Bermudagrass Lawns
Most Common Southern Grass
Beloved Friend and Hated Foe

Bermudagrass, sometimes spelled bermuda grass, is the most commonly used warm season grass in the U.S. Native to Africa, it was introduced in the U.S. in the 1700's and is currently found in over 100 countries worldwide. In other countries it goes by kweekgras (Dutch), devil’s grass and gramillia (Spanish), to name a few.

Important Uses of Bermuda grass

Common Bermudagrass

Bermudagrass has more uses and varieties than you can shake a stick at. Some varieties are used on southern golf greens where it is maintained at a quarter inch high. Others are used on highly manicured lawns and fairways where it can look like a living carpet. Still other varieties are grown in pastures where it is used as hay for livestock. Texas uses one variety on its roadside due to its drought resistance and its ability to endure the blistering Texas heat.

In the U.S., this grass has had a love/hate relationship. It has earned its place as an exceptional turfgrass and is widely used on lawns, athletic fields and golf courses.<.p>

The trouble often occurs when "wild" common varieties get out of control or sprout voluntarily in places where they were not wanted. They can over take a lawn becoming the dominate grass. They can cause problems by spreading into a neighbor's yard, spread into flower gardens and even invade field crops. One of its most troubling attributes is how difficult it can be to completely eliminate.

The most used type is "common bermudagrass" (Cynodon spp.). This is the type most often seen growing in lawns, parks, playgrounds, and roadsides. The range for the common varieties extend throughout the south and southwestern states and in the transition zone. Its northern range ends around central to northern Missouri. Click on the link to see a map of The Climate Zones of Grass Adaptation.

All of the improved varieties of common bermudagrass can be started from seed. (These common varieties should not be confused with the higher grade, hybrid bermudagrass varieties.) The common varieties produce seedheads that contain viable seed. They are drought tolerant and produce a thick turf under moderate fertilization. One drawback is that the seedheads are considered to be unsightly. The seeds are very small and a teaspoon can contain over a thousand seeds. The hybrid varieties may produce a few seedheads, but the seeds are not viable. In rural areas, certain common and hybrid varieties are used as a forage crop for livestock, especially horses. It is catching up to tall fescue as a favored forage grass in parts of the transitions zone.

Bermudagrass Spreading into Planter

Bermudagrass spreads by the production of rhizomes and stolons. The photo shows bermudagrass stolons (runners) spreading into the planter.  Rhizomes are underground stems, while stolons are above ground stems. These stems are not roots, but are true stems that grow horizontally, producing new plants as they grow. These runners make bermudagrass both a blessing and a curse.

The above ground stolons and below ground rhizomes will root at the nodes. A "node" is a reproductive point along the stem where a new plant will emerge. Nodes occur every few inches. Each new plant that emerges from a node is a clone of its mother plant. Once a plant has rooted and emerged from the node, you can actually cut the stolon separating it from the mother plant, and the new rooted plant will continue to grow. It will then take on the features of a mother plant by sending out new stolons and rhizomes.

There is an advantage to cutting stolons. Cutting the stolons between the mother plant and daughters is sometimes done by turf managers to accelerate grass spread and to thicken grasses. For more infomation on rhizomes and stolons, click on the Plant Structure page.

The roots of bermudagrass can grow quite deep, sometimes reaching over 24 inches. These deep roots help ensure the survival of the species during drought.

Hillsides, irrigation ditches, river banks and the like have benefited from bermudagrass’ excellent erosion control and its ability to recover from damage.

A Cautionary Note About Common Bermudagrass

Special Note: Common bermudagrass (Cynodon) is considered a weed in some states. (Hybrid and improved varieties may be legal, however.) If you are uncertain you should check with your local university extension office before planting. Once it is started, it can be difficult to permanently eliminate. This grass type can be very invasive. It can even displace other grasses. The seeds are so small, they can be transported from yard to yard by lawn mowers, birds, shoes, or other means.

There are a number of herbicides labeled to kill bermudagrass. The most effective method is to use "Round-Up" (glyphosate). If you choose this method, first, do not cut the grass for a few weeks to ensure there is sufficient vegetation to absorb the chemical. Second, make sure you spray when the grass is actively growing, not when it is stressed or in a drought state. It may take a couple applications to ensure it is gone. Round Up is non-selective and will kill every grass type it touches.

Round-up breaks down quickly after touching the soil, so you can reseed or replant as soon as practical. If any seed is in the soil, however, it can germinate. Round-up has no residual effect, so it only kills the grass that is actively growing when it was sprayed.

If you have bermudagrass growing in tall fescue, you can use the herbicide called Ornamec. It controls several types of grasses without harming the fescue. Be sure to follow label instructions.

To keep the rhizomes (underground stems) out of garden areas, you need to dig a trench and put in a border around the garden. Make sure the border you use is placed deeper than the rhizome depth and seal all seams or holes. Use plastic or other ground covering as a barrier in the garden. Don’t use only bark or wood chips because the grass will grow through it.

Advantages and disadvantages of bermuda grass

Advantages of the common and hybrid varieties

Bermudagrass is easy to grow. It takes no effort at all. It grows in full sun and thrives in hot weather. It can grow in almost any well drained soil and makes a thick lawn. Common bermudagrass and the improved varieties of common bermudagrass, (which is different from the hybrid varieties), can be started from seed and has better drought tolerance than the hybrid varieties. Common bermudagrass seed is less expensive than most warm season grass seeds. It can survive a little flooding, but not prolonged. The common varieties do not require as much fertilization as the hybrids, however, both types need a high nitrogen program to maintain a dense turf. An actively growing and thick turf will prevent most weed growth.

All varieties are well suited for high traffic areas such as athletic fields, golf courses, schools and playgrounds. If damaged, it recovers and heals quickly. It performs well under moderate wear and soil compaction.

The hybrid varieties are bred for many different growing conditions. Some are used on golf course greens while others for fairways and lawn use. The hybrids are superior to common varieties in looks and performance. A drawback to hybrids is that they cannot be started from seed. All hybrid seed is sterile, so grass sod or plugs is the only method of planting.

Disadvantages

The major disadvantage is its poor shade tolerance, growing only a few feet into a heavily shaded area. In slight shade, it will produce only a thin turf at best. It really needs full sun. If your lawn contains many shade trees, you may consider a more shade tolerant turfgrass.

All types of Bermudagrass have poor cold tolerance. When soil temperatures reach 50 degress for several days, it will go dormant. When the grass is dormant, it loses chlorophyll and turns a straw colored. A common practice is to overseed with ryegrass to provide green color in winter.

Bermudagrass needs more nitrogen than most grasses and performs best under a high nitrogen program of 6 to 8 lbs per 1000/sq. ft. per year. In the spring, the lawn can become quite weedy until the grass emerges from dormancy. A thick turf is the best weapon against weeds.

Commom bermudagrass can be difficult to kill if it is unwanted. Adding to the difficulty are the tiny seeds, which are viable for two years in the soil. Pulling up the stolons will not help since there are plenty of rhizomes and seeds you can’t see. Rototilling only helps to spread it faster. Some have found it easier to favor and manage the bermudagrass as the primary turfgrass.

Turfgrass maintenance

Irrigation and drought tolerance

Drought Resistance of Bermudagrass Compared to Fescue

The common varieties are more drought tolerant than the hybrid varieties. However, during drought conditions it will stop growing. You will need to water it to keep it growing.

This photo shows a fescue lawn that is being overrun by bermudagrass. In 100 degree weather, this lawn received no rain or additional irrigation for several weeks. The bermudagrass is doing well while the fescue is suffering. The deeper roots are a major factor in its success.

The drought of 2012 caused lawns to suffer greatly. My fescue lawn was decimated that summer and even the bermudagrass struggled. However, the bermudagrass responded quickly once moisture returned, but I had to reseed (overseed) the tall fescue to restore the lawn.

The hybrid varieties will thin out without sufficient water during the summer. The amount of water needed will depend on heat and soil types, with sandy soil requiring more water than loamy or clay soils. Each cultivar will respond a little differently as well. During dry conditions, try watering one inch a week and see how well the grass responds. Grass that has started to go dormant before water was applied will take longer to recover and green-up. Grass that has been consistently mowed very short will have a shallower root depth, showing signs of drought faster.

Mowing

Common bermudagrass should be not mowed lower than 1 inch. Hybrids, depending on the variety, can be mowed as low as 3/16 of an inch. The rule for mowing is not to remove more than 1/3 of blade length at one time. Removing too much cuts down on its ability to conduct photosynthesis and must replace the grass using stored energy. If you currently maintain the grass at 3 or 4 inches tall and want to lower the mowing height, mow the lawn several different times over several days, lowering the blades each time. The grass will adjust to the lower mowing heights by producing more tillers (new blades). More tillers will make up for the previously taller blade length. The grass will need the extra blades to continue the same amount of carbohydrate production as it had before.

Fertilization

For bermudagrass to look and perform well, it will need to be fertilized. Common and hybrid varieties perform best when fertilized at a rate of 1 to 1.5 lbs of nitrogen for each month the grass is actively growing. The maximum amount should not exceed 8 lbs. of nitrogen per 1000/sq.ft. per year. Disease problems, such as spring dead spot, could result from over fertilized grass. Click on the link for complete information on Fertilization.

Dethatching

Bermudagrass is one of several grasses that can create thatch. Thatch is not soil, but an organic layer that develops between the soil and grass vegetation. It primarily consists of shed roots, stems and other grass debris. Grass completely sheds its root system twice a year, one root at a time. It grows new roots to replace the old ones.

These shed roots and organic debris can form a spongy barrier that prevents water and nutrients from reaching the roots. The roots can't tell the difference between soil and thatch, so the new roots will frequently grow through the thatch. The grass suffers because thatch dries out much faster than soil and the new roots quickly die. If the thatch completely dries out, it can crust over becoming "hydrophobic". Water will not penetrate through hydrophobic thatch, but instead, will pool on the surface. Fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides have difficulty penetrating the thatch and become trapped in it. Tests have shown that almost 100% of insecticides become trapped in heavy thatch. This could also prevent the insecticides from controlling the target insects.

Core aeration opens up the soil allowing water and air to reach the root zone. You should leave the cores on the grass to break down naturally. As the cores break down, they feed the soil micro-organisms.

Top dressing is the process of scattering a thin layer of organic matter over the surface of the grass. A thin layer of quality organic matter will feed the beneficial micro-organisms that, in turn, feed on the thatch. If needed, vertical mowing or dethatching machines, can be rented to tear out the thatch.

Insects

Some of the more serious pests that feed on bermuda grass are armyworms, cutworms, sod webworms, and white grubs.

Bermudagrass mites and mealybugs can be a problem by piercing the grass and sucking out the plant juices. This can stress or thin the grass, but usually will not kill it. During the summer, when the grass is actively growing, it can easily handle small numbers of these insects.

There are a number of controls for these insects. The Neodusmetia sangwai, a fly like parasite, has elimated most of the mealybug (Rhodegrass scale) in Texas and is also being used elsewhere.

A good biological control for white grubs, sod webworms and cut worms is the microbial insecticide called "Baccilus Thuringensis". Once consumed by the insects, it kills by producing toxins within their gut. Mach 2 is another biological control for insects that pupate. The active ingredient is "Halofenozide" and kills the target insects by interrupting the pupation stage of larvae without harming beneficial insects. This product needs to be applied well in advance of any damage. It will have no effect of applied at the time insects are damaging your lawn.

Quick kill products include trichlorofon (dylox) and carbaryl (sevin). Be aware that thatch can hinder the downward movement of insecticides to the root zone where grubs live.

Some pest controls, including some biological controls, are available only to certified pesticide applicators. Many commercial applicators will apply what you need without selling you a whole program. Check with companies in your area to see.

Diseases

A few serious fungal diseases can affect home bermudagrass turfs. Spring dead spot, brown patch and dollar spot are among them. Bermuda decline (root rot) is another disease that occurs in poorly drained soil.

Spring dead spot starts as circular spots about 6 inches wide and can grow to 2 or more feet in diameter. It begins in the fall, but the damage will not appear until the spring. It is a problem on lawns where high amounts of nitrogen were used throughout the year and especially in the fall. Thatch build-up only worsens the problem. Avoid high nitrogen applications in the fall or late summer. If you have a history of spring dead spot, use the fungicide Rubigan at 6 oz./1000 sq.ft. in the fall. This fungicide will provide good results in spring.

One application per month of one lb./1000 sq.ft. of potassium chloride or potassium sulfate in the fall will help reduce the severity of disease in spring.

Understanding how to properly measure and apply nitrogen fertilizers, along with thatch removal, will help prevent the disease. The fertilization section will show you how.

Dollar spot is typically a symptom of a lack of nitrogen. The spots are from 1 to 3 inches in diameter. Multiple spots can connect together forming larger spots. Proper fertilization and irrigation usually prevents this problem.

Brown patch occurs in the hot, humid and wet periods of summer. It begins as a 1 foot patch and can enlarge to several feet in diameter. The lesions that appear on the grass became tan in appearance as the grass tissue dries out. A sign of brown patch is the webby mycelium that appears on the grass on damp mornings. Avoid applications of nitrogen fertilizer and well as weed control when this disease is present. Nitrogen will only feed the fungus. As humidity decreases and weather dries out, the disease subsides and the grass usually recovers. As long as the grass crown is not affected, the grass will grow out of it. If you live in a section of the country where high humidity is the rule and not the exception, following good cultural practices is essential to avoid the disease.

Large Patch is related to brown patch, but strikes in cooler weather. Large patch is a problem in spring as it is emerging from dormancy and in the fall as it is entering dormancy. The symptoms are the same as brown patch. Nitrogen promotes disease activity, so wait to fertilize until late spring when the grass has greened up and is growing. If you have had problems with large patch before, it is important to avoid nitrogen applications in early spring and late summer through early fall.

Fungicides like Daconil are available to help control brown patch and large patch if necessary. Fungicides must be applied in the early stages of disease development for best results. Please see the Grass Diseases section for more help in identifying and controlling diseases.


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