Northern Lawn Grasses

Here are some of the major types of northern lawn grasses:

  • Fescues Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)

    Key Identification: Rolled vernation and pointed leaf tips. Possibly short ligules and auricles on species; sometimes the cultivars lack these last two characteristics.

    Spreading System: Sometimes has short rhizomes, but is spread primarily by tillers.

    Uses: Tall fescue grows in a wide range of soil types and is especially good in areas that are too cold for warm season grass and too hot for cold season grass. It has good shade tolerance, and, if irrigated, will stay green year round in warmer areas. It is extremely wear tolerant and well suited for athletic fields.

    Advantages: If the temperatures are right and it has enough water, this grass will grow almost anywhere. It has excellent shade tolerance. It tolerates low fertility but responds well to minimal amounts of nitrogen—3 pounds per 1,000 square feet per year is adequate.

    Disadvantages: It dies out in cold areas and has high water needs. In hot areas, its wear tolerance is not as good as Bermuda grass, so it is not used in playing fields in the southern part of the United States.

    Cultivars: Adventure, Alta-Kenwell, Falcon, Kenhy, Kentucky-31, Olympic, Rebel. Bonsai is a dwarf variety.

    Cultivation Comments: Mow this grass at 2 inches during the fall and spring. If growing in shade or under drought conditions, mow to 3 inches tall. This grass requires frequent watering during high heat conditions. Thorough deep waterings are better than shallow watering. If there are dead patches, reseed in the fall, at 2 to 3 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet.

  • Creeping Red Fescue (Festuca rubra)


    You can impress your neighbors at the next block party by using the word topdress properly. Topdressing means to put new seed, special feed, sand, or compost on top of the existing lawn without killing off the old grass. You topdress new seed or compost. On the other hand, you apply or put chemical fertilizer on your lawn. The only exception to this is if you are working on your backyard putting green and then any seed or feed you put on is topdressing.

    Key Identification: Sheath is slightly wider than blade.

    Spreading System: Short rhizomes.

    Uses: It is well adapted to cool, moist situations or where humidity is high. Creeping red fescue is also very cold tolerant.

    Advantages: It has good shade tolerance.

    Disadvantages: It is susceptible to heat and drought.

    Cultivars: Bargena, Boreal, Cindy, Dawson, Durlawn, Ensylva, Flyer, Fortress, Franklin, Herald, Jasper, Jasper E, Marker, Merlin, Medallion, Pennlawn, Recent, Reptans, Shademaster, SR 5200E, Vista.

    Cultivation Comments: Although more tolerant than most of dry shade, this grass does better in sun with water and fertilizer. It does not grow back quickly when damaged, so it's probably not a good idea to make creeping red fescue into a children's play area. Do not overfeed it, or the quality of the turf will go down. Three pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per season is adequate for most purposes.

  • Chewings Fescue (Festuca rubra subspecies fallax)

    Key Identification: Same as creeping red fescue but without rhizomes. Sheaths split upon maturity.

    Spreading System: Seed.

    Uses: This is one of best fescues for shade growing. It tolerates heat and drought stress a bit better than creeping red fescue.

    Advantages: Similar to red fescue.

    Disadvantages: Similar to red fescue.

    Cultivars: Banner, Barfalla, Bridgeport, Center, Dignity, Enjoy, Epsom, Highlight, Jamestown, Koket, Longfellow, Luster, Mary, Menuet, Molinda, Rudax, Shadow, Southport, SR5000, SR5100, Tatiana, Treazure, Victory, Victory E, Waldorf, Wilma.

    Growing Conditions: As per creeping red fescue.

    Both hard fescue (Festuca brevipila) and sheep fescue (Festuca ovina) perform much like red fescue and chewings fescue when it comes to household lawn management.


    Horticultural Latin uses two words to describe specific plants. A family name identifies all the grasses in a genetic family. In the case of bluegrass, the family name is Poa. To identify it as Kentucky bluegrass, we need another name—a specific name—and this is pratensis. Kentucky bluegrass is Poa pratensis. Rough bluegrass is Poa trivialis. Both bluegrass species are named Poa, but botanists and those involved in the turf industry can discuss them, and positively identify them in their discussions, by using the Latin specific descriptive name as well.

    Aren't the common names good enough? The short answer is that common names vary from area to area. Although grass common names are not as variable as flower common names, there is still enough of a difference to make using the Latin worthwhile for those in the industry. For example, there are at least two different grass families commonly called crabgrass—depending on whether you live in North America or South America.

  • Bluegrasses Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis)

    Key Identification: Boat-shaped leaf tip and folded vernation. Kentucky bluegrass has a visible ligule and rhizomes; annual bluegrass is almost identical, except that it has neither a ligule nor rhizomes.

    Spreading System: Rhizomes and tillers. A Kentucky bluegrass plant that is allowed to set seed will die soon after the seed has matured. Mature plants only live for two to three years at best. Encourage the rhizomes.

    Uses: Lawns, golf courses, or anywhere a dense mat of turf is desired.

    Advantages: The reason Kentucky bluegrass is so widely used is that it recovers quickly from cutting or abuse, and it survives drought and greens up quickly. The rhizomes grow and repair the turf area itself. It is a dense grass so that when it is mowed at a higher level (2½ to 3 inches) it prevents weed establishment. It has good disease and cold weather tolerance. When cut with a sharp mower, it cuts cleanly with little ripping.

    Disadvantages: Kentucky bluegrass has a relatively shallow root system and a subsequent high demand for regular watering. It also has a poor tolerance for shade.

    Cultivars: There are over three hundred cultivars in use. Planting a blend of different cultivars is often a good idea if a pure Kentucky bluegrass lawn is desired. The cultivars that are best adapted for shade with moderate tolerance include Bristol, Glad, Nugget, and Touchdown. Those best for warm areas are Adelphi, Baron, Fylking, Glade, and Midnight.

    Cultivation Comments: High nitrogen fertilizers and frequent mowing will drastically reduce the root growth and the rhizome production of Kentucky bluegrass. High soil temperatures stop this grass from growing; with temperatures over 80°F, growth is virtually nonexistent.


    trivialis = “ordinary”

    pratensis = “of the meadows”

    annua = “annual”

    compressa = “flattened”

  • Rough Bluegrass (Poa trivialis)

    Key Identification: Boat-shaped leaf tip and folded vernation. Long membrane ligule, partly split sheath.

    Spreading System: Stolons, seed if allowed to set.

    Uses: Rough bluegrass can be used on lawns if it is irrigated and fertilized regularly. Golf courses use it because of its low mowing ability.

    Advantages: It is very winter hardy and grows quickly in spring and fall. Rough bluegrass tolerates lower mowing heights and more shade than Kentucky bluegrass.

    Disadvantages: It has poor wearing tolerance, recovers slowly from abuse, and is slow growing in the high heat of summer. Rough bluegrass has a dense patchy growth so it does not mix well with Kentucky bluegrass.

    Cultivars: Colt, Cypress, Dark Horse, Laser, Sabre, Snowbird.

    Cultivation Comments: Regular mowings, feeding, and irrigating are necessary to grow this species properly. Avoid light irrigations. When water is applied, do so heavily and then wait until the soil is dry to water again. Mowing can be as low as ½ inch. It is an excellent grass for topdressing because it establishes well from seed.


    Photosynthesis is a term we all heard about in grade school science class. Here's a quick refresher course:

    Energy from the sun combines with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, hydrogen and oxygen from water, and all the minerals and nutrients absorbed by a plant's roots to produce a series of products. These products include starches, proteins, sugars, fats, waxes, lignin, cellulose, hormones, and a multitude of enzymes.

    The photosynthesis happens in the plant leaves where energy from the sun sets off a very complicated chemical process. The end products are a series of carbon products that contain energy. These products can be used either by the plant or by any other of Earth's inhabitants that use grass as a food source. The entire world's population, both animal and human, depends on photosynthesis for life.

  • Annual Bluegrass (Poa annua)

    Key Identification: Boat-shaped leaf tip and folded vernation. Membranous ligule.

    Spreading System: Seed that germinates in the fall. The plant lives over the winter and sets seed in the spring.

    Uses: This is a weed grass. Don't encourage it. It dies out in early summer leaving large brown patches in areas it has heavily colonized.

    Advantages: This is aggressive grass will easily take over large areas if the grass is kept short, particularly in wetter and cooler climates. As taller turf, it shades and retards seed germination.

  • Canada Bluegrass (Poa compressa)

    Key Identification: Flat compressed stems, boat shaped leaf tip, folded vernation and membranous ligule.

    Spreading System: Short rhizomes.

    Uses: A loose turf for low-maintenance areas used in parks and in low traffic areas.

    Advantages: It grows better than most on wet, poorly drained, or dry soils. Soils that are wet in spring and fall but dry during the summer are good candidates. It is tolerant of some shade.

    Disadvantages: This grass does not recover well from wear. It has loose turf, not thick and dense.

    Cultivars: Canon, Reubens

    Thatch is a dense layer of living and dead organic matter that accumulates between the soil surface and green matter. If it is too thick, it can create unfavorable conditions for grass.

    Nurse grass is a term used by gardeners to describe a fast growing, short lived grass species that is planted with a slow growing, long lived species. The nurse grass establishes itself quickly to prevent water erosion and soil compaction or blowing. As the nurse grass is dying out over the winter or in its second or third growing season, the long-term grass is establishing itself in the good soil environment that has been protected by the “nurse” grass.

    Cultivation Comments: Mow this species high, at 2 inches or more. Its recuperative ability is better at higher cuts than under intensive cutting. It is a good grass for poor areas of fertility or light where a thick turf is not needed. Annual bluegrass responds well to a low-maintenance system of feeding (3 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of turf per year).

  • Bent grass (Agrostis palustris) Creeping Bent grass

    Key Identification: Rolled vernation and pointed tip. Membranous ligule and prominent veins on upper side of leaf.

    Spreading System: Stolons—and lots of them.

    Uses: Golf putting greens, specialty turf areas.

    Advantages: Creeping bent grass has a fine texture and takes low cutting very well. It is winter hardy and has very good recuperative ability when damaged.

    Disadvantages: It is a major weed in home lawns and requires high maintenance to grow well on golf courses. Creeping bent grass is disease prone, has high requirements for water and feeding, and a high tendency to thatch.

    Cultivation Comments: Feed 1/3 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per month for high maintenance golf greens. Mow every two to three days. Water regularly, at least 1½ inches of water a week, by irrigation or natural sources. Watch for molds, especially in spring. To eliminate it from lawns, mow very high and topdress in the fall with aggressive grass species such as perennial rye.


    When choosing a lawn grass, keep in mind that a lawn with a large mix of grass species will do better than a single-species lawn. Why? Because when summer conditions are right for a fescue, the fescue grass will thrive and give you a good-looking lawn. If conditions change to favor bluegrass, then the bluegrass will thrive. Planting a mix is like planting an insurance policy.

    Most homeowners seem to think that they want a Kentucky bluegrass lawn. The reality is that unless you are a turf expert, you won't be able to tell the difference between Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. They're both green and they're both grass. Plant a mix to find out what grows best in your lawn. Mother Nature will help you choose your lawn species.

  • Red Top (Agrostis alba)

    Key Identification: Similar to creeping bent grass. Pointed leaf tip, rolled vernation. Upper side of leaf has very visible veins. Membranous ligule is rounded and quite visible.

    Spreading System: Rhizomes.

    Uses: Roadsides, ditches.

    Advantages: Red top grows in rough conditions, tolerates wet soils, and has no shade tolerance. Because of its fast germination, it is sometimes used as a nurse grass.

    Disadvantages: It is a rough, open, short lived grass. If used as a nurse grass, it tends to die out after a few years except for a tuft or two here and there on the lawn. Red top does not withstand high temperatures or shade.

    Cultivation Comments: Tall or infrequent mowing will keep it alive and turn into a perennial lawn. Feed at 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet per year. Short mowing, under 3 inches, will shorten its life. Intensive lawn management will eliminate red top from a Kentucky bluegrass lawn.

  • Annual Ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum)

    Key Identification: Rolled vernation (note: perennial ryegrass is folded) and a pointed leaf tip. Extended, clawlike auricles and a very broad collar. The upper side of the leaf has prominent veins.

    Spreading System: Seed.

    Uses: Temporary nurse crops for better species, particularly on rough ground. No use in good turf areas. Advantages: Fast germination.

    Disadvantages: Annual ryegrass does not mow well. It shreds rather than cuts It is also short-lived.

    Cultivation Comments: Do not grow annual ryegrass; cheap grass mixtures are often 50 percent annual ryegrass and are a waste of money: the grass will die out, and until it does, it will look ugly.

  • Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne)

    Key Identification: Folded vernation, pointed leaf tip. Prominent veins on upper side of leaf. Membranous ligule and short auricles. (To confuse the issue, many of the new cultivars have no visible ligule and short auricles.) Broad collar.

    Spreading System: Seed.

    Uses: Lawns, fairways, playing fields. Perennial ryegrass blends well with Kentucky bluegrass on home lawns.

    Advantages: Fast establishment, good tolerance to wear and traffic, some shade tolerance. It germinates at low temperatures and establishes well if sown directly into established turf. It is less susceptible to some diseases than Kentucky bluegrass.

    Disadvantages: Perennial ryegrass is not as cold tolerant as Kentucky bluegrass, especially if grown poorly or on poorly drained soils. It can develop into clumpy grass tufts unless density is maintained by overseeding.

    Cultivation Comments: Grow it as you would Kentucky bluegrass. Do not mow lower than 1½ inches for best results. Overseed the area every spring at 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet to keep the turf filled in and growing densely. Feed nitrogen at 2 to 3 pounds per 1,000 square feet per season.

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