It's time to talk turf

Date Published: 
February, 2005
Original Author: 
Tom Smith & Tom Pfeifer
Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, February 2005

From Bermuda to fescue to zoysia, there's an awful lot of grass in the world.
How do you choose what's right for your cemetery?

WHAT: Watching grass grow has an undeserved reputation as being boring. To a cemeterian, it's exciting to see a nice thick green carpet come up. Whether your cemetery is a traditional upright, a memorial park or a combination of both, maintaining the grass is the biggest part of your operation.

WHY: People may not notice if a bush isn't pruned, but they'll notice if the grass isn't cut, so it's important to have grass you're proud of.

HOW: First of all, if you are in charge of the grounds and you don't have a strong background in turf get to know your local Extension Service. This is a terrific resource; they can steer you to information that will get you up to speed.

Turf is a huge industry, there are changes on the horizon and of course what's best for your cemetery depends on whether you're in Alaska or Hawaii or the Midwest or New York.

Selecting seeds
There are so many different grasses to choose from, it can be confusing, especially since trends change and grasses that were once hailed as the latest and greatest have fallen out of favor. Billions of dollars are spent in this country on seed and turf research. After all, grass is the universal cover.

Selecting seed for your grass cover is like selecting paint for your house. You don't want to run down to the discount mart and pick up the cheapest bargain, you want to choose good quality that will last. You don't want to have to repaint your house every two years, and you certainly don't want to have to replant all those acres of grass at your cemetery, Tap into the turf gurus for your area.

Before contacting the Extension Service for information about what will work best on your property, you need to map out areas with special needs, such as grassy areas by roads where salt may be applied during the winter and hills where extreme slopes make mowing difficult. You're probably going to want to try several different types of grass.

Qualities to look for.  It's unrealistic to say you want your grass to look like a perfect carpet that's ready for a game of lawn bowling. In general, what you want is something with the following characteristics:
•    is low-maintenance,
•    has a nice green color,
•    grows well but not too quickly,
•    does a decent job of covering the soil,
•    has a deep root system so that it will need less water and
•    is competitive so that it won't be easily crowded out by weeds.

There's research going on now on slower-growing grasses, which cuts down on mowing, as well as grasses designed to have resistance to insects built in, cutting down on the need for pesticides. Again, this is a reason to stay in touch with your local grass gurus so you know what's available.

We'll use Spring Grove as an example to demonstrate grass selection. When you look at turf there are two broad zones—North and South. Cincinnati falls in the transition zone, so we've done some experimenting over the years to see what works best.

Tall fescues are a typical cemetery grass. We used to use Kentucky bluegrass, which is a very common grass, but over the years we've decided that it requires too much TLC for one area. We don't know why they even call it "Kentucky” bluegrass, because it's more of a Northern grass. In northern Ohio, it works great, but where we are—and in any warmer climate—it requires too much work and too much money.

A variation, a cultivar called Kentucky 31, was a mainstay for decades, but because it's very coarse looking—it has a wide blade and doesn't feel good when you walk on it—and has poor growth habits, most turf managers decided it's OK for planting along a highway, but otherwise it's garbage.

This spurred research that resulted in a lot of fabulous cultivars called the improved tall fescues. This is exciting stuff, grasses that are adaptable to many parts of the country. A lot of the research in this area is going on in Oregon, but you need to contact your local Extension office to find out what mix of three or four of these tall fescues is right for your cemetery. There could be a list of a couple hundred you could choose from, so you have to do your research.

The reason you plant three or four varieties is so that if one is attacked by disease the others may be OK. Most seed will come as a premixed variety for this reason. You don't want to plant 100 percent of anything.

Consider fults alkali grass for areas that will be exposed to winter salts. This grass seed is used along highways. The package even has a picture of a salt shaker on it to emphasis how it thrives on salt.

We tried it a few years ago along one of our avenues where the grass would die out every year because of the road salting, and we found that the fults grass looked unbelievable. We planted it 10 years ago, with a mix of a few other grasses, and we've still got a lot of grass there. We would recommend fults grass for seeding near any roads.

Zoysia and the "grass should be green" issue. Spring Grove used to be big on zoysia. Back in the 1950s, we had a cemetery manager who was a Mr. Turf Extraordinaire, and he thought zoysia was going to be a panacea for the Midwest. It's tough and competitive and drought resistant and slow-growing. He brought in a lot of zoysia and we still have a lot of it.

Like buffalo grass, zoysia is brown part of the year. Zoysia is really a Southern grass, and it browns out very early. Back when we started here, we used to have to mix up a high-quality green latex paint and water and spray the brown zoysia areas. In Cincinnati, people wanted their grass green, and they were having fits over the zoysia—“It's ugly; we can't stand it."

Today, we still have zoysia and we've added buffalo grass, but we don't do any painting, and people don't complain. People might notice, on a horticultural tour during the colder weather, that some of the grass looks different. They'll ask about it and it's kind of fun to explain about the different grasses we use and why.

People are more environmentally aware today, and they realize that seasons bring color changes. We have plenty of ornamental grasses that change in color, too. Colder weather brings in browns and rusts and tans, more subtle colors, to the landscape. It's the variety in the colors that makes a landscape a mecca for artists. So why did we go over it with green paint? It wasn't unsafe—it was latex paint—but it was goofy.

People today are more in tune with "reduce, reuse and recycle," with natural environmental stewardship.

Buffalo grass is a great alternative to zoysia. It has some of the same characteristics as zoysia but it's not quite as thick and it doesn't take over areas the way zoysia does, so you don't have to worry about it becoming the next kudzu vine.

We started experimenting with buffalo grass a few years back when it was getting a big push, and we like it as a product to use on hillsides where you don't want to do a lot of mowing. It's slow-growing, provides good cover, has a good root system and takes less maintenance than your fescues. Some are so slow-growing you can mow it once a year—or not at all.

Buffalo grass is native to Plains states, so it tolerates very low temperatures and high winds. In order to do that, it goes into a brownout stage early in the fall, like zoysia, so it's not going to look green like the rest of your cemetery. But it's going to be green during the growing season, and it's going to do what you want a ground cover to do, which is control erosion.

It's also tough as nails and needs no irrigation at all, so during August if there's no rain it stays green and lush with no irrigation.