When you think of the American West, you probably think of pioneers and cowboys and large herds of buffalo grazing on the open prairies of the Midwest. Have you ever given a second thought to the plant that has fed those buffalos?
It is a tough-as-nails turfgrass used to cover areas from the Canadian Prairie Provinces all the way into central Mexico. It has become highly adaptive to its surroundings, withstanding both the bone-chilling weather of the great white North and the scorched and dry, desert-like climate of the South.
Do you know the name of this resilient plant? It is buffalo grass, named after the symbol of the American Wild West that once roamed the grass-covered expanse of the seemingly endless prairie.
Today, buffalo grass has become one of the most desirable lawn grasses in use. It is prized by those who want a strong, low-maintenance lawn. But it is also pricey and difficult to establish, which is why some landscapers shy away from using it.
Here, we lay out everything you need to know to grow a beautiful buffalo grass lawn. While you have to invest some time and money in the beginning, you will save time and energy with this strong, low-maintenance plan in the long run.
Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) is a perennial, warm-season shortgrass that is co-dominant over the prairie ecosystem of North America. It calls the plains and the Mississippi River Valley its home.
The North American plant is easily confused with a different species that Australians call buffalo turf. What they call buffalo turf “down under” is the grass that we prefer to call St. Augustine. But save for their informal monikers, the two plants don’t have much in common.
Buffalo grass foliage is a bluish-green color with curly blades. The individual blades average between 2 and 6 inches in length. When left to grow unchecked, the blades can grow to be 12 inches long. Although it is very hardy and resilient, the foliage does not grow very dense.
As far as reproduction, this plant runs the gamut. Generally, it is dioecious. But there are recorded specimens that are monoecious and some were found to have perfect flowers. The male flowers grow on a panicle with a stalk 4 to 8 inches tall. The female inflorescence appears in clusters of burs. Each bur has between 2 and 4 spikelets.
Buffalo grass spreads numerous runners branching out from the nodes along the soil’s surface. The plant will also grow rhizomes below the soil.
The hardy root system counterbalances the foliage’s lack of density. The roots grow in great numbers in a very complex manner. The interwoven roots firmly establish the plant in the earth and form a very dense sod.
Several cultivars are grown for turfgrass lawns or as forage for livestock. Scientists have created hybrid cultivars that grow denser than traditional varieties, making them less susceptible to weed infestation.
Buffalo grass is both heat- and cold-tolerant. If that weren’t enough, it’s also very drought-tolerant.
It grows best between May and September. In the fall, it will go dormant and turn brown with the first hard frost of winter. The lawn will hibernate until the soil and air both reach a temperature suitable for healthy growth.
Although the plant is very drought-tolerant, proper irrigation is essential for continued health and virile growth.
Established buffalo grass does not require supplemental irrigation to survive. However, non-irrigated lawns will probably go dormant during the dry summer months. This will allow weeds to compromise the thin growth habit and take over the space
To avoid a weed invasion, make sure your buffalo grass receives 1 to 2 inches of water per month. It can come either through the environment or your sprinkler system. During dry spells, ensure that it’s getting that 1 to 2 inches every two weeks.
Your lawn will grow best when watered deeply and infrequently. That encourages the roots to grow deeper into the soil and makes it difficult for weeds to take hold.
If you are experiencing a dry spring, begin watering in late April or early May. However, if you’re receiving enough water through the environment, then save yourself the trouble and let nature do its job. Since the temperature brings your lawn out of dormancy, watering before April will not speed up the process. Instead, it will promote the spread of weeds. So, in this case, less effort will give you a better result.
You don’t have to spend much time fertilizing buffalo grass either. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that more is better when it comes to fertilizer.
If you feed buffalo grass too much, its health and vigor are both severely compromised.
Instead, give your lawn a light dusting of a balanced slow-release fertilizer with an NPK of 10-10-10 or 12-12-12. You’ll only need 1 to 2 pounds of product for every 1,000 square feet of your lawn per year.
You’re not applying a lot of fertilizer, so using a slow-release product will spread the nutrients out over a longer period of time. In addition, it’s best to use an organic fertilizer. Its nutrient density is lower than that of chemical products, so there is less danger of over-fertilization, which can burn the blades.
Using a fertilizer with a high nitrogen content will raise the pH level of the soil. This, in turn, will lead to an iron deficiency in your lawn. This makes buffalo grass more prone to chlorosis and yellowing of the leaves. Perform a soil test to determine the pH and amend the soil with sulfur or aluminum sulfate to lower high pH levels.
Fertilize your lawn twice a year — once in the spring and then again in the fall. If your grass is newly established, use a “weed and feed” fertilizer. It will encourage healthy growth of the roots and blades while keeping weeds from spreading across thinner sections of your lawn.
Buffalo grass grows best in full sun. It will grow well in partial sun, but it prefers 6+ hours of direct and unfiltered sunlight. It is essential that your lawn receives a minimum of 4 hours of direct sunlight daily.
Cut back any foliage that is casting shadows over your lawn.
The plant is not made for sandy soils. It needs soil with substance so its complex roots can anchor to something solid. It grows best in well-drained soil, with no puddling or standing water.
Ideally, the soil is slightly alkaline, with a pH level between 7.0 and 8.0.
It does best when the soil temperature climbs up and rests between 60℉ and 80℉. Its seeds will not germinate until the soil sits consistently at 55℉.
Property owners often pass over buffalo grass because it takes time to establish. But once you are over the possibly rough beginning, it is smooth sailing. You have the choice between growing the lawn from seed or laying sod.
This particular seed’s germination rate fluctuates dramatically. It all comes down to whether or not the seeds have been treated.
Seeds are soaked in potassium nitrate and then placed in cold storage for 4 to 6 weeks. This process breaks down the bur and the hull of the seed to allow the moisture, essential for germination, to pass through. The solution acts as a catalyst for germination and causes the seed to wake from its dormancy quickly.
Untreated seeds germinate at rates as low as 15%. Treated seeds show rates as high as 80%. It makes sense to ensure that your seeds are treated.
Prepare the top half-inch of topsoil with a tiller or a power rake. Loosening the soil in the seedbed and amending it with peat moss or compost will increase germination and growth. Clear any rocks or debris off the seedbed. Make sure that the soil is firm enough to withstand foot traffic without caving into the soil more than half an inch.
Sow buffalo grass with 2 to 5 pounds of seeds for every 1,000 square feet.
The many different cultivars and hybrids cause a large discrepancy in the number of seeds per 1,000 square feet. The new hybrids grow thick and dense, whereas the traditional varieties are still prone to thin development.
Spread your seed using a drop or rotary spreader vertically and horizontally. Once spread, ensure good seed-to-soil contact with a garden rake or a roller. Cover the area with straw or other mulch.
Water the seedbed lightly each day if there is no precipitation. When seedlings start to appear on the surface, cut back on your irrigation schedule.
It’s best to sow your seed in late April or early May. Six weeks after sowing, use a well-balanced starter fertilizer to encourage healthy growth.
Sodding this plant is not much different than sodding any other type of turf. First, water the soil before you begin. Then, check to see that there is good sod-to-soil contact with no gaps or spaces between the slabs of sod. Slabs should be staggered like a brick wall to avoid seams running through your lawn.
Water your new sod like you would any other new lawn. The soil should stay moist while the sod begins to establish itself in the new soil.
It is not uncommon for newly sodded buffalo grass to turn brown for a week or two. Don’t be discouraged. Continue irrigating and give the turf time. Look on the underside of slabs for new, white roots. If you see those new roots, you’ll see the topside turn green in no time.
Weeds are the most common headache associated with buffalo grass.
Annual grassy weeds like foxtail and crabgrass can be treated effectively on established buffalo grass lawns with a quality pre-emergent herbicide.
Mature weeds that made themselves at home already are more challenging to get rid of.
The problem is that a chemical herbicide will wind up hurting the desired plants as well. While it is extremely hardy and resilient, buffalo grass is prone to injury and discoloration of its foliage. Off-the-shelf commercial herbicides, selective or non-selective, will injure an actively growing lawn. So, you need to wait until the yard goes dormant.
Once the grass has stopped growing for the season, you can spray post-emergent herbicide on every weed you see with impunity.
Follow that up with a healthy dose of pre-emergent herbicide to contain any new weed seeds lying in wait for spring. They won’t stand a chance against the pre-emergent weed barrier.
Buffalo grass is a low-growing plant that doesn’t require much effort with the lawn mower. Keep the lawn at an optimal height of 2 ½ and 3 ½ inches. That will ensure that the panicles of the male plants won’t spring up all over your lawn. During the spring, you’ll only have to mow the lawn every 3 or 4 weeks. As the season progresses and the soil warms, mowing sessions will increase to every 2 to 3 weeks.
Avoid unnecessary stress to your lawn and don’t cut more than the top third off the blades. Cutting any more than that impedes healthy growth and vigorous root activity.
If your lawn is still establishing itself, allow your lawn to grow taller than usual. A height of 3 to 4 inches will promote a vigorous root system, which keeps the soil moist and cool. This, in turn, will make it easier for the plants to settle in
With these tips and patience early on, you will soon have a healthy, beautiful buffalo grass lawn.