If you have a home where the buffalo roam, you may have heard of buffalograss. Buffalograss is a native North American grass that thrives in the western and central Great Plains but has made the leap to home lawns in recent years. Although it’s low maintenance once established, its natural lack of density means weeds are a constant concern. We’ll discuss the good, the bad, and the weedy about this native Great Plains grass.
Buffalograss at a glance
Classification: Warm-season grass
Spreads by: Stolons
Shade tolerance: Very low — best suited for full sun
Drought resistance High
Foot traffic tolerance: Very low, but light use or rare heavy use is OK
Maintenance needs: Low mowing frequency — once per week or less
Mowing height: 2-4 inches or leave unmowed
Potential for disease: Good tolerance against diseases and insects
Soil pH: 6.5-7.5
Soil type: Native soils, not sandy soils
What is buffalograss?
Native buffalograss thrives in the western and central regions of the Great Plains known as the shortgrass and mixed-grass prairies. These regions are drier than areas to the east and have progressively shorter grasses. As you may guess, native buffalograss is a primary forage grass for grazing animals in this region, including the American bison.
In true American fashion, breeders have sought to expand the reach of this native grass and developed turf-type cultivars that are well adapted for home lawns. If you know anything about native plants, you’d think this is a good thing. Native plants are generally low-maintenance, are a boon to the local ecosystem, and require little if any supplemental water. Buffalograss checks a few of these boxes:
- Low maintenance once established
- Less water once established than other turfgrasses
- Few insect and disease problems
One major “con” to buffalograss is its open growth habit. Turfgrasses with open growth habits will constantly battle weeds. Accept this as a way to increase the ecological diversity in your lawn or take up a regular weed control program to fight them.
Pros and cons of buffalograss
Although it is a native Plains grass (a plus for area homeowners), buffalograss for home lawns isn’t without its challenges.
✓ Establish via seed, sod, or plugs, depending on the cultivar
✓ No water once established, although it will go dormant in summer without some rainfall or supplemental irrigation
✓ Low fertilizer requirement once established
✓ No significant disease or insect issues
✗ Not a fire-safe grass
✗ Open growth habit means weeds are a constant battle
✗ Higher seed costs and extensive water needs make establishing a lawn expensive
How to establish buffalograss
Although buffalograss lawns are lower maintenance once established, the work you’ll put in up front is substantial. Establishing buffalograss lawns is not low-maintenance.
To seed your buffalograss lawn, follow these steps:
- Get a soil test (for the best results).
- Seed in late spring or early summer when soil temps (not air temps) are 70 degrees Fahrenheit and above.
- Level the ground, remove debris, and compact the soil if necessary. Spread the seed and cover with ¼ to ½ inches of soil.
- Keep the soil moist until the majority of seeds have germinated. At that point, start to ease off on watering little by little. Most treated seeds germinate in seven to 21 days.
- Buffalograss will need fertilizer as it grows. Two to three weeks after the seedlings come in, spread a turf fertilizer (be sure it does not contain a weed preventer). Apply a second round of fertilizer in six weeks.
- Mow once the seedlings have grown to 3 inches.
- Keep weeds in check by hand-pulling, hand-seeding with more seed in thin areas, or spraying individual weeds with natural or chemical sprays. (Check to make sure they are suited for buffalograss.)
If you’re using plugs, prepare the soil as for a seeded lawn. Plant the plugs on 12- to 18-inch centers and use a starter fertilizer. Apply another round of fertilizer about six weeks later. Irrigate to keep the soil moist for seven to 10 days, using as many as five short periods of irrigation every day. Keep the soil moist going forward.
It is safe to use pendimethalin (a pre-emergent) at the time of planting to keep weeds at bay. If the plugs turn brown, keep irrigating. They haven’t died and will turn green again once new roots have formed.
For sod, the process is much the same: prepare the seedbed, irrigate to keep the root zone moist, and keep irrigating even though it may turn brown. As with plugs, the green color will return once new roots have formed.
How much does buffalograss cost?
Buffalograss seed: Costs much more than other grasses. The seed is difficult to harvest, so this drives up the cost of seeding this grass type. On sale, it can easily cost $190 for a 5-pound bag.
Buffalograss sod: Costs from $215 to $275 per pallet
Buffalograss plugs: Costs about $60 for 70 plugs
Caring for buffalograss
There are three options for mowing your buffalograss lawn:
- Higher-quality lawns: Mow every week at 2-3 inches
- Low-maintenance lawns: Mow every three to four weeks at 3-4 inches
- Unmowed lawns: Mow once per year in spring at 3-4 inches
Established buffalograss lawns go dormant (brown) without summer watering (rains or otherwise). However, it isn’t likely to die and will green up again with sufficient water. If you want to apply supplemental irrigation to prevent dormancy, give it just enough to keep it healthy, about ½ to 1 inch per week in drought conditions. Too much water can weaken the grass and lead to increased weeds and disease. (Remember, it thrives in the native environment and doesn’t mind going dormant until rains return.)
For buffalograss, “less (fertilizer) is more.” Apply 0.5-2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per year. Two summer applications six to eight weeks apart are usually sufficient.
Dethatching and aeration
Not usually necessary for a buffalograss lawn.
Disease, insects, and weeds
Disease: There are no significant diseases common to buffalograss. Bipolaris leaf spot may occur but can be managed with integrated pest management and routine maintenance.
Insects: Several insects may infest this grass, but most are kept at manageable levels by the numerous beneficial insects that live there. A few of these undesirables are:
- Buffalograss webworms
- Short-tailed crickets
- Buffalograss chinch bugs
Insecticides are not always available to control these pests in buffalograss, however. The best way to treat them is to take good routine care of the lawn.
Weeds: Weeds are perhaps the most common deterrent for establishing a buffalograss lawn. No grass is perfect, though, so in many cases, you trade one drawback for another. If you like the low level of maintenance that an established buffalograss lawn will provide, there are a few ways to deal with the weeds.
One way is to accept the weeds and mow over them. Weeds increase ecological diversity and provide a more diverse plant ecosystem in your lawn. Mowing the lawn regularly also will help reduce broadleaf weeds. These weeds don’t like being mowed over and will weaken over time.
Another way is to try to remove them. You can do this by hand or through chemical or natural means. In spring, put down a pre-emergent to prevent summer annuals; in late summer or early fall use a second application to prevent winter annual weeds. (Make sure the pre-emergents are safe to use on buffalograss.) To kill weeds once they’ve sprouted, spot-treat with a product that is safe for buffalograss lawns. Glyphosate may be applied only when the grass is fully dormant.
Some information taken from Fundamentals of Turfgrass Management, 5th ed. by Christians, Patton, and Law and “The Benefits and Challenges of Using Buffalograss” by OK State University.
If you think a buffalograss lawn may be right up your alley, contact one of our local lawn care professionals. They can help you select, install, and care for your grass so you can spend your free time doing what matters most.