Everything About Centipede Grass
If a homeowner is looking for warm-season grass that requires low maintenance, one of the most ideal options for them is centipede grass.
They will be happy to know that centipede grass needs far less attention and supplies than other grasses that share its growing region. However, its use has been limited only to the Southeast of the U.S.A. because it has some very specific requirements when it comes to soil and climate.
Thus, if the homeowner lives in Southeast U.S.A., centipede grass may be a perfect lawn choice for them.
Published: October 21, 2022.
What is Centipede Grass?
Centipede grass [Eremochloa ophiuroides (Munro)] is a warm-season, coarse-textured, perennial grass, suitable to Southeast lawns, with excellent heat tolerance and moderate shade tolerance. Its nutrient and maintenance needs are low.
Centipede grass originally belongs to China and Southeast Asia. Its seeds were introduced in the U.S. in 1916 by Frank N. Meyer, a USDA plant explorer, and since then it’s been here.
It’s warm-season means it’s most productive during warm weather of the late spring and summer months. It’s more affected by cold than several other warm-season types of grass.
However, if the winters are mild, this perennial grass can withstand them and sustain them for years.
The reason for its limitation to the Southeast US is its particular soil and climate requirements. The soil in the Southeast from the Carolinas to Florida and westward along the Gulf Coast states up to Texas is sandy acidic and winters are warm which this grass prefers.
On the other hand, just north of this area, it can’t survive because of its extremely cold winters.
It’s slightly more tolerant to cold than St. Augustine grass, but prolonged periods of 5-degree F or less temperatures can kill centipede grass.
When it comes to Southwest U.S. the soil is too alkaline to let centipede grass grow properly as it develops severe iron deficiencies to which centipede is particularly sensitive.
Centipede grass produces a seed by which it is readily propagated.
Centipede grass has excellent heat tolerance, but its drought tolerance is not that high. This is another reason, the Southeast and its high annual rainfall are its favorite.
Compared to other warm-season grasses, the centipede has got shallow root system. So, it needs extra vigilance and watering when there is low rainfall. However, the centipede rapidly recovers from stress on the return of its favorable conditions.
Since the winters in the growing regions of centipede are mild, this grass doesn’t have a specific winter dormancy period, like that of Bermuda grass or zoysia grass.
Thus, the centipede may sustain its green color all through the winter. But this has a disadvantage of getting affected by winter cold. In very low temperatures, centipede can sustain damage, but repeated injuries over winter can kill it.
Centipede grows the most slowly among all common warm-season lawn grasses. Due to this, it needs less mowing than St. Augustine or Bermuda grasses. For the same reason, it’s also often known as lazy man’s grass.
For spreading it creeps with above-ground stems known as stolons and forms a dense lawn. Due to the creeping growth habit of stolons with rather upright stems that resemble a centipede, the grass has got its name. Stolons of centipede grass are slender, andbranch and root at the nodes, and end up as a lean flowering stem.
Grass blades are usually 15-30 cm long 2-4 mm wide, lanceolate, flat, petioled (has a stalk), and rounded at the base. The inflorescence is purplish in color and 3 to 5 inches long.
It doesn’t tolerate heavy traffic well. It’s more shade-tolerant but less salt-tolerant than Bermuda grass or St. Augustine grass. Although it’s moderately shade-tolerant, it thrives well in full sunlight.
It needs moderate soil pH from 5 to 6. pH above 7 becomes a limiting factor for it and the grower may have to provide supplemental applications of iron.
The natural color of centipede grass is Granny Smith apple green. If over-fertilized to get an unnatural dark green color, it loses its cold tolerance, develops a thatch layer, and starts having long-term maintenance problems, and eventual turf failure.
Centipede grass is hardy to USDA plant hardiness zones 7 through 10.
Several centipede grass varieties have been found, but none was successful in forming a long-lasting turf, except the common centipede grass produced from the seed of early introduction.
Oklawn Centipede: Released by Oklahoma State University in 1965 as an improved variety with superior cold and drought tolerance. It wasn’t extensively used because it has to be propagated vegetatively.
TennTurf (previously, Tennessee Hardy): Developed by the University of Tennessee, this variety has superior cold tolerance, but also didn’t gain extensive success because of the need for vegetative propagation.
AU Centennial: This variety was released by Auburn University in 1983 as a semidwarf variety. It has shorter internodes than other varieties and forms a lower-growing, denser sod. Shorter seedheads also give it an improved appearance. It will perform a bit better than common centipede grass on alkaline soil.
TifBlair: This is the only variety available currently as seed. It also has improved cold tolerance.
When to Plant?
The best time to plant centipede grass is late spring through early summer.
How to Grow Centipede Grass?
Centipede grass lawn can be started from seed, sod, or plugs. Success with seed planting depends highly on good seedbed preparation.
How to Grow from Seed?
Centipede grass is adapted to infertile, acidic soils that have moderate to high drainage. The grower should rototill the soil with a rotovator or rake, level it, and firm it with a roller.
If there was another grass growing previously in the soil, the grower can either remove it before tilling or apply an herbicide and wait for 1 to 2 weeks before seeding.
Or they can cover the soil with a light barrier, such as a tarp, for 2 to 4 weeks so the previous grass will be killed and be prevented from re-establishing over the centipede grass.
The grower should broadcast seed with a seeder or by hand. A trick for uniform distribution is to mix 1/3 pound of seed uniformly with around a gallon of fine sand and distribute the mixture evenly over 1,000 sq. ft. of yard area.
For big plantings with a grass drill, sand isn’t required.
After sowing, the soil should be firmed with a roller and watered lightly. It should be kept moist but not wet, for 14 to 21 days after planting. If the area is too large to keep watered, the grower should not sow seed until there is adequate soil moisture.
The grower should apply a complete fertilizer at the time of sowing at a rate of 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. Properly seeded plantings will provide a full cover in around 3 months.
How to Grow Centipede Grass with Sod or Plugs?
Growers should first till the ground and while tilling, they should add in organic matter and a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Then they should plant centipede grass sod so as to let their edges touch each other. The sod should come with sod staple pins with which the grower can attach the sod to the soil.
When it comes to planting plugs, the grower should till the ground first, and add organic matter and nitrogen-rich fertilizer to the soil. They should remove the previously established grass with a sod cutter.
Then with a sod plug drill bit, they should insert the plugs around 1 foot apart or on 1-foot spacings.
For both sods and plugs, once they are laid or inserted respectively, the area should be watered thoroughly and kept well-watered for the next 3 to 4 weeks.
Sod and plugs need almost the same care as that of seeds for the first two weeks of planting.
How to Take Care of Centipede Grass
Centipede grass is not as drought tolerant as many people believe it to be. On heavy soils, the grower should thoroughly wet the soil 4 to 6 inches deep, but only when the grass will show signs of moisture stress i.e., wilted and discolored lawn.
In the case of sandy soils, watering should be in even higher frequency – the grower should wet the soil 6 to 8 inches deep during each irrigation.
Homeowners should avoid frequent nitrogen application to enhance color and growth. It may enhance color and induce growth, but can cause problems with centipede grass lawns.
It’s recommended to apply nitrogen annually in the spring and fall at a proportion of 1 pound per 1,000 sq. ft. It’s optional to apply nitrogen in summer.
On sandy soils and soils low in potassium, applying potassium in spring and fall helps promote root development and reduce winterkill. Potassium and nitrogen can be applied together in a complete fertilizer such as 3-1-2 or 2-1-2 ratio.
Continuous use of a high-potassium fertilizer should be avoided since it can cause iron deficiencies in centipede grass.
If chlorotic conditions develop in centipede grass, the grower should apply iron chelate or iron sulfate to correct the conditions temporarily.
They may have to apply iron every month to maintain the green color. If they apply nitrogen with iron, they should use only 1 pound of N per 1,000 sq. ft.
If soil pH is more than 7.2 on heavy soil or 6.5 on sandy soil, elemental sulfur may help to reduce pH and increase iron availability.
The height of centipede grass should be maintained at 1 ½ to 2 inches. Anywhere higher than this can lead to excess thatch development.
The grower should make sure the blade of the mower is sharp for a clean-cut and remove only the top 1/3rd of the grass blades at any one time.
Centipede grass has a major problem of thatch buildup. A thick thatch layer comprised of decaying grass and other organic material leads to possible root damage from cold and creates a barrier to water absorption. It’s best to dethatch the centipede lawn prior to its active growth season.
Since the warm summer months are an active growth period for centipede grass, one should dethatch their lawn in late May or early June.
During this partial dethatching process, centipede grass undergoes a lot of stress, so the active growth season enables it to recover soon.
If dethatching is done in mid-summer, centipede grass cannot recover totally as it doesn’t get enough time to grow vigorously before fall and winter.
Since centipede grass has a slow growth, it’s essential to remove only some of the thatch during one dethatching session. The gardener should pull the thatch out from the lawn with a vertical mower to increase air and moisture pockets in the soil.
Typically, the mower should have a blade spacing of up to 3 inches wide while setting the depth of ¼ inch. With a shallow dethatching process, one can preserve the health of the lawn as it grows vigorously to repair the damage.
In the case of a thatch layer slightly thicker than ½ inch, the gardener can use a rake instead of a vertical mower. They can rake the thatch as early as spring because this process is not invasive like power tools.
To ensure no further stress occurs to the lawn, the gardener can apply fertilizer after dethatching. The nutrients help centipede grass grow quickly before the arrival of hot summer temperatures.
Weed control is necessary to improve looks and reduce mowing needs in centipede grass lawns. Herbicides such as 2,4-D and MCPP can control most broadleaf weeds such as thistle, henbit, chickweed, and clover. The grower should apply herbicides in the fall or winter before these weeds mature.
For crabgrass and other summer weeds, pre-emerge herbicides containing DCPA, benefin, bensulide, or simazine, are the most effective if applied as per label instructions in early spring before these weeds even emerge.
Pests and Diseases
Centipede grass is mainly affected by pests like nematodes chinch bugs, and fungal diseases.
It should be also noted that there are various reasons for centipede grass decline which include wrong cultural practices too.
Centipede decline appears as bright yellow or dead patches of lawn in the spring and early summer, usually following overly cold winters or generally warm winters with cold springs.
Applying too much nitrogen, high soil pH, stress, mowing too high or too low or diseases like dollar spot or brown patch can weaken the lawn.
Centipede decline can sometimes be prevented just by reducing the amount of nitrogen application and rectifying mowing habits to prevent excess thatch buildup or scalping.
Soil testing can also help in determining the cause of the decline.
Although centipede grass is resistant to most insect pests that often attack other lawn grass species, it is highly prone to damage by nematodes (particularly ring nematodes). These are very small worms that are difficult to detect.
They damage the grass by infecting the roots. Nematode damage limits the use of centipede grass in deep sandy soils that has a characteristic nematode population.
Affected grass starts getting discolored from apple green to yellow and becomes thin. It also doesn’t respond to watering and fertilizing as nematodes affect its roots.
Hot climate may worsen the problem as roots are unable to absorb water as fast as they should. The grower should first maintain the correct moisture level in the soil as a first step to controlling nematodes. One can also consider fumigating the soil.
Chinch bugs are small insects that grow up to around 1/8 inch in length. They have piercing mouthparts with which they suck the sap out of the nodes and crowns of turf grasses, causing yellowish-brown irregular patches.
The best way to get rid of chinch bugs is to treat one’s lawn with an insecticide labeled for chinch bugs.
These critters mature soon, so, it’s essential to start the insecticide treatment as early as possible.
Before applying the insecticide, one should remove as much thatch and overgrowth as possible so the turf is exposed and insecticide reaches the chinch bugs. Follow the instructions on the label carefully.
Fungus Rhizoctonia solani causes a brown patch which causes several irregular patches of brown or thin grass spread across the turf.
This disease appears during or after prolonged periods of humid weather in spring, summer, and fall. It occurs mainly in warm-season grasses which exhibit patches the diameter of which may be many yards.
These are followed by large circles of thin grass. It spreads soon when temperatures range from 75- to 85-degree F during rains.
It also continues to damage the grass even after it’s cured. Therefore, prevention is the best way to deal with brown patch.
Fungicides can cure the problem; but the most effective methods to prevent the disease include stopping applications of fertilizers containing high amounts of nitrogen, mowing at the correct height, decreasing watering to only when required, and avoiding the spreading of disease by picking up clippings of infected grass.
Another fungus Sclerotinia homeocarpa causes a dollar spot which is sometimes known as a small brown patch.
Most of the time, brown spots of size from 2 to 4 inches diameter are spread infrequently throughout the lawn with low nitrogen or excessive thatch during humid summers.
They can be recognized by the brown lesions on live green grass blades at the borders of the circles.
Dollar spot can be easily treated by applying 1 to 3 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. of lawn. Watering deeply, aeration, thatch removal, and mowing at correct heights are also helpful in preventing this disease.
Though the name may suggest something pleasant, these crescent-shaped irregular patches can be unsightly on one’s lawn.
They range from tiny, unremarkable sizes to as large as 50 feet in diameter, and are dark brown rings bordered by thick, darker-green grass.
Mushrooms grow on the borders of the ring during wet seasons from which the disease got its name. Dark brown turf is caused by this fungus producing a water-resistant layer that prevents roots from absorbing water.
There is no treatment available for this disease. Only removing the dead grass and many inches of the soil within the circle, and replacing it with new soil and grass are often proved effective for removing this disease from one’s lawn.
If a homeowner is very busy and has not much time for lawn maintenance, and if they live in an area with an overall hot climate and mild winters, centipede grass is a perfect choice for them.
It produces lush, light-green, dense lawn quickly without much effort, and offers a pleasant experience and a reason to be proud to the homeowner.