Bahia Grass Care Guide

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This plant leads a double life.  In one life, it is a desirable lawn grass that is valued for its ability to thrive in conditions that force other plants to wave the proverbial white flag in surrender to the elements.  It is tolerant of drought.  It can deal with both hot and cold temperatures.  And it can grow in some seriously inhospitable soils.

In its other life, it is considered a weed that is invasive and unwelcome in areas where other common desirable grasses make their homes.  It infiltrates lawns and becomes extremely difficult to eradicate once it sets up shop.

So, whether you want to plant bahia in your yard or want to make this nuisance plant disappear from your lawn, you’ve got to read this article.  We’ll take a look at how to do both.

General Information

Bahia grass (Paspalum notatum), also known as Pensacola bahia and highway grass, is a low-maintenance warm-season perennial native to South America.  It thrives in tropical and sub-tropical climates. 

Paspalum notatum is low-growing and creeps along the ground.  Its rhizomes have a scaly texture and are wide-spreading.  Its stolons are pressed into the soil firmly and readily root from the internodes.  It forms a dense sod with a deep, extensive root system.

The hairless leaves are flat and roughly textured.  They are between 6 and 30 inches long and between ⅛ and ⅜ of an inch wide.  They are folded and in-rolled, tapering to a fine, pointed tip.  

It has minuscule flowers, and its seed germinates slowly.  Once the seed germinates, though, it establishes itself in the soil quickly.  Over time, its steady root establishment forms a dense and resilient turf.

It is often used in lawns from the Florida panhandle through the southern Coastal Plains and to the Texas Gulf Coast.  These areas have sandy soils with few nutrients.  While other warm-season varieties would wilt and wither in this environment, bahia thrives.

Photo credit to Harry Rose

Watering

Because of its wide and deep root system, the plant is very tolerant of drought.  It requires little irrigation once it is established.  However, newly sodded and newly seeded plants will need some watering. 

New Sod

Newly sodded grass has to be watered 1 to 3 times daily for 10 to 14 days.  However, each session only requires about a quarter of an inch of water.  You only need to soak the top 2 to 3 inches of the sod.  Keep two things in mind when watering new sod:

  1. Don’t let it dry out.
  2. Don’t saturate to the point where you have standing water. 

After two weeks have passed, cut back on the irrigation.  Every 3 to 4 days, moisten the soil to a depth of around 6 inches.  Applying 1 inch of water should be sufficient. 

Water early in the morning to decrease the chances of losing water to evaporation.  You want to ensure the soil gets moist. This is essential for the root system to establish itself.

Newly Seeded

After sowing your bahia seed, immediately water it with a fine mist sprayer.  Take care not to wash away the seed or the soil.  The seeds are planted at a relatively shallow depth, so avoid using high-pressure sprinklers as they will quickly wash away the seeds.

Water the seeds daily to keep the soil moist.  If temperatures rise, water twice a day.  If the soil dries out, then the seeds dry out and won’t germinate.

You already know that this particular seed germinates slowly, so don’t be surprised if you have to water daily for about four weeks.

Once the seeds have germinated and sprouted, slowly decrease the number of watering sessions to once or twice a week.  Continue watering weekly through the first growing season.

Photo credit to Harry Rose

Established Lawns

Well-established grass needs only about an inch of water a week.  If the environment doesn’t supply this amount, you will have to water with your sprinkler system.  Do it all at once.  Watering multiple times a week discourages deep root growth.

Fertilizer

How much fertilizer your lawn needs depends on whether it is newly seeded, newly sodded, or established.

Before Planting

The best time of year to plant is in the spring, in acidic soils with a pH level between 5.5 and 6.5.  In the fall that precedes your planting, perform a soil test to determine the pH level.  If you find that it falls well outside of the desired range, amend the soil as necessary to correct the pH. 

Changing the soil’s pH level will take some time, so you have to start about six months before planting. 

Amend alkaline soils with sulfur to lower the pH and with lime to raise the pH.

Newly Seeded Lawns

A lawn grown from seed will need two rounds of fertilization early in its life.  Once the seeds have germinated, it’s ready for the first fertilizer application.

Use a high-nitrogen fertilizer with an NPK ratio of 16-4-8.  If you use a fast-release fertilizer, apply half a pound of product per 1,000 square feet.  For slow-release fertilizers, apply 1 pound of product per 1,000 square feet.  Always water the fertilizer into the soil to avoid burning the plant leaves.

In mid-summer, you can apply the second round of fertilizer.  Use the same nitrogen-rich fertilizer in the same amount per 1,000 square feet you applied the first time.

After these two fertilizer applications, your lawn won’t need to be fed again until it is established. 

Newly Sodded or Established Lawns

A newly sodded lawn requires the same amount of fertilization as an established lawn.  You want to give the new sod some time to establish its roots before you add fertilizer.

Before you fertilize, perform a soil test to determine the current pH level.  If your soil is alkaline, supplement your fertilizer with ferrous sulfate to provide the soil with extra iron.  Using a hose-end sprayer, apply 2 ounces of ferrous sulfate dissolved in 3 to 5 gallons of water per 1,000 square feet.  Apply the first fertilizer after all danger of frost has passed.  Continue fertilizing every 8 weeks through the growing season. 

For these follow-up applications, use the same high-nitrogen granular fertilizer you would use for newly seeded grass.  Spread 6 pounds of fertilizer per 1,000 square feet with a broadcast spreader.

Mowing

Bahia grows slowly.  You only need to cut it every 7 to 14 days while it is actively growing.  Mow it to a height of 3 to 4 inches.  Taller grass like that will shade the soil and keep it cool and moist.  This will encourage deeper root growth.  It will also make your lawn look fuller.

During dormancy, maintain a grass height of 2 to 4 inches.  Otherwise, you will find have seedheads hanging over your lawn.

Common Problems

Bahia grass is relatively resistant to most common lawn ailments.  However, there are some pests and diseases that you should know about.

Insects

The most common insect causing harm is the mole cricket.  It burrows into the soil and damages the roots to the point where the grass will wilt and die. 

If you suspect you have crickets burrowing into the soil, apply 2 gallons of water mixed with 1 to 2 ounces of detergent soap per 2 square feet to the damaged area.  This will flush out any mole crickets that are around.

Insecticides for mole crickets are constantly changing, but bait-type insecticides seem to work best.

Diseases

Occasionally, bahia grass is affected by the dollar spot fungal disease.  It will appear as large brown spots on the leaves. 

The disease is usually caused by nitrogen deficiency.  So, as long as you’re fertilizing your lawn correctly, this should not be an issue.

If the spots do show up on your lawn, a light dusting of 8 ounces of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet should remedy the problem.

Removing Bahia Grass from Your Lawn

If you live outside of the Florida panhandle, Gulf Coast, and coastal Plains, you probably put this plant in the same category as crabgrass: a weed that needs to be eradicated quickly.

There are six different ways to curtail bahia grass. They have to be combined into one holistic care plan to have a fighting chance to get rid of the invasive plant.

1.    Manual Removal

If you’re going to pull up this invasive species by hand, you’ll need to do a little digging to ensure that you remove the rhizomes as well. 

Otherwise, they spread and sprout new shoots or roots, and all your hard work pulling out the weeds was for nothing.

2.   Proper Mowing Practices

Bahia grass that is mowed below its optimal height of 3 to 4 inches will have trouble storing water effectively.  It will also disrupt seed production.  So, keep your lawn cut very short, to a height of fewer than 3 inches.

3.   Deliberate Fertilization

You already know that this plant performs poorly in alkaline soils.  If the other plants on and around your lawn won’t suffer in alkaline soil, then raise the pH level above 7.0.  The resulting iron deficiency will weaken the undesired weed.

Check with your local agricultural extension to find out the best way of safely raising the pH level of your soil

4.   Post-emergent Weed and Feed

The pensacola and argentine varieties have broader and thicker blades than other varieties.  You can use a post-emergent weed and feed product to kill this unwanted weed and feed the desirable plants on your lawn at the same time.

For instance, this is a good weed and feed for St. Augustine lawns.

5.   Use a Targeted Herbicide

Many varieties of this plant are resistant to herbicide.  However, the Tifton-9 variety is very resilient. It can tolerate shade, a short height, and overwatering. To get rid of this type, you will need to apply a herbicide.  Make sure you follow the product’s instructions for application.

6.   Plant Trees

In general, this plant does not do well in the shade.  So if you plant shade trees, shrubs, and bushes that will cast shadows over your lawn, causing the flat crowns of the undesired weed to die off.  The new crowns will grow less vigorously, and eventually, the shade will weaken the weeds to the point where the desirable grass wins out.

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About the author: Jeffrey Douglas is a horticultural hobbyist that loves everything related to plants and gardening. He specializes in gardens and houseplants.

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