Everything About Buffalo Grass
Homeowners living in hot, dry areas, and looking for a lush, green lawn for their garden, should consider buffalo grass as this grass needs very low maintenance, and being native to America, it thrives well and produces a pleasant, dense lawn within a short period.
Published: October 21, 2022.
What is Buffalo Grass?
Buffalo grass [Bouteloua dactyloides (syn. Buchloe dactyloides)] belongs to the family Poaceae and is native to Mexico, Canada, and the United States.
It’s supposed to be the only truly native turfgrass of the USA. It’s a warm-season perennial having better cold and drought tolerance than other warm-season grasses.
Years back, it was a primary food source for large herds of bison that roamed in these plains, hence the name. It also provided thick sod which the early settlers used to build their houses. It’s mainly used as a forage grass, but some homeowners used them as ornamental or lawn grass too.
It started being used as a turf grass in the 1930s. Earlier it was known to be expensive and difficult to establish. However, later newer cultivars were invented which come with a minimum of those traits. Newer cultivars are even resistant to weeds and need even less water than the traditional variety.
Note: Buffalo in Australia is a different species of grass, Stenotaphrum secundatum, whereas B. dactyloides in Australia is not known as buffalo but as prairie grass.
The maximum height of buffalo grass is around 20-25 cm (8-10 inches), although in the southern great plains, the height can reach up to 30 cm (12 inches).
However, the leaf blades fall over giving the lawn a short appearance. It has fine-textured, curly, relatively thin blue-green levees.
It spreads by stolons (horizontal, root-forming, surface runner stems) that creep extensively. Plants root at internodes on the stolons and produce new shoots.
When established naturally, male (staminate) and female (pistillate) plants and flowers grow separately. Male plants come with taller crowns with 2-3 flag-like, one-sided spikes on a 4- to 6-inch-tall seed-stalk, whereas female plants have spikelets on a short spike or head included in the inflated sheaths of upper leaves and form a dense, more uniform lawn.
Each plant propagates its own kind vegetatively. Fruits are bur-like enclosures and contain seeds.
When buffalo grass lawn is grown from sod, it’s usually made of female plants to prevent the spiky male seed heads from appearing, whereas seeded lawns will contain both male and female plants and the seed-stalks of the male plants may look unsightly in the lawn.
Note: Buffalo grass can look like and be confused with curly mesquite because both are low-growing stoloniferous grasses with curly leaf blades.
If they are not in flower, they can be distinguished from each other by their nodes and internodes. While nodes of buffalo grass are smooth and quite short (less than 3 inches), those of curly mesquite are villous and quite long.
Buffalo grass is extremely tolerant to dry, hot climates, but intolerant to shade and excessive humidity.
Therefore, it can hardly grow in the sandy or humid environments of the Southeast. It goes dormant and brown in the fall with the arrival of cold temperatures and awakens back in the spring when air and soil warm up.
Its peak growth period is from May to September. It also cannot withstand heavy traffic.
Buffalo Grass Growing Zones
Buffalo grass grows throughout the area from Mexico to Montana. It thrives in the USDA plant hardiness zones 3 through 9.
Buffalo Grass Varieties
The most popular varieties of buffalo grass for the lawn are Prairie, 609, Density, and Stampede.
609 and Prairie are female plant selections released by the Texas and Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Stations in 1990.
They form a more dense and uniform lawn than other common types. 609 and Prairie varieties are to be established from sod or sod plugs.
In addition, researchers at the University of California Davis and the University of California Riverside have created the hybrid cultivar UC Verde, which is a thick, green, drought-resistant variety suitable to the hot, dry summers of California.
Another variety, Legacy, has been developed by agricultural scientists at the University of Nebraska. One can establish buffalo grass from seeded cultivars like Bowie, Sundancer, and Cody, or from vegetative cultivars such as Prestige and Legacy.
When to Plant Buffalo Grass?
Early spring, early summer, and early fall are the best times to plant buffalo grass.
How to Grow Buffalo Grass?
Buffalo grass can grow from seeds, plugs, and sod. However, the important thing to remember is that whether one plants seed, sod, or plugs, the soil should be evenly moist, but not soggy, all the time when grass establishes.
How to Grow from Seed?
While planting seeds of buffalo grass, the seeding rate, seed treatment, and date of seeding are important considerations.
Treated seed chemically to break dormancy or seed chilled at 5 to 10 degrees for 6 to 8 weeks have a much higher (80% to 90%) germination rate than untreated seed (20%).
Treated seeds should be planted for spring and summer plantings.
April and May are the best months to plant treated buffalo grass seeds since temperatures are favorable and usually moisture is sufficient. With irrigation, the planting date can be extended to July and August.
Fall plantings of untreated buffalo grass seed can gain success, but the highest germination rate doesn’t occur until the next spring.
Treated seed planted in May will sprout in 7 to 10 days if provided sufficient moisture. Without irrigation, the seed will remain dormant until it gets adequate moisture.
If the grower plants seeds in dry conditions without watering, they should drill them into a well-prepared seedbed. Seed broadcast on the surface may sprout when there is little to no subsurface moisture to sustain the young seedlings.
Another thing to consider is to choose the correct buffalo grass seed product. There are numerous seed brands available, costing different amounts.
However, one shouldn’t choose the cheapest product without checking the pure live seed percentage. This percentage indicates the amount of buffalo grass seed (the purity percentage) in the bag and the amount of seed that is actually expected to germinate (the germination percentage).
If one desires a high-quality lawn, it’s better to buy a more expensive seed product having a higher pure live seed percentage. It will produce a denser and more high-quality lawn.
Buffalo grass lawn will need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight every day. It won’t grow in shady areas.
Buffalo grass needs well-draining soil to perform best. It won’t thrive in low areas with periodic standing water. Buffalo grass needs soil temperatures to be above 60-degree F for the beginning of germination.
The planting area should be as weed-free as possible. It’s been observed that several applications of weed-killer products containing glyphosate in the spring before planting is the best solution to eliminate weeds, especially bindweed and Bermuda grass.
The gardener can even lightly till (¼ – ½ inch deep) the ground before planting.
However, it should be remembered that every time the soil is tilled, new weed seeds will sprout, which will have to be eradicated before spreading the seed.
The rate of seeding can range from less than 0.5 pounds to 4 to 6 pounds (1.8 to 2.7 kg) per 1,000 square feet depending on the planting method and the time available to obtain a cover. This proportion will achieve a good cover in only a few months with good moisture.
As long as the gardener provides adequate water, seeds germinate in 7 to 10 days in a warm climate. But if one plants seeds in the fall, they will remain dormant until the next spring when soil temperatures become warm.
For broadcast seeding on the soil surface, seeding rates. are usually much higher than when seeds are drilled in rows into the seedbed. Buffalo grass seeds drilled in rows at 10 to 20 pounds per acre will form a complete cover in a growing season with favorable moisture conditions.
Broadcast seeding rates of 1 to 2 pounds per 1,000 s. feet, with no irrigation, may take several seasons to form a complete cover. On the other hand, broadcast seeding rates of 4 to 6 pounds per 1,000 sq. feet will form cover in several months with sufficient moisture.
For planting sites that cannot be watered during establishment, it’s recommended to keep a seeding rate of 0.5 pounds per 1,000 sq. ft. if drilled, and 2 to 4 pounds per 1,000 sq. ft. if broadcast.
All the above seeding rates are for seeding treated seed in late spring and summer for lawns, golf courses, and other turf areas, whereas 10 to 20 pounds seed per acre is recommended for parks, roadsides, and other low maintenance areas.
For fall planting of untreated seeds, the recommended rate is 2 to 4 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. Significant germination cannot be expected until the next spring or summer when moisture becomes favorable.
Before spreading the seed, it’s recommended to lightly rake the ground and then pack it in by driving over the whole area with a mower or tractor to create a good seed-to-soil contact.
After seeding, the gardener should water the entire area deeply to totally saturate the soil (up to the extent of water running off) and then repeat with frequent light irrigation until the seed sprout in 14-21 days.
Once germination is complete, occasional deep soaking will keep the new seedlings spreading. A full establishment can be completed in the first year.
Weeding After Planting
New varieties of buffalo grass form a dense, thick lawn outcompeting weeds in ideal conditions.
However, still, if weeds are a problem, one can use herbicides or manual eradication. Broadleaf weed control in the fall can eliminate bindweed, dandelions, henbit, and other broadleaf weeds.
How to Grow from Sod or Plugs?
One can establish a buffalo grass lawn even from sod or sod plugs in not less than 2 inches square. They should plant them on a well-prepared seedbed in around 18-inch rows.
The gardener should plant sod or sod plugs with a 15 to 61 cm (6 to 24 inch) gap depending upon how quickly they desire a complete cover.
The less the gap, the sooner the ground will be covered. While digging up material for planting, the gardener should make sure the roots are moist since the plants can die back quickly if the roots are dried out.
The gardener should plant them in a hole deep enough to put the plant in it in such a way that the grass remains above ground level. If the sod pieces are covered with soil, they will die.
The gardener should firm the soil around the plants.
Moist soil is the best for planting. Sod or sod plugs should be planted in early fall, spring, or early summer when the moisture level is favorable.
The gardener should water the soil after planting and whenever required thereafter for several weeks.
How to Take Care of Buffalo Grass
Buffalo grass is famous for its low maintenance requirements.
In fact, excessive maintenance and foot traffic can quickly kill the grass. It also requires mowing infrequently.
Weed management in one’s buffalo grass before planting as well as the first few years of the establishment will reduce over time, and also watering, mowing and overall maintenance will be reduced.
The water requirements of buffalo grass are minimal. With irrigation, buffalo grass will remain green all through the spring and summer.
The lawn needs only a moderate quantity of water per week. One inch per week is sufficient to maintain it green. During the dry summer months, buffalo grass will turn brown and dormant. Excessive water will favor Bermuda grass invasion.
No fertilization is required to maintain a buffalo grass lawn when it’s grown in its native environment.
Although it responds well to nitrogen, weed grasses like Bermuda grass benefit from the fertilization more quickly and will readily invade the lawn. Similarly, excessive watering will benefit weeds rather than benefiting the buffalo grass turf.
Mowing frequency and height depend on the usage of the buffalo grass. In lawns, mowing once per week to a height of 5 to 7.6 cm (2 to 3 inches) is enough, whereas, on the irrigated golf course fairways, buffalo grass is mowed weekly an inch.
When there is no irrigation, it’s mowed only as required to 1-inch height. In rough areas of the golf course, it’s mowed only as required at heights from 2 to 3 inches.
Since providing excessive water and fertilizer to buffalo grass benefits weed grasses first, the gardener should hand weed the lawn to remove competing grasses.
Pests and Diseases
Not many pests attack buffalo grass. However, the western chinch bug is sometimes a quite serious problem.
Western Chinch Bug
Western chinch bug (Blissus occiduus) has been found to be a serious pest problem for buffalo grass in Nebraska. It has been later found to be affecting zoysia grass too.
As such, it affects many types of grass, buffalo and zoysia are the preferred hosts of this pest and are also more likely to get infested.
This pest causes damage to the grass by sucking the sap in the crown area.
While sucking the sap, they also may inject a salivary toxin that is harmful to plant tissues and prevents translocation of water and nutrients.
Leaves start looking reddish-purple to start with. As the feeding progresses, damage appears as patchy areas which turn dry and yellow to straw-brown.
At higher infestation levels, chinch bug feeding can cause severe thinning or even death of the lawn.
One can detect western chinch bugs by removing a small part of the turf and shaking it vigorously over a sheet of white paper to remove the insects.
The best protection against chinch bugs is to keep the turf stand in top condition.
Because these pests like lawn areas high in thatch and organic debris, mowing and cultural practices that minimize thatch accumulation should deter initial infestations and even may help reduce any existing chinch bug problems.
Another approach to deter western chinch bugs is to use chinch bug-resistant varieties.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have shown that the seeded buffalo grass cultivars, Tatanka and Cody, and vegetatively propagated cultivar, Prestige, are moderate to highly resistant to western chinch bug feeding.
However, it should be remembered that heavy chinch bug infestations can damage even these cultivars.
Insecticides carbaryl, lambda-cyhalothrin, or bifenthrin applied in 3 to 5 gallons of water per 1,000 sq. feet, should provide considerable chinch bug control.
Before the application, the gardener should mow the lawn to a height of 1 ½ to 2 inches and discard the clippings to minimize interception. Right after the application, they should water the area with 1/8 inch of water to wash the insecticide off the grass leaves and down into the crowns and thatch where the insect feeds.
If the gardener chooses a granular insecticide, they should irrigate the lawn with a minimum of 1/4th inch of water to activate the product.
In areas with a high number of chinch bugs, two applications may be needed to achieve a significant control – first in mid-June and the second in late July.
While buffalo grass is resistant to many diseases, some diseases may attack it occasionally.
False smut in buffalo grass is a fungal disease caused by Porocercospora seminalis (previously placed in the genus Cercospora).
The disease prevents the normal development of caryopsis, that in turn causes reduced seed germination and loss of yield.
Brown patch disease (Rhizoctonia solani) occurs in late spring and summer. It needs high humidity and temperatures above 80 degrees to spread.
Semi-circular areas of dead or dying leaves with tan spots with purple margin up close the grass leaves will develop in the lawn.
However, this disease usually doesn’t kill the grass and remains only until humidity and temperature reduce.
Avoiding overfertilization and watering at night can prevent brown patch.
Summer patch disease (Magnaporthe poae) also thrives in a hot and humid environment.
It causes small circles of tan or yellow grass that may increase to a foot or more in diameter and may join into larger patches.
The disease causes the roots and crown of the grass to darken and then rot. When the grass in the middle of a circle starts recovering, rings may appear. Rotted grass will die.
Summer patch occurs mainly in soil with high pH levels. Also, the gardener should never over-fertilize the grass.
Leaf Spot and Melting Out
Leaf spot attacks buffalo grass in wet and cool climates and causes small black or brown dots on the grass leaves in the beginning.
It can be caused by several fungi, including Bipolaris, Drechslera poae, and Cochliobolus sativus.
As the disease progresses, the spots will enlarge. If it progresses to the crown, it causes ‘melting out’ or rotting of the root and crown.
Melting out will ultimately kill buffalo grass. But usually dry and warm climate will eliminate the disease before this stage.
Leaf spot and melting out can be prevented by watering less often and avoiding watering at night and over-fertilization.
Buffalo grass is a valuable turf option for open, sunny grounds, but one should remember that it’s not magic grass that can solve all one’s lawn problems.
One should appreciate the natural look of this native grass because it’s adapted to the country.
One can even plant it expecting that it will need less financial input and work over time to maintain a dense, beautiful lawn.