The first established homes in the United States had either packed dirt or a mixture of flowers and other native plants growing in the yard. Lawns as we know them today didn’t exist, mainly due to the fact that the grasses native to the U.S. weren’t very suitable for home lawns. For obvious reasons, it wasn’t very practical, or economical, to import seed or sod.
But having a nice lawn was important to some, particularly the wealthy who cou ld afford it. Soon, grasses were being imported from other continents — places like Africa, Europe and the Caribbean. And those grasses are what make up our lawns as we know them today. Native grasses can still be found, but they aren’t as suitable for home lawns as other varieties that are available.
For simplicity, grasses can be divided into two groups: cool-season and warm-season grasses. Cool-season grasses are mainly found in the northern part of the U.S., while warm-season grasses are mainly found in the southern part of the U.S. There is an area in between, referred to as the transition zone, where both grass groups may be found.
Most cool-season grasses were imported from Europe, where the idea of lawns is credited. The main types of grasses found in the cool-season area today are: bluegrass, tall fescue, fine fescues, and bentgrass.
Of the cool-season grasses, Kentucky bluegrass is the most popular for home lawns. However, it is not tolerant of extreme heat, therefore it won’t grow in warmer climates. It forms a thick, soft, dark green lawn.
On the other hand, tall fescue is not tolerant of extreme cold, and it may die in far northern areas such as Minnesota and Canada. It will grow in warmer temperatures, so it can be found in the warmer areas of the transition zone.
Fine fescue is another popular cool-season grass. There are several types of fine fescues, and generally they tolerate both sun and shade. Like their name indicates, they have a soft, or fine, texture. They are used almost exclusively in seed blends because they germinate rapidly and establish quickly, which helps them protect Kentucky bluegrass seedlings.
Ryegrass also is common in seed mixtures because it too germinates and establishes quickly. But, an all ryegrass lawn is uncommon to find. It doesn’t form as thick of a lawn as bluegrass or tall fescue. It is a bunch grass, so it grows in clumps, and it can be difficult to mow.
Keep in mind that most lawns in the cool-season region are a mixture of several of the grass types mentioned above. Look at a lawn in the northern region, and you are likely to find Kentucky bluegrass, ryegrass and fescues. Other grass types may exist as well, but they are likely just grassy weeds .
Bentgrass is mentioned here as a lawn grass, but it is used primarily for golf courses (greens, fairways and tees), and in some gardens and parks. Occasionally, it can be found in home lawns, but a bentgrass lawn is expensive and difficult to maintain.
The warm-season area is basically the area south of a line that extends from Arizona to North Carolina. Grasses typically found in this area include bermudagrass, St. Augustinegrass, bahiagrass, centipedegrass, carpetgrass, zoysiagrass and buffalograss.
St. Augustinegrass, which was originally imported from the Caribbean, can be found primarily in Florida, along the Gulf Coast and in Southern California. It is the most popular grass type in these areas because of its dark green color, ease of establishment, heat tolerance and shade tolerance. It forms a coarse, thick turf that thrives in hot, humid areas.
Bermudagrass, which is native to Africa, is a fine-textured grass with a medium to dark green color. It can be found on most golf courses and nicer home lawns in the south. It is the predominant grass type for most of the warm-season area, and can be grown with some success in cooler areas of the transition zone.
Bahiagrass, which is another grass native to Africa, can also be found in the Gulf region. A bahiagrass lawn requires a lot of work, such as constant mowing and a proper feeding schedule, in order to form an attractive lawn.
Zoysiagrass can be grown in cool-season areas, however it will turn brown as soon as the weather turns cold. For that reason, it is listed as a warm-season grass type. Zoysiagrass is native to the Far East (Japan, Philippines). It forms a dark green turf that is fine to medium in texture.
Centipedegrass is another grass imported from the East (China). It grows low to the ground and forms a nice green turf.
Finally, there is buffalograss – the only grass that is native to the U.S. It generally is not used for home lawns because it doesn’t produce a high-quality, deep green turf.