Planting & Maintaining a Buffalograss Lawn
Buffalograss (Buchloë dactyloides) has prospered on the Great Plains for centuries. This native grass is a sod-forming species and uses water efficiently, having adapted over thousands of years to the periodic and prolonged droughts characteristic of the region. Today, an increasing number of people are using this short, fine-leaved prairie grass as an ecologically sound and energy-efficient alternative to conventional turf. A warm-season grass, it spreads by both seed and stolons (runners), which take root and produce new plants.
Buffalograss is usually dioecious, meaning male and female flowers occur on separate plants. The inflorescences on male plants are one-sided spikelets on stems that rise 3 to 8 inches above the leaves. Female plants produce one or more burrlike inflorescences that remain partially hidden among the leaves near ground level; each burr contains one or more seeds.
The homeowners liked the softness of this buffalograss and blue grama so much they stopped mowing. (Photo: Judith Phillips)
Buffalograss starts growing in early May and begins to go dormant in early fall in the Central Plains. Leaves are blue-green during the growing season, although there is great variation not only in leaf color but also leaf width and internode length (the distance between leaves on the stem). Buffalograss does not tolerate excessive shade and is not well adapted to sandy soils. Once established, it can survive in saturated soils for short periods of time. Its extensive, deep root system and relatively low water use make it highly resistant to drought stress. Monthly irrigation in summer normally will prevent the plant from going dormant. Buffalograss, especially the new cultivars developed for use as a lawn, makes it possible for many Americans, particularly those in the prairie and plains states where it is native, to have high-quality turf that requires very little work and vastly less water and fertilizer than the widely cultivated, nonnative, cool-season turfgrasses. Buffalograss is particularly well suited to the transition zone of the United States. This is the zone where often it is too hot for cool-season turfgrasses and too cold for warm-season species.
Establishing a Buffalograss Lawn
There are three ways to start a buffalograss lawn: with seed, plugs, or sod. Seed of several improved turf-type cultivars is available in bulk. Be sure to specify primed seed, which has been soaked or treated with KNO3, a relatively nontoxic salt, to help soften the seed coat and break dormancy. Plugs are helpful when immediate soil stabilization is important. Using sod, although expensive, will vastly decrease the time required to cover the planted area.
No matter which method you use, it is important to properly prepare the site to get the lawn off to a good start.
Preparing the Bed
If the soil has been compacted by vehicles or extensive foot traffic, rotary till to promote deep rooting. If you are planting seed, work the soil to a gardenlike but firm condition; in other words, the seedbed should be firm enough to walk on without sinking more than 1/2 inch into the soil. This can be accomplished mechanically with a light lawn roller or by irrigating the soil before seeding. If you use plugs or sod, a gardenlike condition is preferable but not as important, provided the plug or sod has good contact with the soil.
Eradicate all vegetation in the planting area by tilling or applying herbicide. Control early-season weeds by tilling before seeding. An application of a nonselective herbicide, such as Roundup, is recommended before establishing plugs. Follow all instructions and restrictions on the label when applying herbicides.
Although adapted to a wide range of soil types, buffalograss is best suited for naturally fertile, clay and loam upland soils. It will establish and grow in areas with eroded soils, and often does well in infertile or poorly drained soils. Apply a starter fertilizer high in phosphorus when seeding to enhance seedling root development and stolon growth. Nitrogen is also important for early growth.
For large areas, use a depth-limiting drill, which plants burrs at a depth of 1/2 inch or less. Use a 1- to 2-inch row spacing. For smaller areas, broadcast seed by hand. Assure proper soil-seed contact by using a harrow or by hand raking, first in one direction and then in a perpendicular direction. Rolling the area before watering is helpful.
Late spring is the optimum time to seed. If you seed at this time, you should have a full stand by September. Seeds will not germinate until soil temperatures reach 60°F. This is usually around May 15 in the central plains, but may differ in your particular climate. It is important to control early-season weeds before spring seeding (see "Preparing the Bed"). Irrigation during germination and throughout the first growing season will greatly increase your chances for success.
For best results, don't sow buffalograss after August 15; unirrigated fall seedings of buffalograss when soil temperatures are greater than 50°F often fail because young seedlings are susceptible to frost damage and winter drying. Areas that cannot be irrigated can be seeded in the fall or winter, after soil temperatures fall below 50°F.
The amount of seed required depends on many factors. Trials conducted in Nebraska indicate that rates of 1 to 3 pounds of burrs per 1,000 square feet, seeded in early June, produce fully covered stands by mid-September. A good rule of thumb is 2 pounds of burrs per 1,000 square feet.
Plugs should be 2 inches or more in diameter with a minimum depth of 21/2 inches. Spacing can vary, depending upon how quickly you want full coverage, but should be no farther than 24 inches on center. During the first year when the lawn is becoming established, it is important to keep weeds to a minimum. Periodic mowing at a height of 2 to 3 inches will help minimize weed competition.
Plugs are available either prerooted or not prerooted. Prerooted plugs have been harvested from an established field, placed in trays, fertilized, and watered in a greenhouse or under clear plastic for 4 to 8 weeks. For early spring and summer planting, they have been shown to establish more quickly than those that have not been prerooted. Plugs harvested in March, prerooted, and planted in May will, under proper growing conditions, establish an acceptable stand by fall.
Plugs that are not prerooted need 3 to 4 weeks to initiate growth and may not provide complete cover by fall. Newly harvested plugs may "go brown" after planting due to transplant shock. It is possible to minimize this off-color period and ensure good rooting by applying a starter fertilizer at 1 pound phosphorus and 1 pound nitrogen per 1,000 square feet at planting time and irrigating while the plugs are becoming established.
Irrigation and fertilization requirements for sod are the same as for a plug planting. Sod, like newly harvested plugs, may exhibit an off-color appearance during the first few weeks after planting.
Selecting Plugs and Sod
When selecting plugs or sod you will have a choice of cultivar and either male or female plants. A single-cultivar lawn will be more uniform than one that includes several varieties. However, as when selecting any turfgrass, it is important to choose a cultivar that is resistant to pests and diseases.
Another important decision is whether to select a cultivar with one or both genders. In unmowed lawns, the male flowers, which generally extend above the leaf blades, are visible, and so some people consider them undesirable. By contrast, female flowers remain close to the ground and are not as visible. To have all-female plants, you must start your lawn with plugs or sod, not seed. If you're planning on mowing, the choice of using either a female cultivar or a male/female cultivar is moot because the flowerheads will be trimmed off.
After seeding, water lightly (1/4 to 1/2 inch), depending on present soil moisture and natural precipitation. Subsequently, water only to maintain a slightly moist surface and adequate subsoil moisture. This also helps reduce weed competition. With treated seed, seedlings emerge in 10 to 14 days. Water plugs and sod every other day for the first week, and every third day the second week. Water once a week the third through the fifth weeks, if there has been less than 1/4 inch of rainfall since the previous irrigation. Do not let water puddle or run off. Establishment will take longer without watering.
On hot days, light watering (syringing) in the late morning or early afternoon will improve stolon growth and rooting in plants established from all methods. Syringing is a light application of water (1/8 inch or less) to prevent wilt and to cool the turf.
Your greatest challenge in establishing a buffalograss lawn will be weed control. Remove weeds from the bed before planting. Eliminate as quickly as possible any weeds that develop after the buffalograss has been seeded. Weeds taller than buffalograss seedlings should be mowed at a height of 2 to 3 inches. Hand weeding is effective for smaller areas.
In general, buffalograss is relatively free of insect and mite pests. This may be because established buffalograss usually harbors many beneficial insects—big-eyed bugs, syrphid flies, lady beetles, predatory mites, and several species of parasitic wasps—that naturally control pest populations.
The most potentially serious buffalograss pests identified so far are a tiny, grass-infesting mealybug, the buffalograss webworm, and a short-winged species of chinch bug. However, there are no insecticides registered to control these pests on buffalograss. Control them with proper maintenance and cultural practices.
Buffalograss is relatively disease free. Isolated cases of diseases have been reported, but little research has been done in this area. Proper maintenance of buffalograss should reduce the likelihood of disease.
Maintaining a Buffalograss Lawn
After the first year, buffalograss lawns in Nebraska usually can be maintained with no irrigation beyond rain, though the quality of the lawn may be enhanced with some timely irrigation. During especially dry springs, irrigation when the turf begins to green up will insure a vigorous, dense lawn that can outcompete weeds.
Supplemental water is most beneficial in late July through August, the period of active stolon growth. Irrigation at this time helps stolons develop roots at the nodes, thus establishing new plants. Unfortunately, it also promotes weed growth. The lawn's green color can be somewhat extended in the fall with additional water, before freezing temperatures arrive.
For best results, fertilize between June 15 and 30. Nitrogen levels should not exceed 1 to 3 pounds per 1,000 square feet per year, depending on the length of the growing season in your area. Buffalograss will provide a good quality turf with up to 1 pound per 1,000 square feet of nitrogen annually.
Because buffalograss is naturally short, no mowing is required. You can mow to a height of 3 to 4 inches to remove the slender male flower stalks that rise above the leaves. This may require regular mowing, since the male flowers are continually produced. Female selections require less mowing.
For a uniform appearance, mow at a height of 21/2 inches at 3- to 4-week intervals in late spring and 2- to 3-week intervals later in the season.
The more you mow, the more supplemental water will be required to maintain a thick, green turf. Minimal mowing and higher cutting heights promote a vigorous root system. Removal of more than one-third of the leaf will reduce root activity and growth, making plants more susceptible to moisture stress near the soil surface. Do not cut the grass by more than one-third its total height at any one mowing.