Choose turf carefully in the Northeast
by C.L. Fornari
As the turf begins to turn green in response to warmer temperatures, people start considering their lawns. Many have areas that need to be completely overhauled and, when this is the case, most turn to landscape professionals.
"People just know that they can't get grass to grow, and they need help," says Mike Martinko, assistant garden supply manager at highly rated American Plant in Bethesda, Md. "But many of them don't know what to ask for."
There are varieties of grass that will perform better than others for homeowners in Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, some people read about "low-maintenance grasses" in a Sunday newspaper supplement and don't realize that the varieties mentioned aren't appropriate for the Northeast.
Zoysia grass, for example, is often touted as a low-mow alternative to other types of turf, but this is a poor choice for our region. Zoysia doesn't turn green unless the temperatures are very warm. If people do plant such warm season grasses, they're disappointed, says Mike Murray, owner of highly rated Organic Soil Solutions in Needham, Mass. "Most people want to get rid of them because they don't like that brown look in the spring and fall," he says.
For the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, homeowners should ask for a fescue blend. Because of research done at a number of agricultural schools and universities, professional landscapers now have access to new, improved types of fescue seed.
"As an organic lawn care company, we like to use a lot of tall fescues. The new varieties are finer and greener than the traditional clumpy tall fescues," Murray says.
Martinko agrees that fescues are the turf of choice for the Philadelphia and D.C. areas as well. "In this zone, it's too warm to grow cold-type grasses that are sold in the North, and too cold to grow the varieties that do well in the South," he says. "But the University of Maryland has developed a blend of tall fescues for this region, and we usually steer people toward those."
There are many reasons why turf professionals recommend this type of grass. "Tall fescue is the most deeply rooted and drought tolerant of the cool season grasses," Murray says. "A lot of towns have watering bans in the summer, or homeowners prefer not to water, and the tall fescue bounces back well from summer stress."
Both Murray and Martinko say that the area where a lawn is to be installed must be well prepared first. "To be successful, you need a near-neutral pH, organic matter and good soil structure," Murray continues. "It's hard to grow any grass in poor soil."
Martinko adds that the choice between sod and seed is largely a matter of patience and budget. "Sod gives the homeowner instant gratification, but seed is cheaper," he says. Although in the past, most sod was all bluegrass, which is a higher maintenance lawn, this has changed. "Most of the sod we sell is mostly tall fescue with some bluegrass in it."
Martinko also tells people to take a look at their yards now, because mid-April is the time to renovate if you don't want to wait until fall. "If the area is more than 80 percent weeds or bare soil, I usually advise that my customers start from scratch," he says.
C.L. Fornari is a writer, garden consultant, professional speaker and radio host who is dedicated to creating beautiful landscapes and successful gardeners. She gardens on Cape Cod, blogs at WholeLifeGardening.com, and offers other garden articles at GardenLady.com