As fresh water supplies diminish and water costs increase, more individuals and businesses are looking for alternatives to water-guzzling turf. Bouteloua dactyloides (buffalograss) is an attractive, fine-textured, low-water-use native grass that grows throughout the Great Plains from Minnesota to Montana and south into Mexico. This warm-season perennial establishes itself as a short (three to six inches tall) sod grass and spreads by means of runners called stolons. The runners form a turf that is solid, yet can accommodate wildflowers and native bunch grasses. Buffalograss is exceptionally cold- and drought-tolerant, and has no known disease or insect problems. It is ideal for large landscaped areas such as businesses, parks, and schools.
Although it is adapted to a variety of soils, buffalograss prefers heavier soils, and does not thrive in sandy soil. It is most productive in rich, well-drained clay and loam soil, but also grows well in rocky limestone soil. The one limitation of buffalograss is its intolerance of shade. When actively growing, buffalograss varieties range from green to blue-green in color. Buffalograss will go dormant during the cold temperatures of winter and low rainfall of summer. When dormant, buffalograss turns yellow to golden brown in color.
Buffalograss is dioecious, which means that male and female reproductive parts are found on separate plants. The female plant blooms low to the ground, probably as an adaptation to protect seeds from being grazed. Flowers on the male plant, often called flags, reach a height of five to six inches and protrude slightly above the foliage.
Bed preparation for buffalograss seed and sod differs little from preparation for other lawn grasses. Till the soil no deeper than two inches; rake level, and roll the soil lightly to make the bed firm. Remove all existing weeds. Because tilling often stimulates weed germination, it is advisable to water the bed one to two weeks before planting. This encourages weed germination. Weed seedlings can be killed by hand-pulling, laying a sheet of plastic over the weeds until the sun cooks them out, or by using a post-emergent, non-residual herbicide. You may need to repeat this procedure several times to ensure a clean bed. Starting with a clean bed is much easier than eliminating weeds after planting.
Compared to other turf grass seeds, buffalograss seeds are large. Their large size makes even distribution of seeds relatively easy. Buffalograss seeds are contained within a hard protective coat called a bur. Usually two to three seeds are found within each bur. When purchasing seeds, you should buy double-treated seeds for an increased germination rate during the first year. In double-treatment, seeds are soaked for 24 hours in a 0.5 percent solution of potassium nitrate (saltpeter), then stored in a moist environment at 41 degrees Fahrenheit for four to six weeks. The seeds then are dried rapidly at temperatures not exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit. While the germination rate of non-treated seeds can be as low as 10 percent, treated seeds often have a germination rate above 70 percent. Double-treated seeds are stained with a dye (commonly purple, green, or blue) that makes them visible on top of the soil.
Because buffalograss is a warm-season grass, it will not germinate until warm spring days arrive. Sow the seeds after the danger of frost has passed, and the soil temperature is 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. A seeding rate of two to four pounds per 1,000 square feet is recommended. Buffalograss produces runners about four weeks after germination. If cost is not a problem, seed at a higher rate for a thicker lawn more immediately.
Planting can be done by hand-broadcasting or with a garden planter. If you hand-broadcast seeds, be sure to distribute them evenly, then cover the seeds with one-half inch or less of soil or a light layer of compost. This can be accomplished by raking in two different directions in loose topsoil.
The germination and establishment rates of buffalograss are good to fair. However, proper watering can maximize its performance. Water new plantings regularly to assure germination and root establishment. Optimum growing temperatures are 80 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and around 68 degrees Fahrenheit at night.
Buffalograss sod cultivars give homeowners and landscape professionals another option besides seeding. These sods are produced vegetatively from female plants, and you will not see male flags nor will they produce seeds. Unlike seed, sod may be planted any time of year. The drawback is increased cost. Sod is generally sold by the pallet, which will cover 450 square feet. Some garden centers will sell sod by the piece.
To reduce costs for larger areas, sod can be separated into smaller “plugs.” The runners will fill in open spaces. Keep in mind, though, that the ground should still be cleared of weeds to reduce their invasions into these open areas. Plugging in combination with seeding is a good way to have a thicker lawn sooner.
In addition, sod must be installed immediately after purchase and needs establishment watering. If possible, roll the sod with a heavy roller for optimum root to soil contact. Initially, water thoroughly once or twice a day depending on temperature and wind. After a week or two, water at least every other day to maintain root zone moisture until the buffalograss has established a sufficient root structure (usually three to four weeks).
Inevitably, buffalograss sod will turn brown and appear dormant right after installation. This temporary condition will pass as the sod becomes established; just be persistent about watering and have a little patience. One month after installing the sod, mow to a height of two inches to encourage runner density and more roots. After the buffalograss is established, water as needed to maintain color.
Weeds invariably appear after seeding or plugging, and controlling them is one of the most difficult problems in establishing buffalograss. Because weeds grow faster than grass seedlings, you must control them or they will out-compete the grass.
One way to control weeds is to water and mow correctly. While established buffalograss will survive summer droughts without supplemental water, it will go dormant. To keep your buffalograss green during the summer, it must receive 1 to 1.5 inches of water per week. Watered lawns often require more frequent mowing to prevent undesirable weeds and grasses from establishing. Overwatering and watering too early or too late in the season encourages weeds to grow. Many weeds will establish while the grass is dormant if you water too much in the winter.
Established buffalograss lawns should be mowed occasionally, but never shorter than three inches. Mowing at least once a year will ensure a healthier lawn, the best time being late winter before new growth begins. If not mowed periodically, an established lawn will become choked and decline after several years. If you like a clean, uniform look, you may want to mow more often.
Once established, buffalograss is extremely hardy, and can tolerate moderate foot traffic. Neither fertilization nor irrigation is necessary, but minimal application of either at the right time of year can make the grass more lush. A spring application of a slow-release, organic fertilizer with a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) ratio of 3-1-2 produces a thicker turf. Use any fertilizer cautiously, however, because heavy fertilization encourages competitive weeds and Bermuda grass to grow. In addition, over-fertilizing combined with over-watering is a common source of non-point pollution in creeks, streams, and lakes.