Whatever your feelings about lawns in Southern California may be, like their root structures, they are deeply intertwined with the soil of our culture. Although their popularity might be waning somewhat, we still receive many requests to install new lawns. Over the next two weeks we will take a look at common Southern California cool season grasses and their maintenance needs.
The First Lawn, aka The South Lawn – made with Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea – although there are certainly other grass types growing within), is one of the most common types of cool season turfgrass.
Before we get into specific information about cool season grasses, let’s have a meditation on the viability of turf grass lawns for commercial and residential properties in Southern California.
Turf grass in Southern California has a mixed reputation, understandably. Our local biome, shrubland chaparral, is not ecologically supportive of grass with high water needs. Our native plants have evolved to withstand periods of drought and intense summer heat; climate conditions of which cool season turf grasses cannot naturally manage without supplemental water.
Dense montane shrubland chaparral of the San Gabriel Mountains. A natural ecological biome of the Crescenta Valley.
Regardless, in many communities there is a strong cultural push and desire for green lawns. Turf grass is the most widely grown horticultural plant in the United States. The history of turfgrass deserves its own article, because love it or hate it, it is a large part of our horticultural society and offers some insight into our history as a people. A well manicured, green expanse of lawn is a symbol of status and community, calling back to the country estates and palaces of England and France (turf grass for sports is itself an entire universe of culture and history).
The palatial greens of Versailles. You, too, can emulate royalty with our own expanse of lawn… just don’t read too much about what eventually happened to these aristocratic lawn lovers…
Many Southern Californians question the viability and ecological demands of turf grass lawns, with good reason. The labor to maintain a lawn is extensive, expensive, and the water demands are high. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is giving out money ($2 per square foot of lawn) to Crescenta Valley homeowners that remove their lawns and install lower water needs plants. There is somewhat of a cultural trend moving away from lawns. We, i support this move at Creative Concepts Landscape. Stewardship of our local ecology is an important responsibility that we must all accept. But we are still a landscaping company, serving the wishes of our clients (always within reason). We install and maintain lawns, and we do it with pride of work and a goal to maximize water efficiency.
The fundamental question may well be, are green lawns ecologically wasteful of one of our most precious resources, water? How important are turf grass lawns for the residential or commercial property? These are important questions to ask, but we are not taking a stance against grass lawns; not at this time. What we want to do, as a landscape construction and maintenance company, is install and maintain a lawn, if our client so desires one, that is as water efficient and healthy as possible.
Does it make you want to go running through the rainbow? Proper sprinkler system design and installation is very important for water efficiency.
There are many types of common turfgrasses in Southern California. They are generally divided into two categories, warm season and cool season grass. To put it simply, warm season grasses have their main growth period during the warmer months (roughly April through October), and conversely cool season grasses have their main growth season during the cool months (roughly October through April). With that said, some cool season grass will grow year-round with enough supplemental water.
So, here we are in December (when this was written), one of the coolest months in Southern California. Let’s take a closer look at the most common cool season grasses found in the Crescenta Valley.
Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)
This is the single most common residential turf grass in California; prized for its deep green, gentle to the touch, blades of grass. This is the grass that feels good on your bare feet. It’s well adapted to sunny or partially shaded areas. When densely grown, it has a unform appearance and is fairly weed and disease resistant.
Tall fescue tolerates warm summer temperatures (but will need extra water to stay green). It generally thrives during cool winter conditions, however severely cold periods will damage it.
There are specific cultivars (genetically modified plant varieties) of tall fescue, such as Marathon, that have a finer texture and are shorter in stature.
Fescue grasses do not spread by rhizomes or stolons (underground or surface level stem-like structures, respectively, that produce shoots with grass blades), so bare or worn patches of lawn will need to be reseeded.
Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea) on a leaf strewn winter lawn.
Annual Ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum)
Annual ryegrass is another cool season grass well adapted to sunny conditions with moderate temperatures (severe winter conditions will damage or destroy it). It is also known as Italian ryegrass and wintergrass. This is an annual plant, with a life cycle of one season.
It is sown at high rates to overseed warm-season lawns for fall, winter, and early spring providing temporary green color (because most warm season grasses, St. Augustine and Bermuda, go dormant during the cool season, leaving a lawn brown/yellow), and it also provides soil stabilization. It is not otherwise used as a turf grass, as it will die back in late spring and early summer. It will often yellow and die before the warm season grass breaks dormancy, so you might have a slightly unsightly lawn for a short period of time.
Annual Ryegrass growing tall in a climate wetter and cooler than our own.
Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis)
Less common in Southern California, and the Crescenta Valley, Kentucky bluegrass prefers full sun but can tolerate some shade. It generally performs poorly in areas with hot, dry summers such as our Crescenta Valley climate. When under extensive heat stress, or lack of water, Kentucky bluegrass can become susceptible to disease and weed invasion. For a more disease resistant lawn that has a deeper green color, it is often mixed with perennial ryegrass, with two or more cultivars of each type used together.
Kentucky Bluegrass (one of the more poetic sounding grass names) growing wild like my heart calling out for my old Kentucky home. I think that’s how the song goes… although I also think this picture is actually from Montana. My old Montana home has a decent ring too.
Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne)
This is, generally, a very tenacious cool season grass best adapted to areas with moderate temperatures throughout the year (such as coastal areas). It prefers full sun but will tolerate partial shade. This grass has the highest wear tolerance of all cool season grasses, so it can best take heavy foot traffic. It also germinates quickly, so it is often used for overseeding winter dormant Bermudagrass lawns. This rapid germination helps to suppress weeds. It has no rhizomes or stolons, so worn or bare areas will need to be seeded. As mentioned before, it is often mixed with Kentucky bluegrass for a deep green, and more disease resistant lawn.
Perennial Ryegrass. To the untrained eye these grasses look very similar, if not the same. There are differences in the plant structures, but one usually must get fairly close to begin to see them.
All of the above cool season turfgrasses, that live into the warm season, will need irrigation every one to three days during summer. Tall fescue has a root depth, generally, of 18 to 30 inches (the other grasses named above have a general root depth of 6 to 12 inches). For the health of the grass, and your overall lawn, you want irrigation to infiltrate down into these root zones.
This is the rub. These grasses need extensive summer irrigation. Is it worth it? Water is a highly precious resource, even if we don’t often think of it that way. It is, perhaps, the most precious resource on earth. As the old Kentucky Bluegrass music line goes, ‘I never missed that water… till my well went dry.”
Asking if lawns belong in commercial and residential spaces in Southern California is a boarder question for society to answer. Yes, society, not just the individual (although we are perhaps a ways away from legislating lawns). We are too numerous, too crowded, to bury our heads in the dry soil and demand that water consumption is solely a personal right. Again, mindful stewardship of our Earth is the present and future.
Or we jump ship and try our luck on Mars… where there’s bountiful water? Nope. Better luck on Europa.
Mission Europa 2060 – The Nestle Company mines for drinking water
What’s in a Name?
Festuca arundinacea, Tall Fescue, and its numerous cultivars, are the backbone of turf grass in California. It’s the Honda Civic of grass, except less efficient. ‘Festuca’ is a Latin word meaning ‘straw,’ as in, ‘stem’ or ‘stock.’ This name was first used, as far as currently known, by Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturist and military commander (he had range), although he was most likely describing another type of fescue. The ‘straw’ references fescue’s long shoots.
Tall Fescue soaring to its full height potential. Notice the straw reed like structure of the plant.
The species epithet, arundinacea, is also Latin meaning ‘cane-like,’ or ‘reed.’ Perhaps ‘straw reed’ seems somewhat redundant? Well, this was not always the name for this type of fescue. Botanical names often change, as botanists learn more about the plant and reclassify them in different familial structures. Festuca arundinacea was once known as Schedonorus arundinaceus, which was once known as Lolium arundinaceum. Is your head spinning yet? Well, this is one reason why common names, such as ‘fescue,’ are so popular.
Thank you for joining us this week for part one of our look at cool season grasses. Next Wednesday, we will return with a more in depth look at maintenance practices and irrigation requirements of these grass types.
As always, contact us with all your landscape questions and needs. Whether it’s a lawn or a native plant garden, we can design and install the landscape that you desire.
By Daniel Williams
Client Liaison for Creative Concepts Landscape Management
- The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California– are you interested in removing your living lawn and replacing it with low water use plants? You can potentially get a rebate, and we will be happy to help you with that.