With Michigan heating up and getting both wetter and drier, we can’t just rely on the old favorites anymore. Choosing the right turfgrass for your particular lawn will save you a lot of headaches, time, and money. Which grass is right for your Michigan lawn?
What To Know About Grass In Michigan?
The Great Lakes Effect
With the Great Lakes surrounding both parts of Michigan, the Great Lakes have a profound effect on weather and climate. Water takes longer to heat up and cool down than land, so as the lakes gain heat from the sun during the summer and releases that heat during the cooler months (especially as cold winds from Canada move across the lakes), Michigan gets cooler springs, warmer falls, and delayed frosts. Summer and winter arrive later than they do in neighboring states.
Michigan also gets lots of rain and snow because of the lakes. Lake-effect snow can bring down 2 to 3 inches of snow every hour! The precipitation is localized, with areas just a mile or two away still getting sun.
Increasing Drought Conditions
While climate change’s warming temperatures are bringing more precipitation to Michigan in the spring and winter, it’s also bringing more droughts, including the drought in 2022 that affected 7 million residents. Choosing a grass with higher drought tolerance and lower water needs could save your grass during water restrictions – and save your pocketbook too when you don’t need to irrigate.
While some cool-season grasses have better drought tolerance than others, all can benefit from deep, infrequent watering. By watering less frequently but more deeply, you’ll encourage your grass to grow its roots deeper. Combine this with letting your turfgrass grow to its maximum length (4 inches) during the summer and dry periods, which will help your grass grow deeper roots and store more resources. When stresses like heat waves and drought hit, your grass will be better able to survive.
Two Distinct Regions – South/Central and North
The state of Michigan is two peninsulas jutting out into the Great Lakes, the northern peninsula and the southern/central peninsula. Even though they’re very close to each other, they have two distinct climates.
The southern and central regions have a warmer climate, with hot summers and cold winters. These regions include the wettest parts of the state. These areas are USDA Hardiness Zone 5 – 6.
The northern region (including the northern edge of the lower peninsula) has a more severe climate, with shorter warm summers and longer, extremely cold winters. This region is also drier than the rest of Michigan. These areas are USDA Hardiness Zone 4 to 5a.
Phosphorus Ban And Fertilizer Pollution
With the health of the Great Lakes on all sides and with ten thousand lakes, rivers, streams, and other waterways, the state banned the use of phosphorus in lawn fertilizer in 2010 for both residential and commercial uses.
The reason? Phosphorus fertilizer ran off into local waterways (including the hugely important Great Lakes) and caused algae blooms. When algae levels are too high, dying algae robs the water of oxygen, killing fish, other water creatures, and plant life. The chance for toxic algae blooms increases, and excess algae causes problems with filtering drinking water. In 2009, a research study found that after Ann Arbor banned phosphorus in fertilizers, phosphorus concentrations in local waterways dropped by 25%.
While phosphorus (P) is included in lawn fertilizer under the NPK formula, it’s actually not needed very much in lawns – and especially not in Michigan, as the soil already contains an abundance of phosphorus. In fact, if phosphorus levels in your soil build up, you’ll end up with a huge problem that takes years to fix. NPK as a standard fertilizer comes from agriculture, where high-intensity crops take up all the nutrients out of the soil and so need the extra phosphorus. Lawns don’t, and Michigan has proved this over the past decade.
If you suspect a phosphorus deficiency, get a soil test done at a laboratory. If the soil test shows a deficiency, you’ll be able to legally obtain and apply phosphorus.
But phosphorus pollution isn’t the only worry. Excess nitrogen is another source of fertilizer pollution that causes huge problems with algae blooms.
The Michigan fertilizer law also requires that you maintain a 15-foot “no fertilizer application zone” near bodies of water and storm drains, or a 3-foot setback if you apply fertilizer using a spreader guard, deflector shield, or drop spreader. You must clean up fertilizer on hard surfaces like concrete immediately. You should also keep lawn clippings out of your storm drain.
The best practice to protect your waterways is to choose a grass that requires little to no fertilizer and use compost instead of synthetic fertilizers. Because compost takes longer to release nutrients into the soil than even slow-release granules, the danger of runoff is a lot less – plus your lawn stays fed for longer.
If you need to use synthetic fertilizer, you can also plant a rain garden or bioswale between your lawn and storm drains and waterways to slow water runoff and give a chance for the water and excess nutrients to sink safely into the soil.
A Variety of Soils
Glaciers rolling southward over the state formed Michigan’s soils, picking up and depositing rocks, sand, gravel, and silt. If you’re in the western and northern regions of the lower peninsula, you’ll most likely have sandy soil. In the southern area, you’ll find clay and loam.
4 Types of Grass in Michigan
1. Fine Fescue (Festuca spp.)
Fine Fescue isn’t just one species, it’s a category including many Fescue species that have a fine texture. These grasses include Creeping Red, Hard Fescue, Chewings, and Sheep Fescue. Each species has its own advantages, but they’re mostly used in mixes and blends, usually with Kentucky Bluegrass. Hard Fescue and Sheep Fescue are the best Fine Fescues to include for a low maintenance lawn that’s drought hardy.
Advantages of Fine Fescue
- Adds resilience because of diversity. The great thing about grass mixes and blends is that your lawn becomes more resilient to changing conditions. When one species struggles, another thrives, so your lawn looks and stays healthier.
- Has low water needs. All the Fine Fescues have much lower water needs than Kentucky Bluegrass, with Sheep Fescue especially excelling at this as it only needs 10 inches of rainfall per year (but may struggle with high amounts of rainfall).
- Has low fertilizer needs. Fine Fescues grow well in poor quality soil, and you only need to fertilize once or twice a year, if at all. Too much fertilizer can thin out the lawn.
- Tolerates part shade. Most Fine Fescues do well in part shade, with some having better tolerance than others. A blended lawn will look uniform between full sun and part shade areas. (No grass grows well in heavy shade.)
- Establishes fast. Red, Chewings, and Hard Fescue germinate between 1 to 2 weeks. Sheep Fescue takes a lot longer.
Disadvantages of Fine Fescue
- Low foot traffic tolerance. Except for Red Chewings, Fine Fescues alone are not a suitable choice for a play area or another area that gets heavy use.
- Requires overseeding. As bunch-forming grasses, Fine Fescues don’t self-repair and don’t spread. As the lawn thins out, you’ll need to overseed to fill in the gaps. Creeping Red is different, as it spreads via rhizomes, and will help fill out your lawn in between overseeding. To help prevent thinning, avoid overwatering and over fertilizing.
- Low wet soil tolerance. Fine Fescues don’t like sitting in wet soil, and overwatering can thin out the lawn. Fine Fescues are best used in drier regions.
2. Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis)
Kentucky Bluegrass is the most widely used turfgrass in Michigan as it grows a high-quality lawn that can handle foot traffic. But with rising concern over the use of synthetic fertilizer and increasing drought conditions, it’s no longer a sure bet.
Advantages of Kentucky Bluegrass
- Highly attractive grass. It’s the turfgrass most often used for golf courses, as it looks the most attractive – so long as you provide the right level of maintenance for it. If you don’t want to spend your weekends caring for it, choosing a lower maintenance grass that fits the level of maintenance you want to spend on your lawn will always look better than a semi-neglected Kentucky Bluegrass lawn.
- Excellent traffic tolerance. If finding a grass that can stand up to tumbling toddlers and digging dogs is your number one priority, then Kentucky Bluegrass has the best wear tolerance. (This is another reason it’s used on golf courses.) To ease its disadvantages, you can plant Kentucky Bluegrass just in play areas and buy a seed mix.
- Fair drought tolerance. With droughts becoming increasingly of concern lately, Kentucky Bluegrass can survive short periods of drought by going dormant (brown). It’ll bounce back when temperatures cool and it gets more water. However, this is a grass that requires a lot of water to stay green.
- Spreads and self-repairs. Kentucky Bluegrass is one of the few rhizomatic cool-season grass species, meaning that it can spread by itself and fill in gaps. Unless it’s struggling health-wise, you won’t need to overseed.
- Best used in seed mixes and blends. You can add resiliency and lower maintenance requirements by mixing Kentucky Bluegrass with other varieties, grasses like Fine Fescue, or Clover. Kentucky Bluegrass offers a lot of varieties with varying levels of tolerances and resistances. Adding Clover to your lawn will fix nitrogen in the soil that will lower nitrogen requirements.
- Excellent cold tolerance. Kentucky Bluegrass has the best cold tolerance of the 4 grasses, which can be particularly handy in the northern region.
Disadvantages of Kentucky Bluegrass
- High maintenance. If you were hoping to just plant it and have your weekends free, sorry to disappoint. You’ll need to apply fertilizer 4 to 5 times a year, mow frequently (the price for an aggressive sod-forming turfgrass), and water once or twice weekly.
- High water needs. With the highest water needs of the cool-season grasses, it needs 1.25 to 1.5 inches every week during the summer heat to stay green. If you don’t get enough rain, you’ll need to irrigate. In drought conditions, you can let it go dormant, reducing how much water it needs to survive.
- High nitrogen needs. Kentucky Bluegrass needs the most nitrogen per year of all the cool-season grasses, and its high nitrogen needs exacerbate its thatch problems and low insect and disease resistance. Not the right grass if you’re hoping to grow an eco-friendly lawn.
- Low insect and disease resistance. While resistance varies between cultivars, you won’t find anything that can compete with Tall Fescue.
- Low shade tolerance. If you’ve got full sun, you’re golden. If you have a shady patch, opt for a mix with other grass species with higher shade tolerance to grow a uniform lawn. If you’ve got a shady lawn, opt for another turfgrass or ground cover altogether.
- High thatch problems. The faster a turfgrass grows, the more quickly thatch builds up. Rhizomes also contribute to thatch problems, as do the high nitrogen requirements.
3. Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne)
Perennial Ryegrass is a turfgrass better used either in a seed mix or to cover the soil temporarily rather than as a turfgrass on its own.
Only use Annual Ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) as a temporary cover, as it’s a poor quality turfgrass that’s difficult to mow and only lasts a year.
Advantages of Perennial Ryegrass
- Establishes fast. Perennial Ryegrass is the first to germinate and the first to get established, and that’s why it’s the best grass for temporary ground cover. It’s also used in mixes with the slower germinating Kentucky Bluegrass to cover the soil and provide better germination conditions for the bluegrass. You can also use it to cover slopes quickly to provide erosion control.
Disadvantages of Perennial Ryegrass
- Needs moderate amounts of nitrogen. It needs less than Kentucky Bluegrass, but more than Fine Fescues. If you’re using it as a temporary ground cover, it won’t last long enough to be a problem.
- Doesn’t tolerate drought and has high water needs. Perennial Ryegrass needs lots of water and won’t survive going without. This is actually an advantage if you’re using it as a temporary ground cover, as any grass or plants with lower water needs you plant will take over once the Perennial Ryegrass doesn’t get enough water.
- Needs full sun. Perennial Ryegrass struggles in part shade.
- Has lower heat and cold tolerance. With Michigan warming up, Perennial Ryegrass will struggle against hotter summers and the frigid winters.
Rough Bluegrass (Poa trivialis)
Rough Bluegrass is sometimes recommended as a turfgrass species for shaded, moist areas where other cool-season grasses struggle to grow, but it’s a poor choice for a residential turfgrass. It needs a lot of maintenance, has poor heat and drought tolerance, turns bright yellow, and has poor traffic tolerance. It’s often regarded as a weed.
4. Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)
Also known as Turf Type Tall Fescue or TTTF, Tall Fescue is your cool-season grass of choice for water conservation and low maintenance.
Advantages of Tall Fescue
- Low maintenance. While Tall Fescue needs more fertilizer applications than Sheep Fescue, it’s still only 2 to 3 applications per year and you can easily swap compost for synthetic fertilizer. Low maintenance doesn’t mean no maintenance, and you will still need to mow, fertilize, and (if you choose to) water your lawn.
- Good drought tolerance. Outside of semi-arid grasses like Buffalo and Blue Grama, Tall Fescue is one of the best cool-season grasses for both low water needs and drought tolerance while tolerating heavier rainfall. To keep it green during heat spells, it only needs ¾ inch to 1 inch of water per week, half of what Kentucky Bluegrass needs. You can also allow it to go dormant during drought conditions (giving it one inch of water a month to survive) and it’ll pop right back when the rain returns.
- Tolerates part shade. Tall Fescue grows well so long as it gets 4 hours of sun per day.
- Grows quickly. Tall Fescue germinates just a tad slower than Perennial Ryegrass and gets established well before Kentucky Bluegrass.
- Tolerates salt and any soil texture. Few grasses are as easy-going as Tall Fescue when it comes to soil type and soil texture. It tolerates salt and grows as well in clay soil as it does in sandy soil and poor-quality soil.
- Offers high insect and disease resistance. If pests and disease have plagued you before, then Tall Fescue is for you.
- Tolerates traffic. While not as top-notch as Kentucky Bluegrass, Tall Fescue is more than able to stand up to most play activities and backyard gathering without the maintenance.
Disadvantages of Tall Fescue
- Needs overseeding. As a bunch-forming grass, it won’t spread or fill in gaps. This means it won’t end up in your garden beds, but also means you’ll need to overseed gaps and thin grass to get it growing thickly.
Lawn Alternatives For Michigan
But do you actually want a lawn? More and more homeowners are choosing to ditch their turfgrass lawns in favor of lawn alternatives and ground covers. Ground covers can be a lot lower maintenance (as you don’t need to fertilize or mow), offer better drought tolerance, provide food for local pollinators (attracting amazing butterflies and birds to your yard), and reduce or eliminate pesticide, fertilizer, and gas mower use.
Here are just a select few ideas to replace your lawn.
Native Perennial Garden
If you don’t need to actually use your lawn, convert it into a low maintenance native perennial garden. As native plants, they’ll already be well-adapted to the climate. They’ll also attract wildlife to your yard, which is especially great for developing an interest in local fauna, whether in your children or yourself.
With food prices skyrocketing, saving part of your lawn to grow your own vegetables just makes sense. Get a soil test done before planting to check for lead and other carcinogens, especially around Detroit.
If you have lead, you can still grow a vegetable garden. You just need to use a raised bed on concrete or cultivate vegetables for the fruit rather than the leaves, where lead builds up.
Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica)
If you’re not ready to give up the look of a lawn, but would love something a little more whimsical, look to the native Pennsylvania Sedge. It thrives in part to full shade (something no turfgrass can do) and prefers dry to medium wet soil while also tolerating wet soil.
It only grows 8 inches tall, and when left to grow long, the narrow grass-like leaves roll over in waves. Otherwise, you’ll only need to mow 2 or 3 times a year to keep it to 2 inches.
Clover (Trifolium spp.)
While Clover used to be hated as a weed, now homeowners are seeing its appeal. It is a hardy plant that grows slowly to only 10 to 12 inches and requires no fertilizer – it loves low-fertility soil and fixes its own nitrogen. Clover can stand up to both a lot of rain and some dry periods, and needs less water than a Kentucky Bluegrass lawn.
You can mow it shorter or allow it to flower to feed pollinators. If you’re not quite ready to switch over, you can overseed your existing lawn with clover – the grass will add more wear tolerance and the Clover will provide more nitrogen. The two most popular options are White Dutch Clover and Microclover, a cultivar bred from White Dutch to grow shorter with fewer flowers for a more lawn-like appeal.
The Best Grass Options In Michigan:
|Best Picks For Shade in Michigan:||
|Best Picks For Drought & Low Water Usage in Michigan:||
|Best Picks For Low Maintenance in Michigan:||
Read our related posts on grass species in different locations:
- 6 Types of Grass in Louisiana
- 6 Types of Grass in Hawaii
- 7 Types of Grass in Colorado
- 7 Types of Grass in Florida
- 9 Types of Grass in Alabama
- 10 Types of Grass in Arizona (With 3 Lawn Alternatives)
- 11 Types of Grass in Texas
- 10 Types of Grass in California (5 Lawn Alternatives)
- 5 Types of Grass in Missouri (The Ultimate Lawn Guide)
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.