Between sweltering summers, frigid winters, severe rainfall, and drought, choosing a turfgrass that will withstand Missouri weather is a challenge. Which grass is right for your Missouri lawn? Read on to find out.
What To Know About Grass In Missouri?
Transition Zone + Humidity
While southern states benefit from warm-season grasses and northern states benefit from cool-season, Missouri is in that weird middle-ground known as the transition zone. Cool-season grasses struggle in the summer heat and warm-season grasses struggle through the frigid winters. And unlike other transition zone states like Colorado, turfgrass in Missouri has to deal with humidity too.
Missouri gets these huge swings in temperature because there are no mountains or large bodies of water to moderate the temperature. The weather is caused either by the icy Arctic air or the hot Gulf of Mexico.
You will need to adjust your lawn schedule based on whether you plant warm-season or cool-season grass.
Warm-season grasses grow most vigorously during the summer heat, so should be seeded and fertilized through the summer. They’ll be green during the heat of summer but will go dormant when it’s colder.
Cool-season grasses grow most vigorously during the cooler spring and fall, and so should be seeded and fertilized in the spring and early fall. They’ll be green during the cooler spring and fall, but will go dormant during the summer unless watered.
If you start your lawn in the wrong season, then it’ll struggle to germinate or get established before the summer heat or winter cold kill it.
If you fertilize your lawn in the wrong season, it will stress out the turfgrass and cause health problems. If your grass is going dormant, fertilizing won’t fix it.
Two Distinct Climates
Missouri is divided into 2 main climates.
The northern third of the state is a humid continental climate, with four distinct seasons, hot summers, and cold winters. Northwestern Missouri has less humidity than the rest of the state. The USDA Hardiness Zone is 5 and the Heat Zone is 5 (31 – 45 days above 86F), 6 (46 – 60 days above), and even some places are 7.
If you’re in the north, choose a cool-season grass that can survive the frigid winters. In northwestern Missouri, you can also grow the warm-season Buffalo Grass, although it’ll be green during a shorter period than cool-season grasses.
The central and southern region of Missouri is humid subtropical with hot, humid summers and cool winters, although it still gets drought and occasional frigid winters. The USDA Hardiness Zone is 5 and 6 (or even 7 in the Bootheel), and the Heat Zone is 7, with 61 – 90 days above 86F. The Bootheel is at Heat Zone 8 with 91 – 120 days.
In this region, you can use either cool-season or warm-season grasses, although you want to plant the most cold hardy of the warm-season grasses to make it through cold freezes.
Drought is an expected fact of life in Missouri. With climate change, you can expect droughts to get longer and more severe, even while spring brings greater rainfall, severe storms, and flooding. Hotter summer temperatures means more evaporation. Water levels drop in the Missouri River and other local watersheds and lawn soil dries out faster.
To prepare for the inevitable lawn irrigation restrictions (and save you money on your water bill), choose a drought-hardy grass and use lawn-care best practices to reduce water use and encourage your turfgrass to become more drought-hardy.
If you need to irrigate, water deeply and less frequently so your turfgrass extends roots deeper in search of water.
If you have sandy soil, mix in compost before seeding or topdress with compost on an established lawn, since the organic matter will help retain moisture longer. (Compost in clay soil will help it do the opposite by improving drainage.)
Water your lawn in the early morning before it heats up, giving the water longer to sink into the soil before it evaporates. The sun will dry off your grass during the day to prevent fungal diseases. If you can’t water in the early morning, then water in the evening.
If you have a drought-hardy lawn, let it go dormant during drought conditions. It’ll turn brown, but so long as it gets an inch of water throughout the month, it’ll bounce back when it’s watered again.
Thunderstorms, Heavy Rainfall, and Flash Floods
Spring and summer in Missouri bring severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, and you can expect more heavy rainfall and flash floods. According to the Missouri Department of Public Safety, flooding (especially flash floods) causes more deaths in Missouri than any other severe weather hazard.
You can prepare your lawn to handle more heavy rainfall and flooding (to a certain degree). If your lawn is prone to flooding, choose a turfgrass or lawn alternative that tolerates flooding. Ameliorate clay soil with compost to improve drainage. Plant a rain garden to slow the flow of water, absorbing excess nutrients and pollutants that would otherwise end up in the storm drains or local waterways, and allowing the water to drain away faster and restore groundwater levels while preventing erosion.
The silver lining to so much lightning is that you’ll probably need to fertilize less (or not at all), as lightning converts atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates – the form of nitrogen that plants can absorb – and brings the nitrates to the soil. You’ll find your lawn and garden growing vigorously even when it doesn’t rain if there’s been a lot of lightning.
Just don’t mow when you see lightning. Stay indoors and wait until 30 minutes after the last sound of thunder.
5 Types of Grass in Missouri
1. Buffalo Grass (Buchloe dactyloides)
Buffalo Grass is the one grass native to North America that is widely used as turfgrass. It grows naturally in the Loess region in northwestern Missouri and is the most drought-hardy turfgrass you can get.
Note: if you see Buffalo Grass referred to as needing lots of water and having a poor drought tolerance, then they’re talking about St Augustine (Stenotaphrum secundatum) which is confusingly also known as Buffalo Grass in Australia and South Africa. St Augustine is not suitable at all for Missouri since it gets too cold.
Advantages of Buffalo Grass
- Excellent drought resistance and low water needs. This is the main reason that people love and grow Buffalo Grass – it has the best drought tolerance and the lowest water needs out of all the turfgrasses. Only Sheep Fescue comes close. So long as you get an inch of rain per month during the summer, it’ll stay green without any additional irrigation.
- Tolerates occasional flooding. One nursery in Missouri that offers Buffalo Grass plugs, Emerald View Turf Farms, reported that Buffalo Grass survived underwater for 31 days during 1993.
- Low fertility needs. Unless you have extremely sandy soil, you will only need to apply 1 pound of nitrogen per year, if at all. If you give it too much fertilizer, you’ll only encourage weeds.
- Low to no mow. Buffalo only grows to 6 inches total, so if you don’t use your yard or you’re using it in an out-of-the-way place, you won’t need to mow at all. Otherwise, mow it to 3 to 4 inches. As it grows slowly, you’ll only need to mow every few months.
- Stays green during the summer heat without irrigation. While cool-season grasses will go dormant during the heat of summer unless irrigated, Buffalo Grass will naturally grow and stay green unless it’s extremely hot and extremely dry. (The downside is that it goes dormant when it’s colder.)
- Tolerates heat and cold. Buffalo Grass has the best cold tolerance out of all the warm-season grasses since it’s native to the transition zone.
- Grows well with other native grasses and flowers. Buffalo Grass grows best when it’s used in a native seed mix with other prairie grasses like Blue Grama. While it has a harder time fighting off weeds on its own, it does better with friends.
- Soft texture and attractive grass. Buffalo Grass is sometimes dismissed because of its blue-gray color, but newer cultivars offer deeper green colors. The blue-gray color increases its heat and drought tolerance. You might assume that because it’s a native grass that it’s coarse but it’s soft enough to walk barefoot on.
Disadvantages of Buffalo Grass
- Germinates and establishes slowly. Buffalo Grass takes up to 30 days to germinate and up to 3 years to fully establish. That’s a long time. Meanwhile, it’s more prone to weeds that you’ll need to pull yourself. You can speed up the process by using sod or plugs instead of seed. If you’re patient, you’ll be well rewarded.
- Poor shade tolerance. Buffalo Grass loves the sun. It grows in the prairie where there’s very little shade.
- Prone to weeds. Buffalo Grass grows less densely than other warm-season grasses and its best defense against weeds is surviving on little water and little fertilizer. While Missouri has its dry periods, it also gets a ton of rainfall in the spring. It rarely needs irrigation, so don’t water it as the extra water will only feed weeds. Newer cultivars grow more densely, leaving less space for weeds, and you can increase density with other native grass and flowers. You can’t use herbicide on weeds, as Buffalo Grass is sensitive to most herbicides on the market. You will need to hand weed.
- More prone to disease with humidity. Buffalo Grass does best in dry, semi-arid regions, which doesn’t exactly describe Missouri (except for the northwestern region). While it can grow in humidity, it is more prone to fungal diseases. In dry regions, its disease resistance is highly rated.
- Low foot traffic tolerance. Because Buffalo Grass grows slowly, it takes longer to recover from injury. If you use your lawn extensively, then go with another turfgrass.
2. Zoysiagrass (Zoysia spp.)
If you want the most beautiful lawn in your neighborhood and are willing to put in the care, warm-season Zoysiagrass is it. Zoysia includes three different species (Zoysia japonica, Z. matrella, and Z. tenuifolia) with dozens of varieties and hybrids that vary in color, texture, establishment, shade tolerance, and more. Zoysia japonica is the most widely used for home lawns, but Z. matrella produces the highest quality lawns matched with the highest maintenance. Z. tenuifolia’s rolling waves are best used as a ground cover instead of a lawn.
Outside of Buffalo Grass, Zoysia is the best warm-season grass for Missouri, especially the cultivar Meyer (Z-52).
Advantages of Zoysiagrass
- Extremely attractive. If you care most about having a gorgeous lawn (and are in southern Missouri), then you’re going to love Zoysia. While the color and texture can vary a bit between cultivars, Zoysia lawns have a medium to dark green color and medium to fine texture.
- Tolerates shade. Zoysia is the only warm-season option that grows well in both full sun and part shade, while also being able to survive most winters in the southern region.
- Medium water needs and high drought tolerance. While nothing beats Buffalo Grass and Sheep Fescue for low water needs, you won’t be breaking the bank trying to keep it watered. It’s best watered only when it shows signs of wilting rather than on a set schedule. You may only need to water during droughts to keep the grass green.
- Grows densely for fewer weeds. The more densely a turfgrass grows, the less opportunity there is for weed seeds to germinate.
- Tolerates foot traffic. While Zoysia’s slow growth means it takes longer to recover from damage, Meyer’s leaves are tough enough to withstand higher amounts of foot traffic. It’s used instead of Kentucky Bluegrass on golf course fairways and tees in the transition zone.
- Low fertility needs. Zoysia only needs 1 – 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per year, making it a rather eco-friendly grass. The University of Missouri Extension Office says that they’ve maintained patches of Meyer Zoysia on as little as 1 pound of nitrogen over an 8-year period. The amount of nitrogen you’ll need can vary depending on the fertility of your soil.
Disadvantages of Zoysiagrass
- Establishes slowly. Like Buffalo Grass, Zoysia takes a long time to get established and recover. It takes between 12 to 18 months to get established. It also takes longer to recover from any damage.
- Most cultivars are only available as plugs or sod. You’ll only find a few cultivars that have seed available, so installing a new Zoysia lawn will be more expensive.
- Dormant from fall to spring. Like all warm-season grasses, Zoysia goes dormant when the temperature drops. On the plus side, Zoysia’s gold-brown color looks beautiful and suits the season.
- Susceptible to occasional winter injury. Outside of Buffalo Grass, Zoysia has the highest cold tolerance of the warm-season grasses. That being said, it’s still a warm-season grass so that cold tolerance isn’t very high. To reduce the chance of winter injury, make sure your lawn has adequate drainage and leave Zoysia leaves longer in areas exposed to high winds.
- Prone to large patch disease in spring and fall. Large patch disease isn’t easily treatable with fungicides, but since it doesn’t affect the stems and roots, Zoysia will recover in summer.
3. Fine Fescue (Festuca spp.)
Fine Fescue is actually a category of many Fescue species that have a fine texture, including Creeping Red, Hard Fescue, Chewings, and Sheep Fescue. Only Sheep Fescue is used on its own. Most lawns benefit from a mix, as each species offers its own advantages and disadvantages. They’re sometimes mixed with Kentucky Bluegrass.
For Missouri, look at Hard Fescue, Sheep Fescue, and a mixture of Tall Fescue with Creeping Red for shade mixes.
Advantages to Creeping Red
- Spreads via rhizomes. Unlike other Fine Fescues (and most cool-season grasses), Creeping Red spreads by itself through underground rhizomes.
- Looks similar to Kentucky Bluegrass. If you need a shade mix, you can use Creeping Red to add shade tolerance.
- Good shade tolerance. In fact, with Missouri’s hot summers, Creeping Red does better in the shade.
- Better traffic tolerance.
Disadvantages to Creeping Red
- Susceptible to disease in humid summers. Slender Creeping Red is highly susceptible to red thread disease, while Strong Spreading Creeping Red has a high susceptibility to disease when it’s warm and humid.
- More thatch problems.
Advantages of Hard Fescue
- Adapted to both shade and sunny, dry locations.
- Grows in poor quality soil.
- Tolerates heat stress better than other Fine Fescues.
- More resistant to red thread and dollar spot disease than other Fine Fescues.
Disadvantages to Hard Fescue
- Establishes slowly.
- Needs to be reseeded to fill in gaps.
- Lower traffic tolerance.
Advantages of Sheep Fescue
- Good drought tolerance.
- Low water needs. Sheep Fescue only needs 10 inches of water per year.
- Grows low to the ground.
- Good cold tolerance.
- Better resistance to red thread and dollar spot than other Fine Fescues.
- Grows in all soil types.
Disadvantages to Sheep Fescue
- Establishes very slowly.
- Needs to be reseeded to fill in gaps.
- Lower traffic tolerance.
4. Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis)
Kentucky Bluegrass is the most popular grass throughout the cool-season regions, but in Missouri, a single species Kentucky Bluegrass lawn is going to struggle through dry periods and hot and humid summers. It’s also high maintenance. The University of Missouri recommends only using a low percentage of Kentucky Bluegrass in a mix with Tall Fescue. On its own, it may only be suitable for the very northern edge of Missouri.
Note that the pros and cons listed here are mainly of Kentucky Bluegrass as a solo species lawn. When it’s included in mixes, the other species will compensate for its disadvantages, so it’ll have lower needs and lower maintenance.
Advantages of Kentucky Bluegrass
- Most attractive cool-season grass. Kentucky Bluegrass is the ideal turfgrass in terms of looks, with a fine texture and dark green color.
- Good drought resistance. While Kentucky Bluegrass needs more water on a regular basis to stay green, you can let it go dormant for a few weeks during a drought, especially if you water deeply to encourage deeper roots. As with all dormant turfgrass, water an inch or two a month to keep it alive.
- Fast growth and spreads by itself. Kentucky Bluegrass is one of the few cool-season grasses that spreads through rhizomes, and so it grows a thicker mat of grass that can self-repair. It will also try to escape the bounds of your lawn, although clump-growing grasses can also do that if allowed to go to seed.
- Excellent traffic tolerance. It has the best wear tolerance out of all the cool season grasses, but unless you have a golf course or an athletic field, its wear tolerance doesn’t outweigh its disadvantages. But in a mix, Kentucky Bluegrass adds wear tolerance and recovery to a mixed species lawn.
Disadvantages of Kentucky Bluegrass
- Poor heat tolerance. Kentucky Bluegrass is better adapted to extreme cold than it is to Missouri’s summers. It struggles when temperatures rise above 90F. Between the heat and humidity (and other environmental stresses), it is highly prone to fungal diseases. And Kentucky Bluegrass has low resistance to begin with.
- High fertility needs. Kentucky Bluegrass has the highest nitrogen needs of all the grasses on this list. This means more time and money caring for your lawn. Spikes in nitrogen (even from slow-release formulas) also worsen its disease resistance and excess thatch problems.
- Requires frequent mowing. Faster growth means you’ll need to mow your lawn more often to keep it in check.
- High irrigation needs. While Kentucky Bluegrass has good drought tolerance, it needs a lot more water on a regular basis to keep it from going dormant than other species on this list.
- Prone to insects and disease. You’re going to have problems with grubs and cutworms, as well as leaf spot, dollar spot, and summer patch, especially when temperatures skyrocket. Some cultivars offer better resistance to one or two of these diseases.
- Low shade tolerance. Kentucky Bluegrass is best used in full sun, and it’ll struggle in shadier areas. The one exception is if it can get shade in summer afternoons when the heat is highest, while getting full sun during spring and fall. The shade will improve its heat tolerance.
- High thatch problems. Kentucky Bluegrass grows fast, and spikes in nitrogen make it grow even faster. The rate of decomposition stays the same, so plant material builds up causing thatch problems.
5. Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)
The University of Missouri Integrated Pest Management says that the cool-season Tall Fescue is the best grass species for Missouri. It’s highly popular throughout the transition zone for its higher heat tolerance and low maintenance.
Tall Fescue is also known as Turf Type Tall Fescue or TTTF.
Advantages of Tall Fescue
- Tolerates heat and cold. Tall Fescue grows further south than most other cool-season grasses while also tolerating Missouri’s frigid winters. In southern Missouri, it benefits from part shade during the heat of the day.
- Tolerates part shade. While Creeping Red has slightly better shade tolerance, you can grow Tall Fescue throughout the sunny and part shade areas in your lawn.
- Germinates and grows quickly. While most low maintenance grasses take longer to establish, Tall Fescue germinates almost as quickly as Perennial Ryegrass and gets established before Kentucky Bluegrass.
- Lower water use and tolerates drought. While Tall Fescue can’t compete with Buffalo Grass or Sheep Fescue for low water use, it needs only ½ to 1-inch of water per week during the summer heat to keep green. If you let it go dormant during drought, you’ll only need to water it once a month.
- Grows well in most conditions. Tall Fescue isn’t fussy about soil. It grows as well in sandy, acidic soil as it does in clay. It tolerates poor quality soil and salt.
Disadvantages of Tall Fescue
- Needs overseeding. Tall Fescue grows in clumps and doesn’t spread through rhizomes or stolons, so you’ll need to overseed to fill in gaps. In the north, you can mix in 10% Kentucky Bluegrass to give it a bit more ability to self-repair.
- Requires more fertilizer than other low-maintenance grasses. It requires 2 to 3 applications per year, which isn’t the heaviest (that’s Kentucky Bluegrass), but isn’t the best.
Missouri Grass Quick Tables:
Turfgrasses Not Recommended For Missouri
While Bermuda Grass is the most popular warm-season grasses in the southern US, the University of Missouri Extension Office recommends against its use for residential lawns in the transition zone. While it is more than ready to tackle the heat and humidity, and has better drought tolerance than Zoysia, its cold hardiness leaves much to be desired. You can expect winterkill at least a couple of times throughout a decade.
It’s also an aggressive spreader that shows up more often as a weed in other turfgrasses. Some varieties have better cold hardiness than others, but they will do best only in the very south of Missouri.
Perennial Ryegrass is only suitable as a temporary turfgrass or cover grass in Missouri as it won’t survive the summer. Except for its quick germination and establishment (the fastest of all turfgrasses), it has little to recommend itself as a permanent lawn. It has poor drought tolerance, high water needs, medium nitrogen requirements, and low shade tolerance. Only use Perennial Ryegrass if you need to cover bare soil for a short time.
Lawn Alternatives For Missouri
Covering your lawn in turfgrass isn’t your only option. There are a ton of reasons why you may be better off going with a ground cover instead of turfgrass.
- you’ve struggled to grow turfgrass before,
- you’d like to skip weekends caring for your lawn,
- you’d like to lessen your ecological impact by eliminating fertilizer and herbicides, and/or
- you’d like to make a positive impact by providing food for pollinators.
Missouri has a ton of unique lawn alternatives for you to choose from. These are just a select few,
Bristle Leaved Sedge (Carex eburnea)
Native to Missouri and most often found in the Ozarks, Bristle Leaved Sedge is a great alternative to grow under tree shade. This Sedge grows into porcupine-like sprays of thread-like green leaves, although it does spread via rhizomes.
While it prefers moist soil, it can grow in sandy or rocky soil, although it’s not particularly drought tolerant. Cut the foliage to the ground in late winter to prepare for spring growth.
Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica)
Pennsylvania Sedge is a ground cover that looks like grass but isn’t. Despite its common name, Pennsylvania Sedge is found in Missouri around the northern part of the Missouri River.
This Sedge prefers dry to medium moist soil in part to full shade, although it’s a great plant to put in a rain garden or area that routinely floods.
Pennsylvania Sedge forms a thick mat that’s more grass-like than the Bristle Leaved Sedge. You can leave it to grow long to its mature 8-inch height or cut it 2 or 3 times a year to 2 inches.
It remains green in moderately cold winters.
NoMo Liriope (Liriope spicata ‘NoMo’)
Like Pennsylvania Sedge, NoMo Liriope is a groundcover that looks like grass but isn’t. It features narrow dark green leaves and blossoms in late summer with flowers that look a lot like lavender.
While it stays green year round further south, it’ll turn brown during Missouri’s cold winters. It tolerates drought, as well as rabbit, deer, erosion, and air pollution.
NoMo is a dwarf species, so you’ll only need to mow in the spring to remove the old foliage. Creeping Liriope is an aggressive spreader that can be invasive, but the NoMo cultivar is sterile (doesn’t spread by seed). It grows through rhizomes, so you’ll need to keep it contained in your yard. It tolerates foot traffic.
Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata)
For areas that don’t see foot traffic, Moss Phlox is an effective ground cover that does best in poor quality, dry, rocky soil. Some cultivars do better than others in hot, humid summers as well as hot, dry weather.
Like Liriope, it tolerates drought, erosion, and air pollution. Moss Phlox doesn’t have the same powdery mildew problems that other Phloxes have.
While it is native to the eastern US, it’s not actually native to Missouri.
The Best Lawn Options For Missouri
Best Picks For Shade:
- Tall Fescue
- Fine Fescue Mix
- Pennsylvania and Bristle-Edged Sedge
Best Picks For Drought & Low Water Usage:
- Sheep Fescue
- Buffalo Grass
- Tall Fescue
Best Picks For Low Maintenance:
- Tall Fescue
- Sheep Fescue
- Buffalo Grass
- Pennsylvania and Bristle-Edged Sedge
- NoMo Liriope
- Moss Phlox
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.