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What Are Southern Lawns?

Ah I can picture it now, that beautiful deep green grass of the south. But what exactly are southern lawns?

Southern lawns is a catch-all term for grass varieties that thrive in warm temperatures of between 80° and 95° F. These include Bahia grass, Bermuda grass, Buffalo grass, Centipede grass, St. Augustine grass, and Zoysia grass – which all typically grow in southern US states.

Let’s dive down into the subject of southern lawns, and discover each grass variety in greater detail and how to care for them – then compare them to northern grasses…

What Are Southern Lawns?

What Grasses Grow Best in The South?

Lawn experts say that the best grasses for the South depends on how much sun your lawn gets and the type of soil you have. If you are planning a lawn, test your soil first to see which grasses will thrive. Best bets are Bahia grass, Bermuda grass, Buffalo grass, Centipede grass, St. Augustine, and Zoysia grass. 

Bahia grass (Paspalum notatum) loves moist conditions and acidic soil. A South American native, it is hairy and coarse and is a dark green color. It tolerates shade but prefers full sun. Bahia grass has a deep root system and so is drought-tolerant and poor soil tolerant. It has low nutrient requirements. It fades to brown in the winter months. This grass doesn’t enjoy salty air but likes the sandy soil of the Gulf Coast.

Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) is a dark green color. It is fine and thick. It loves moisture and acidic soil. It grows in the sun. It is drought- and heat-tolerant but needs occasional watering, fertilizing, and mowing to look it’s best. This grass needs aeration and dethatching. Bermuda grass (aka wiregrass or devilgrass) is famous for its aggressive growth, so be careful it doesn’t invade your flower beds.

Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) is a gray green color. Buffalo grass is a perennial native to the Great Plains from Montana to New Mexico. It has a good cold tolerance. Buffalo grass is fine and hairy. It goes brown in the winter but is a nice blue green during the spring and summer months. It loves dry conditions and alkaline soil. It hates being babied, loves the sun, and won’t grow well in shade. Buffalo grass is low-maintenance and drought-resistant. It doesn’t enjoy salt air.

Centipede grass (Eremuchloa ophiuroides) is light green. Don’t worry – centipedes don’t actually love this grass, it only resembles centipedes. This grass is native to Southeast Asia and China. It is thick and coarse and loves a moist, sandy, acidic soil. Centipede grass requires less fertilization than most other warm season grasses. It grows in the sun and in light shade. Unlike many warm season grasses, Centipede grass stays a little green in winter. For this reason, Centipede grass shouldn’t be overseeded with a winter grass.

St. Augustine (Stenotaphium secundatum) has a blue-green color. It grows coarsly in moist, acidic soil. It likes to grow in full sun, light shade and shade. St. Augustine grass (aka Charleston grass) tolerates salty sea breezes and sandy soil, so is popular in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. It is one of the least cold tolerant warm season grasses.

Zoysia grass (Zoysie japonica) is a dark green to gray green color. It is a fine grass that requires good drainage and acidic soil. It likes to grow in full sun, light shade, or shade. Very heat and drought-tolerant, this grass grows so densely it will lock out weeds. Zoysia has a good cold tolerance.

What’s The Best Time of Year To Plant a Southern Lawn?

Warm season grasses are best seeded in April through July. After July, it’s too hot.

Warm season grasses germinate between 65° and 70° F. That means that air temperatures should be around 80° F. For most southern areas, that means late spring to early summer. Planting during that time also ensures seasonal rains.

Warm season grasses then get a boost from early summer warmth. Germination times vary depending on your grass type. Bermuda grass is famously fast, while Zoysia may take two to three times longer.

How Do You Take Care of a Southern Lawn?

Southern lawn grasses originated in the tropics. But just because they can tolerate – or even thrive – in sultry heat doesn’t mean they don’t need some help. Care for your southern lawn by routinely mowing, sometimes watering, dethatching, aerating, and fertilizing.

Mowing is important in spring and summer when the grass is growing the most. When you mow, practice “grasscycling” – leave the clippings on your lawn. It adds nutrients like nitrogen. Mow high in the summer, at least 1 inch above the recommendation for your grass type. 

If you have Bermuda grass, experts recommend “scalping” it (only 1/2 inch high) for the first mow of the season. During the winter, warm season grasses are dormant. No mowing!

Be vigilant about moss. Moss is harmful (and stubborn), so treat it immediately. Moss and mildew are sometimes indicators of poor drainage. If your lawn collects pools of rainwater, consider aeration, dethatching or installing a drainage system.

Water your warm season grasses in the spring to help them come out of the dormant winter months. Keep watch for precipitation amounts weekly. Your lawn should be getting 1 to 1.25 inches per week during this time. 

You can check your soil’s moisture level with a Popsicle stick. Water deeply. Scale back your watering during winter, when your grass will go dormant.

Make sure to follow guidelines for aerating and dethatching. Try to aerate and dethatch yearly in late spring. Aeration and dethatching are very important if your area has heavy clay in the soil. If you also have heavy rainfall that pools in your yard, consider setting up a drain system, like this one.

Seed or overseed your southern lawn in the late spring or early summer. Overseeding thickens grass and minimizes any weed takeovers. Since most southern grasses go dormant over the winter (and turn brown), many homeowners overseed with a cooler weather grass. With some cooler weather grass (like Ryegrass) mixed in, lawns will stay green in the winter.

Fertilize during active growth, which for southern grasses is the summer. Experts recommend fertilizing every 4 to 6 weeks in summer. Then, apply a final fertilizer about 8 weeks before the first cold weather.

If you have fallen leaves in the fall, experts say to mulch them and leave them on the lawn.

What’s The Best Fertilizer For a Southern Lawn?

Most warm season grasses should be fertilized four times a year, from late spring to early fall. Centipede grass and Bahia grass are exceptions – they should be fertilized twice, in spring and summer. The best fertilizer depends on your grass type and soil type.

Testing your soil is a good idea. Soils vary from state to state and county to county. Check your local agriculture extension office for locations for tests. Once you know what your soil does and doesn’t have, you can amend it with the right fertilizer. 

There are plenty of websites that will help explain the test results and help you calculate the fertilizer you need.

Here’s a good reference with a link at the bottom for a clickable map for soil testing labs.

What’s The Difference Between Southern & Northern Grasses?

The difference between Northern and Southern grasses is the temperatures they thrive in.

Northern (aka cool season) grasses thrive between temperatures of 60° and 75° F. Northern grasses love the cool temperatures and fade in the summer heat. Southern (aka warm season) grasses thrive between 80° and 95° F. Warm season grasses love the summer months and turn brown in the winter.

Common Northern (cool season) grasses include Kentucky Bluegrass, Fine Fescue, Tall Fescue, and Ryegrass.

Here’s a reference (with a map) showing South, North and the transition zone.

Final Words

So there you have it – the 101 on the warm weather grass varieties that make up southern lawns.

Which one is your favorite – and which one would you most like to plant in your back yard?

I think my personal choice would be Bermuda grass – but each to their own. 🙂

Mark H.

Homeowner and property investor Mark H. aspires to bring you the very best outdoor living content, based on his years of experience managing outside spaces. Read more >