It's hard to believe, but glossy zoysia grass advertisements are showing up in some circulars and other publications already. The ads entreat us to buy zoysia plugs and say goodbye to lawn care chores such as mowing, fertilizing and weed control.
However, planting zoysia grass in Minnesota is a waste of money, time and effort.
Considered a warm-season grass, zoysia performs best in hot, dry climates, not ours, which overall is cool and relatively moist. We also should avoid other, inappropriate-for-Minnesota, warm-season grasses -- St. Augustine grass, Bermuda grass, bahia grass and centipede grass, to name just a few.
While it's true that zoysia requires less moisture in hot, dry conditions, and stays green even as Kentucky bluegrass goes into heat-or drought-induced summer dormancy, it's still a poor choice for Minnesota. That's because zoysia grass only does well in warm or hot weather, and we have plenty of cool weather on either side of our short, hot summers.
Zoysia grass doesn't turn green until temperatures remain consistently above freezing. Most years, that's not until the latter part of May in the Twin Cities area. Zoysia turns brown again as freezing temperatures return. Meanwhile, Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and fine-leaved fescues green up early and usually are still green until it begins to snow.
Another zoysia "attribute"is an ability to spread aggressively, choking out other grasses and weeds. But not in this climate.
Zoysia sticks out in a typical bluegrass yard because of its stiff, wiry stems and coarse, broad blades.
There are grasses that work fine in Minnesota, although will deliver the "maintenance-free" appeal of zoysia. With basic care and attention, though, the following grasses not only will survive, but will thrive in our climate.
Kentucky bluegrass is the most popular and widely planted turfgrass in the Upper Midwest. Spreading by means of underground runners called rhizomes, a healthy stand of bluegrass can form a dense, long-lived lawn.
Though some varieties such as 'Glade' and 'Nugget' have a little shade tolerance, Kentucky bluegrass is best suited to sunny sites. Bluegrass seeds may be mixed with fine-leaved fescue such as creeping red fescue or chewings fescue for lightly shaded areas. The shadier the location, the higher the percentage of fescue should be. Fine fescues also add a bit of drought tolerance to the lawn.
If Kentucky bluegrass lawns are not watered regularly in hot, dry weather, they wilt and go into summer dormancy to conserve moisture. These lawns usually bounce back as soon as rainfall or regular irrigation resumes, but when drought is severe, some lawn areas may be permanently damaged, requiring reseeding.
Perennial ryegrass adds the ability to withstand quite a bit of wear and tear to a lawn. It is commonly used in parks and athletic fields as well as home lawns. A dark green grass with fine (narrow) blades, perennial ryegrass will thrive in full sun to light shade.
Don't confuse perennial ryegrasses with cheap annual ryegrass (also called Italian ryegrass). Both germinate rapidly, and can act as "nursemaids" to slower-sprouting Kentucky bluegrass seeds, but the similarity ends there. Annual ryegrass lives only one year; perennial rye, as its name implies, should return for many years.
Fine-leaved fescues provide more shade tolerance than the rygrasses or Kentucky bluegrass varieties. They usually are mixed with one or the other, however, because a solid stand of fine fescue flops over and is difficult to mow.
Two types of fine-leaved fescues are available. Creeping red fescue spreads by means of short rhizomes. Chewings fescue is a bunch grass that doesn't spread as well, but has greater shade tolerance. Turf-type tall fescues have not proven reliable in this climate, and should be avoided, despite the fact you may find the seed offered locally.
As with many consumer products, when buying grass seed, you get what you pay for -- as long as you are buying locally from a reputable, knowledgeable supplier.
Zoysia grass is not the only inappropriate grass you'll see advertised as the season progresses. Several companies have jumped on the lawn seed bandwagon, offering "miraculous" grass seed mixes through the mail, charging exorbitant prices. Be a savvy shopper; don't be taken in by their exaggerated claims.
--Deborah Brown is a horticulture specialist with the University of Minnesota Extension Dial U Insect and Plant Information Service. For experts' advice from Dial U, open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays, call 1-900-988-0500; each call costs $2.99.