STEP 3 - Is Bluegrass, Fescue or Ryegrass Best for Long Island Lawns?
Tips on the best grass seed choice and seeding techniques for Long Island lawns
A common question from homeowners is: which is the best grass to choose for their Long Island lawn? The related question is, which grass seed is the best from the perspective of a low-maintenance lawn? Or, which is the best seed choice for an organic lawn?
The short answer is that on Long Island, tall fescues require less fertilizer and watering and are easier to grow without chemical pesticides. In contrast, Kentucky bluegrass may need twice as much fertilizer, and will need significantly more watering during dry weather. Organic landscapers will generally say that tall fescues are the best for Long Island, but many people prefer Kentucky bluegrass for it's deep green color and soft feel under bare feet. We believe that tall fescues are perhaps the "best" choice for environmentally-friendly, low-maintenance Long Island lawns, but if you feel strongly about wanting a bluegrass lawn and you understand that it is somewhat higher maintenance, then it is possible to maintain either type organically. The choice is yours.
For shady areas that get only a few hours of sunlight a day and little traffic, a fine fescue is the best choice. For filling in bare patches before weeds take hold, ryegrass will germinate more quickly. Bluegrass is hardiest in high traffic areas and grows in a thick mat that chokes out weeds.
A blend of different grass types will provide your lawn with resistance to pests and changing weather conditions. Many commercially available bags of grass seed are pre-blended for different lawn characteristics and uses. Because of their different growth habit, tall fescues do not mix well with other types. If you choose tall fescue, look for a blend that is composed entirely of tall fescue strains.
If you choose a fescue or ryegrass blend, you can opt for endophyte-enhanced seed, which includes a symbiotic, beneficial fungus that helps the grass grow more vigorously, and resist drought and pest damage. Kentucky bluegrass is not available with endophytes.
For an extreme low-maintenance option, consider zoysia grass. Zoysia grass inspires both love and hatred among people who love their lawns. On the plus side, it is very hardy warm season grass, resistant to heat and drought. Zoysia requires less water and fertilizer. It is slow growing, so it does not need to be mowed as frequently. It creates a thick, sturdy mat of turf, and is soft underfoot. This makes zoysia a good choice for a low-maintenance, organic lawn. However, there are a few downsides to zoysia. It spreads aggressively, often where it is not wanted - into flowerbeds and neighboring lawns. It turns brown when it goes dormant in cool weather, in Long Island's climate that can sometimes be early in the fall. Zoysia is more prone to thatch problems than other grasses, and because it is so thick and tough, it can be hard on mowers.
A zoysia grass lawn is usually established by planting plugs, not by seeding. The grass spreads out from the plugs. This can take as little as one growing season, or up to three. Zoysia grass is difficult to remove once it is established, so planting it is a long-term decision.
The best time of year to apply grass seed is late summer into early fall. You can also seed in the spring. After new seed is applied is the one time to break the recommended protocol for watering. The general rule is to water infrequently, but when you do, water deeply. With new seed however, you need to water your lawn very lightly each day for about 3 weeks.
There is more than one way to apply grass seed. To thicken up established turf without completely tearing up and reseeding the entire lawn area, you can "overseed." This can help your grass to fill in light spots and crowd out weeds like crabgrass without using herbicides. Mow low, then rake to remove dead grass and thatch. You can also aerate before you seed for best results. Follow the instruction on the bag for the overseeding application rate. (If the bag doesn't have an overseeding rate, use half the amount recommended for establishing new turf.) Spreading a quarter inch of compost as a top dressing after seeding will help too. Water lightly daily until the seeds germinate and blades sprout, about 3 weeks. Stay off the lawn and don't mow until the new shoots are well established.
Another approach, which uses more grass seed but doesn't take as much work is called "repetitive" overseeding. Just spread grass seed at 3 lbs. per 1000 square feet, once a week, after mowing, directly over the established lawn for between three to eight weeks. No other preparation is required. You don't have to water if there is normal rainfall. You also don't need to keep people off the lawn for weeks. It works when there is light traffic on the lawn. Of course not all the seeds will germinate, but you make up for that by putting more seed down. This technique can make your lawn up to 90% thicker, and make it much more likely to grow grass rather than weeds. The ideal time for repetitive overseeding is the fall (starting right after Labor Day, through September and even into mid-October if it stays warm enough).
While this educational series is devoted to lawn maintenance, we recognize that some Long Islanders may want a less water-intensive landscaping option (also known as "xeriscaping"), or an option that is low maintenance to the point of being almost no maintenance. Strategically incorporating gravel, rocks, sculptural features, ornamental grasses and wildflowers into your landscaping is an alternative to maintaining a suburban lawn. Local stores including Hick's Nursery, Home Depot, Long Island Landscape Center, and Long Island Natives each sell native and ornamental grasses and drought-resistant succulents. The nonprofit Long Island Native Grass Initiative provides information and sale of 40 species of native grasses, flowering plants, and shrubs by appointment.
For more information about the best grasses and lawn establishment techniques:
- Choosing between Bluegrass and Fescues: (Cornell University Cooperative Extension Nassau County, Home Grounds Fact Sheet)
- How to Overseed
- For repetitive overseeding
For those who choose to utilize decorative plants rather than maintaining a lawn, there is increasing interest in wildflowers and native ornamental grasses for Long Island landscapes.
- Long Island Native Grass Initiative (LINGI)
- 10 Reasons to Use Native Plants on Long Island
- Organic Lawn Care: Growing Grass the Natural Way (Howard Garrett)
Long Island Organic Landscapers
Although it's easy for the average homeowner to maintain their lawn organically, some may too busy and wish to hire a professional. In that case there are thousands of landscapers on Long Island to choose from, but only a small but growing number of experts who can maintain your lawn and landscape without the use of chemical pesticides. They can be found here.