Buffalograss as a Drought-Tolerant Turf
This article is reprinted with permission from Utah IPM Turf Advisory, Spring 2013 edition.
Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides or Buchloë dactyloides) as turf is a top contender in helping to make ornamental landscapes sustainable, both from an irrigation standpoint and general management practices. It is one of the few turfgrasses that is native to North America.
Buffalograss is a species native to the short grass prairie of the North American Great Plains. It is a warm-season grass species (a very important detail that is discussed later) that has a vigorous stoloniferous growth habit (grows laterally with runners). It has a unique blue-gray to green color, with soft, relatively fine leaves that pass the “barefoot test” in summer. Male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Male flowers grow above the leaf canopy, creating a naturalized look, and female flowers are little burs hidden down within the leaves.
Buffalograss makes a beautiful, blue-green lawn that can look naturalized when left to flower, or more turf-like when mowed. The drawback is that when temperatures are cool, the grass goes dormant, at which time it cannot tolerate heavy traffic.
The main selling point for buffalograss is in water-wise settings. Compared to cool-season grasses used in Utah, buffalograss can provide actively growing and green turf with half the irrigation—provided it can root deeply. For example, during a typical two week period in July when most grasses need approximately 2.5 inches of irrigation, buffalograss only needs 1.4 inches. That amount of moisture can be applied once in two weeks rather than once each week. In fact, too much irrigation will encourage weeds and cool-season grasses that may out compete the buffalograss over time.
The savings in irrigation comes at a price—buffalograss has a relatively short growing season. Since buffalograss is a warm-season grass species, it needs warm temperatures to grow. Northern Utah is on the edge of buffalograss adaptation where it typically starts greening up in April and begins going dormant in September. When dormant, it is completely brown. In southern Utah, it will have a longer growing period, similar to bermudagrass. While it’s growing, buffalograss can tolerate quite a bit of traffic, but when dormant, excessive traffic will damage it. Buffalograss will survive without any supplemental irrigation, but the green growing period will be shorter.
To establish buffalograss, it is best to start with a tilled and somewhat firm soil, devoid of cool-season grasses like Kentucky bluegrass or tall fescue and weeds. The initial planting could be from seed or plugs. Seeding will result in a naturalized looking turf with a mixture of male and female plants while plugs will create a thicker turf. The timing for both methods is between the end of May and the middle to end of July.
Managing buffalograss requires less work than other grasses. Some nitrogen fertilizer is beneficial, usually 0.5 to 1 lb N/1000 sq. ft (one typical application in May) per year for a lush turf. Buffalograss is very adaptable to a range of mowing heights. It produces a very formal turf if mowed below 2 inches, even as low as ¾ inch, performs well at an average lawn height of 3-4 inches, or can be left unmowed and will grow to a height of 6-8 inches for more of a prairie look. Weeds can be controlled by hand-pulling or using pre-emergent herbicides for annuals. Usually weeds can be prevented by keeping the turf thick and healthy
While buffalograss is a great turf for water-wise landscapes, it is not appropriate for all turfgrass applications, mainly because of its short growing period. But in those areas where dormant grass in spring and fall is acceptable, where minimizing water use is a priority, and where a “native look” to the landscape is preferred, buffalograss is an excellent species to grow and enjoy.
-By Dr. Paul Johnson, Associate Professor in Department of Plants, Soils, and Climate. He specializes in evaluating and developing sustainable turfgrasses for the Intermountain West, organic golf course management, drought management in Utah, and turfgrass variety trials. Learn more about his research and projects here.