Tough Turf

From school lot pick-up games to professional team sports, a quality playing surface is appreciated by all participants and produces a pleasing appearance to spectators. A dense, wear-resistant turf is essential to provide playing safety by cushioning falls and ensuring good footing. A primary contributor to a quality playing surface is the turf. The turfgrass best suited for a given field depends largely on the demands put on the turf, money available for maintenance and on the quality desired.

Generally, the turfgrass chosen for a field is based on region of the country (i.e. temperature) and tradition. Many times, before selecting a turfgrass for sports fields, most people want to know the turfgrass that everyone else is using. While this may sound like a poor way of making a decision, it is often the best method. From the comments of others you may learn the grasses that should be considered for a field with similar constraints. You may also learn about a few grasses that you will not want to use. Field managers tend to be brutally honest if they do not like their grass.

There are five grass species that are widely used for athletic field surfaces. These include the warm-season bermudagrass and cool-season Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue, annual ryegrass and perennial ryegrass. There are other grasses that are sometimes used for athletic field surfaces, but much less frequently. These grasses include warm-season bahiagrass, buffalograss, seashore paspalum and zoysiagrass and the cool-season Poa supina. In some situations, you may want to use more than one turfgrass.

Warm-season grasses typically are planted as a monostand; whereas, cool-season grasses are often planted as a mixture of more than one grass or more than one cultivar. A combination of grasses can reduce disease, insect infestation and summer stress problems. A third scenario is to seed a grass as a temporary surface into a mature stand of another grass to provide a superior playing surface for a specific time of the year. The best example of this is a mature bermudagrass field overseeded with an annual or perennial ryegrass for winter play. A new option in northern climates is to overseed mature cool-season grass fields with seeded bermudagrass for summer play.

But overall, it's the climate or environment that is the primary consideration for grass selection. The region's average low temperature is often used to determine grasses that are appropriate for the area. A common reference in horticulture is the USDA Hardiness Zone. Bermudagrass is best suited to areas with an average minimum yearly low above 0 to 10 degrees F (zone 7). Growing a bermudagrass in a colder zone is possible, but the likelihood of severe winter kill and the need for turf covers increases. In the transition zone (zone 6), the most common choice is tall fescue or cold-resistant cultivars of bermudagrass developed specifically for those areas. In cool-season areas that have average minimum temperatures of -20 to -10 degrees F, Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass predominate. A mixture of the two provides an optimum turf with good color, recovery characteristics, wear tolerance and stability under varying environmental conditions. It is often helpful to consult with your state extension office for a list of cultivars that perform well for your area. The state land-grant university often has test plots for viewing the grasses before making a selection.


Bermudagrass is the best choice of turf for warm-season athletic fields. It is extremely resistant to wear and will recover very rapidly from damage by cleats and traffic. You should consider Bermudagrass only in locations that receive full sunlight. No other grass responds as quickly to maintenance as bermudagrass grown under full sunlight and hot temperatures. Its biggest weakness is its dormancy period following a frost, necessitating overseeding with a cool-season grass if green color is desired. Compared to cool-season grass species, there are not many cultivars available. Traditionally, the higher quality (superior density, finer leaf textures, fewer seed heads) bermudagrass cultivars require vegetative establishment because they do not produce viable seed. In the past 10 years, more high-quality cultivars that can be seeded have been developed.

Bermudagrass cultivars suitable for athletic areas include:

  • Tifway, TifSport, Bull's Eye

    These are aggressive, dark green hybrid bermudagrasses with fine texture and excellent density and disease-resistance. Tifway is the most widely used hybrid bermudagrass on Southern athletic fields. The hybrid bermudagrasses are established vegetatively (sod, sprigs and plugs) and grow rapidly. Under ideal growing conditions, bermudagrass grown from sprigs can cover an area in approximately 12 weeks.

  • Common

    Does not have the density, disease resistance and cold tolerance of the hybrids. Its major advantage is that it can be seeded.

  • Improved seeded cultivars

    These are “improved” common-type seeded varieties (e.g., Cheyenne, Jackpot, Majestic, Mirage, Primavera, Princess, Pyramid, Riviera, Sahara, Savannah, Sonesta, Sultan, Sundance, Sundevil, SunStar, Sydney, Yukon, Yuma and others). They typically are darker green, deeper rooted, medium textured and moderately denser compared to common bermudagrass. They generally are used in areas where improved characteristics are desired when compared to common, but quality and level of maintenance are slightly lower than Tifway or TifSport.

  • Cold-Tolerant Cultivars

    Quick-stand, Midiron, Vamont, Tufcote, Midfield and Shanghai are a few of the bermudagrasses that have been noted for their cold hardiness. These grasses have a coarser leaf texture than those mentioned earlier, but their winter survivability is necessary for their long-term success.

When planting bermudagrass vegetatively, purchase material from a reputable grower who can provide quality planting material free of noxious weeds and pests and entirely true-to-type. The best method of establishing hybrid bermudagrass for a consistent playing surface is by sprigging. Sprigs are broadcast over the prepared area at a rate of 200 to 600 bushels per acre and pressed into the top 2 inches of soil with a sprig planter or disc and lightly rolled to firm the planting bed.

You can use bahiagrass satisfactorily in the Deep South, but it produces an inferior quality turf compared to bermudagrass. It is usually chosen as a bermudagrass alternative when finances dictate or irrigation is unavailable. This grass has good heat, shade, cold, disease and drought tolerance. It is also slower to recover from damage or wear than the bermudagrasses. Fertility, water and mowing requirements are lower than for bermudagrass. Its coarse texture, open growth habit and seed head production make it less desirable for athletic field use.

Seashore paspalum is a dense, fine-textured species that has very high salt tolerance. It lacks cold tolerance. The recent success of new cultivars planted as a golf course fairway turfgrass on poor-quality soils and irrigated with poor-quality water has brought great interest regarding its use as an athletic turf. Its ability to grow under less-than-optimum conditions and more widespread availability may increase the use of this grass on athletic fields in the South. Cultivars currently available include SeaIsle 1, Salam and ET.


Kentucky bluegrass makes a premium athletic field surface in the northern areas of the United States. It has a dark green turf with medium leaf texture and rhizome system that helps it to spread laterally and recuperate from wear stresses. It will not take severe traffic, especially during hot weather, and generally should not be mowed lower than 2 inches for maximum resiliency. There are numerous cultivars (more than 200) of Kentucky bluegrass sold for seeding and sod of improved cultivars are often available. It is slow to establish from seed but mixes well with fast-growing perennial ryegrass.

Perennial ryegrass is the easiest and quickest grass to establish. It has a fine to medium leaf texture and a dark green color. It is the most wear tolerant cool-season grass and will tolerate mowing heights of 1 to 2 inches. It is often known for its striking striping patterns that you can achieve by mowing in specific directions. Perennial ryegrass is a short-lived perennial that is relatively intolerant of droughty conditions compared to Kentucky bluegrass or tall fescue. It may be used alone in cooler climates but it is often mixed with Kentucky bluegrass. Like other cool-season grasses, it may start to grow in clumps if it becomes thin. For this reason, you often have to reseed each year. There are more than 100 perennial ryegrass cultivars available in any given year.

Tall fescue is a good turfgrass choice for the transition zone due to its combination of drought and cold tolerance. Some of the older cultivars have a coarse leaf texture and open canopy, but newer “turf-types” have a fine texture and dense growth habit. The recommended cutting height is 2 to 3 inches. If you mow it much lower it tends to form a clumpy, nonuniform turf. In warmer climates, tall fescue is more susceptible to thinning and diseases. Unfortunately, it does not mix well with warm-season grasses such as bermudagrass. For this reason, tall fescue fields generally require frequent overseeding to promote turf recovery and maintain a good playing surface. Some field managers prefer to renovate heavy traffic areas with perennial ryegrass.

For fall overseeding, a ryegrass is usually used, with perennial ryegrass the preferred choice in high-profile situations. If seed cost is a significant issue, you may want to use annual ryegrass. However, it is generally not recommended that you use annual ryegrass due to its propensity for rank-growth habit late in the season. It also has a reputation for causing grass stains in light-colored uniforms.


Your local cooperative extention service is the best non-biased source of variety recommendations. The extension service recommendations are based on locally-tested varieties evaluated under the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP). You can access NTEP data by going to Look for data collected at a location nearest you. Keep in mind that no perfect turfgrass exists. By learning the strengths and weaknesses of the grasses, you can select the best grass for your situation.

Grady Miller is associate professor of turfgrass science at the University of Florida (Gainesville, Fla.).

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