Picking a grass for a transition zone is quite the challenge. Not only do you have the challenges of both extreme heat and cold and have to deal with the drawbacks of either a warm-season or cool-season grass, but you also often have to deal with tight water restrictions. If you’re in the US West, Midwest and Southwest, then consider this true native transition grass: buffalo grass.
Note: Buffalo grass can refer to two different species of grass depending on where you live. In North America, it refers to the native grass Buchloe dactyloides. In Australia and South Africa, it refers to Stenotaphrum secundatum, also known as St Augustine. Unfortunately, this makes it hard to find the right info on taking care of your lawn on the Internet, so when looking for info, make sure that it’s from an American source and ideally includes the scientific name. This article refers to the North American variety.
What Is Buffalo Grass (Buchloe Dactyloides)?
|Buchloe / Bouteloua (Used interchangeably)
|USDA Zone 5 – 9
|6.5 to 8.5
|Mature height is 6 inches
|Good heat and cold tolerance. High insect and disease resistance. Low shade tolerance.
|14 – 30 days
Slow to establish
Buffalo grass is one of the few grasses native to North America commonly used for lawns and one of the few that truly count as a transition zone grass. Growing naturally in the West, Midwest, and Southwest, it conquers the usual lawn growing challenges once established – it can handle heat, it can handle cold, it can handle drought! When water rights and restrictions are top of your lawn care priorities, buffalo grass comes to the rescue.
It’s also a low maintenance grass. In fact, this is a grass you can kill with kindness. It doesn’t want much water or fertilizer. It barely wants you to mow it. It grows best in areas with less than 25 inches of annual rainfall (sorry people in the East and Northwest, this grass is not for you).
This grass will also look good on your lawn, with a green to blue-green color, and a fine texture that’s more pleasing to the touch than other options like Bermuda and St Augustine grasses. Now, it won’t grow as thick as those two grasses, so you will need to weed more, but you’ll also have less mowing. Buffalo grass only grows to a maximum of 6 inches (that’s 2 inches taller than your ideal summer height!), and the blades curl downward a little, so it appears even shorter.
Buffalo grass is dioecious, meaning it has both male and female flowers. If you let it go to seed, you’ll notice small comb-like spikes rising above the lawn. These are the male flowers. The female ones hide lower and include the seed burs. The seed burs require a little finagling to harvest, which is why buffalo grass seed is more expensive.
However, this grass takes a long time to get established, during which you will need to spend more time watering it. It takes at least two weeks to germinate. But once it gets established, it’ll stand up to just about everything.
Like warm-season grasses, Buffalo grass will go dormant from mid-fall to mid-spring as temperatures go too cool. Watering won’t help in this case.
Pros and Cons of Buffalo Grass
Tolerates alkaline soil
More expensive than other turf grass because the seeds are difficult to harvest
Drought resistant, requiring only 1.5 inches of rain per month to stay green and can survive prolonged drought through dormancy.
Slow to germinate and establish. It’ll take a few years for buffalo grass to thicken up into thick turf.
Low maintenance – requires little fertilizer, watering, and mowing
Weeds are a problem, especially during the establishment stage, when the lawn is thinner.
How To Grow Buffalo Grass
The best time to seed buffalo grass is in the late spring or early summer. Seed at 1 to 3 pounds per 1,000 square feet using a drop spreader, then cover lightly (less than ½ inch) to improve moisture retention. Because of the hard bur coating, you’ll need to soak them in potassium nitrate to loosen the coating. Water lightly to keep seeds moist while germinating, and once seedlings have emerged, water only enough to prevent drought stress.
Patience is key when establishing a new buffalo grass lawn. It won’t germinate densely, so you’ll need to weed a lot in the first couple of years, but each year it’ll grow thicker as the stolons spread.
You can also start a new buffalo grass lawn through plugs. Plugs are like picking up the 6-cell flowers at the garden center, with each cell (or plug) containing a grass plant. Plant them between 6 to 24 inches apart (depending on how fast you need lawn coverage and your budget). The plugs can spread within 8 to 12 weeks of planting. While the best time to plant plugs is still in the late spring or early summer, you can plant them as late as fall, so long as they’re given enough time to establish their roots before the first frost.
With a mature height of only 6 inches, you will only need to whip out your mower 4 to 6 times a year. For a more manicured lawn appearance, cut to 2 to 3 inches as frequently as needed. If you want to keep your lawn low-maintenance, mow it to 3 or 4 inches once a month or let it grow as it will and just take off the old growth with an annual spring mowing (when left to grow as it will, the blades will curve downward like rolling hills with comb-like spikes rising above).
Avoid mowing below 2 inches, as you’ll encourage thicker, faster thatch and make your lawn more susceptible to disease and pests. Leaving it longer will also help it outcompete weeds.
Because of its low density, buffalo grass is prone to weeds, especially in its first couple of years. Pull weeds by hand when possible, making sure to pull up the whole root (especially if it has a taproot). If chemical intervention is necessary, only use products labeled for use with buffalo grass.
Too much kindness will kill buffalo grass, so keep a cautious hand when applying fertilizer. It only requires 1 to 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Spreading a thin layer of compost when needed will do more good than even the slowest synthetic fertilizer because the compost will continue to feed the lawn lower doses of nutrients over a longer period of time.
Thanks to its very deep root structure, buffalo grass needs very little water, making it an outstanding choice for a non-irrigated lawn. If you want to keep your lawn from going dormant in times of prolonged dry spells, then you will need to water. Otherwise, buffalo grass can survive extended droughts without intervention – it’ll just go dormant (brown). (Buffalo grass will also go dormant in cooler temperatures in mid-fall to mid-spring,and watering can’t prevent that.)
Too much water will only encourage weeds and disease.
Buffalo grass is pretty tolerant of clay soils, but if the soil becomes too compacted (puddles remaining for a long time, grass struggling to break ground), then you may wish to core aerate. Late spring or early summer is the best time to core aerate.
Buffalo grass spreads through stolons, and while this will create a thicker lawn for you, it also produces more thatch. Keeping your grass longer will help reduce thatch problems. Only dethatch if the thatch grows thicker than ½-inch. That’s when thatch changes from beneficial soil champion (keeping the soil moist longer and breaking down into nutrients) to soil suffocator (preventing air and water from reaching the soil). Dethatching will damage your grass, so only do it when necessary.
The best time to dethatch is in the late spring or early summer, after your grass has begun growing again. This gives your grass the best chance to recover from the damage before it’s hit with other stressors, like drought.
If you core aerate, you may not need to dethatch as well (depending on how thick the layer is) as the core aeration process will pull out bits of thatch with the core plugs.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do You Encourage Buffalo Grass to Spread?
Occasional mowing of buffalo grass will encourage buffalo grass to spread. If you need faster coverage, consider seeding more thickly or planting plugs closer together.
Is Buffalo Grass Hard to Grow?
Establishing a new buffalo grass lawn is more difficult than with other grasses, as it germinates and establishes itself slowly. It may take up to 3 years for a seed-started lawn to grow thick. Meanwhile, weeds will take advantage of the sparseness. However, once established, it requires very little care besides weeding – it needs little water, fertilizer, and mowing.
Can Buffalo Grass Grow in Shade?
The Buffalo Grass (Buchloe dactyloides) native to North America can grow in light shade, but is not a good choice for shadier spots. The buffalo grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum) popular in Australia and South Africa, also known as St Augustine in the US, can handle more shade.
Related Grass Articles:
- Crested Wheatgrass Guide: What It Is & How to Grow It
- Kentucky Bluegrass Guide: What It Is And How To Grow It
- Perennial Ryegrass Guide: What It Is and How To Grow It
- Fescue Grass Guide: What It Is & How To Grow It
- 19 Types of Grass in Georgia
Jamie is the founder of The Backyard Pros. When he was 15 years old he started working at a garden centre helping people buy plants, gardening products, and lawn care products. He has real estate experience and he is a home owner. Jamie loves backyard projects, refinishing furniture, and enjoys sharing his knowledge online.