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As a turf scientist at Virginia Tech, Mike Goatley has spent years looking at the different types of turf used in America’s typical landscape: turf. His preference comes down to one thing and one thing only: zoysiagrass. “It’s my favorite park,” he says.

It’s easy to see why. Zoysia is a fine-bladed, low-growing, heat-tolerant grass that is more environmentally friendly than the more common tall fescue. It requires less water, fertilizers and pesticides, and does not need to be mowed as often. Its entire density shuts down weeds.

You can keep them at a very smart height of one inch, a height that would quickly kill three-inch fescue. So why doesn’t everyone have a zoysia garden?

One reason is that it is not reliably strong north of the Mason-Dixon line. The other reason is that zoysia enters winter dormancy and turns straw brown for the better part of half the year.

This is especially true in the range called the transition zone, which runs roughly the East Coast between North Carolina and Maryland, where fescues and other cool-season grasses suffer from the summer heat and warm-season grasses, such as zoysia. It turns brown in winter and begins to die if temperatures drop into the single digits. In much of this region, tall fescue-type grass has become the dominant choice over the past 40 years, but that is beginning to change.

As summers get hotter and winters trend milder, zoysia plants and the second warm-season grass, bermudagrass, have greater appeal than ever before, especially with the development of hybrids that withstand drought and are better able to withstand cold. In the Mid-Atlantic, Bermuda grass is commonly used on sports fields and golf courses because of its pruning flexibility. It also turns brown after the first fall freeze.

Wait, you say: Aren’t bermudagrass a running, weedy, deeply rooted nightmare in lawn and growing beds alike? Yes, that’s Bermuda grass or common wiregrass, closely related to the sought-after hybrids. Garden-ready versions have been developed to be finer, thicker and greener.

Jack Warbinski, a farmer with Central Sod Farms in Centreville, Maryland, says that although zoysia and bermudagrass account for only 10 percent of his crop, “10 years ago, I would rarely get a phone call asking about warm-season grasses.” .

He adds that this type of grass is “definitely growing in popularity, and I expect it will continue to grow over the next ten years.”

Grady Miller, a professor of turf science at North Carolina State University, echoes this sentiment. He links the shift to droughts more than a decade ago that fried cool-season prairies from Kentucky to Maryland.

“With the new genetics and climate change and everything, I expect more people will look to warm-season grasses in the transition zone and farther north,” says Ambika Chandra, who heads the Zisiagrass breeding program at Texas A&M University.

These lawn experts know that grass has a bad reputation for its dependence on pesticides, fertilizers and especially water in a country where many states face serious drought-related problems. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that landscape irrigation accounts for nearly one-third of residential water use, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons per day.

With the new grass hybrids, “we really believe that grasses can be very effective and still be part of a good land management ethic,” says Dennis Martin, a turf expert at Oklahoma State University who is working to develop better varieties of bermuda grass.

On his own two-acre suburban property near Raleigh, N.C., Miller grows some cool-season bluegrass and fescue in shadier sites, but in sunny spots, he has both zoysia and bermudagrass. He cuts them to two inches long, but they can be kept shorter: three-quarters of an inch for bermudagrass, an inch for zoysia. But cutting them shorter means mowing more often, preferably with a reel mower.

Creating and maintaining them also requires a different approach. Tall meadowsweet can be planted during most of the year, but is typically (and economically) planted in late summer and early fall. They require feeding to stay thick, with fertilizer applied in the fall and often in the spring as well. Crabgrass, dandelions and other weeds need constant checking. At this time of year, fescue lawns need to be watered every few days if there is not enough rain to remain lush green.

There are different types of zoysia and Bermuda grass seeds available, but the best way to start any type is with sod or plugs. Bermuda grass can also be started in May with sprigs – parts of runners that look tattered at first but develop into a dense, green lawn within 90 days. Zoysia takes longer to bond together, so a garden of zoysia plugs (six to 12 inches apart) will take at least two growing seasons to fill in, and even then, the gaps will need to be cleared of weeds. Experts I spoke with recommend splurging on zoysia to reduce the hassle.

Warm season grasses are more expensive. Prices in Central Sud, for example, are about 50 cents per square foot for tall fescue, 85 cents for Tahoma 31 bermudagrass, and $1.25 for a variety of zoysia called Zenith. For a modest 1,000-square-foot garden, that would translate to about $500 for fescue, $850 for bermuda grass, and $1,250 for zoysia. This does not include delivery costs, or moreover, all the work required to prepare the turf bed to receive the turf.

Some sources recommend feeding bermudagrass with the same amount of nitrogen fertilizer as tall fescue (but in summer instead of spring or fall), but Martin says that because of the vigor of the new varieties, “you can cut that nutrient load by half.”

Oklahoma’s newest hybrid, the aforementioned Tahoma 31, has become a firm favorite in the transition zone. “There are a lot of golf courses in the area and some home lawns that do this,” says Greengrass farmer Warbinski.

The grassy space between the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall was recently renovated with Tahoma 31, chosen for its cold hardiness and ability to bounce back from public events in the era of climate change. “That’s why I’m a big proponent of growing bermudagrass in the Mid-Atlantic region,” says Elliot Dowling, an agronomist with the United States Golf Association who advised on the project. “If you run a golf course or Capitol Park, there’s no denying that summers are hotter and longer than they used to be.” The association funded the development of Tahoma 31.

Neither Bermuda grass nor zoysia thrive in shady locations, although zoysia will take some shade.

Aside from winter browning, the price of a lush summer lawn is keeping these warm-season grasses within limits. Bermuda grass in particular needs frequent edging to prevent encroachment, although zoysia, once established, will creep as well. They both have underground roots and surface-level deposits, making them able to repair themselves from damage caused by drought, dogs, people, and disease.

The direction of spread can be a problem if your warm-season garden abuts a neighbor’s cool-season garden. “Without any kind of obstacle, over time, the warm-season grass will invade your neighbor’s lawn,” Miller says. “As more and more people converted, we saw problems.”

But if I had a separate, sunny lawn of modest size, where fescues struggle to look good, a warm-season lawn would be tempting, especially with new hybrids being bred for superior traits.

Since the 1950s, Meyer has been the dominant species of zoysia in the transition zone, but Chandra and other researchers have been busy developing new hybrids to give zoysia more resilience while maintaining its good looks.

“In developing these new and improved genetics, we are looking for less water, pesticides and fertilizer inputs, and still perform to expectations,” she says. The hybrid developed with colleagues at Kansas State University, Innovation, was released in 2017 and is now in full production. “We’re excited about this particular thing,” she says. It was selected for its long season, deep green appearance, density and cold hardiness.

Winter brown is the price of cold hardiness. Herbaceous plants protect themselves from freeze damage by shutting down.

There are three ways to deal with this off-season condition. One way is to monitor them in the fall with ryegrass, which will retain green color through the winter, then die back with spring mowing. However, some experts believe this will harm the long-term viability of warm-season grasses, especially zoysia.

The second option is to paint your lawn, which isn’t quite as weird as it sounds. This is routinely done at televised sporting events, even if viewers don’t realize it. Gotley says many new and improved colorants are now on the market, and although lawn care companies offer this service, it can be accomplished by the homeowner using a knapsack sprayer.

“The quality and availability of new colorants and dyes is incredible,” he says.

The third way is to learn to love the color of straw and, at the same time, telegraph to the world your love for environmentally friendly grass. Just remember to keep it contained, especially Bermuda grass. “You have to be prepared to deal with it, because it’s going to move and move very quickly,” Gotley says.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

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