-bladed and drought tolerant, fast growing grass, likes full sun, has little tolerance for shade and is suited for the warmer areas of Virginia. However, new varieties have expanded its possibility of being used anywhere in the state.

For a more complete listing of the best turfgrass for Virginia, read the 2020-21 Virginia Turfgrass Variety Recommendations publication.

How do I plant my turf?
After deciding on which grass to use, you need to determine whether to use seed, sod, plugs (1”-2” pieces of sod) or sprigs (small pieces of shredded sod).

Seed is least expensive, but there are downsides. The seeded area will need protection from erosion and weeds, and will take longer to become established than sod. However, once established, your grass will be well-connected to the soil through its root system. Be sure to buy certified seed to ensure the type and variety of seed shown on the label.

Sodding is quite a bit more expensive, but provides immediately pleasing turf. There are few issues with erosion or weeds if correctly installed. However, sod can take a bit longer to grow roots that strongly connect to the soil below. A trick to encourage strong rooting with sod is to under-seed (i.e. spread seed on the soil just before laying the sod).

A third option is to plant plugs or sprigs, the method used for planting warm-season grasses like Zoysia or Bermuda. Because Zoysia is slow to spread, it may take 2-3 growing seasons to fully cover the area.

What are alternatives to traditional turf?
For years, a nice expanse of green lawn has been our default landscape, appreciated as places for children to play, for sporting activities, and as a frame for the entry to homes and gardens. However, they are expensive, time-consuming to maintain, can contribute to polluting our watersheds and do no support pollinators or other wildlife. In recent years, there has been a growing recognition that reducing or replacing lawns provides opportunities to manage stormwater runoff better and to improve habitat for declining populations of pollinators and other wildlife that are so critical to local ecosystems.

To learn more about lawn alternatives and using native plants to build healthy habitats, read Doug Tallamy’s book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard (Timber Press, 2019) and Beyond the Lawn: Imagine the Options (The Garden Shed, Sept. 2020).

References:

“2021 Virginia Turfgrass Variety Recommendations,” Michael Goatley, Jr., Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication SPES-237NP, 2020.

“Beyond the Lawn: Imagine the Options,”, Melissa King, The Garden Shed monthly newsletter, Piedmont Master Gardeners, Sept. 2020.

“Establishing Lawns,” Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication 426-718, 2017.

“Lawn Alternatives,” Robin M. Hessey, University of Maryland Extension, Home and Garden Information Center, Maryland Master Gardener.

“Maintenance Calendar for Cool-Season Turfgrasses in Virginia,” Michael Goatley et al., Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication 430-523, 2019.

“Maintenance Calendar for Warm-Season Lawns in Virginia,” Michael Goatley et al., Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication 430-522, 2019.

“Turfgrass Identification,” David Gardner, Ohio State University.

“What grass should I grow for my lawn?”, Michael Goatley, Jr., Virginia Cooperative Extension, Extension Turf Specialist, 2008.

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