Turfgrasses for Iowa

The period from late August through September is an excellent time to establish new turf areas from seed. The first step in seeding a lawn is to choose the right turfgrass. Choosing the right turfgrass will help in maintaining a healthy, weed-free lawn. When selecting your grass, there are several factors that must be considered.

  1. How much sunlight does the lawn area receive?
  2. How will the lawn be used?
  3. How much maintenance are you willing to provide?
  4. What quality level are you willing to accept?

How much sunlight does the lawn area receive?

The amount of light that an area receives is important and often varies throughout the lawn. Grasses vary in their tolerance to shade. It is important to consider how much light the turf area is exposed to now and in several years when trees mature. In some cases, more than one type of grass will be needed for an entire lawn because a good species for a sunny location is not appropriate for a shady area.

Shade Tolerance of Grasses
Most Fine Fescue
  Tall Fescue
Least Bluegrass

How will the lawn be used?

Some species of turfgrass have better wear resistance than others. A lawn that is used heavily by children and pets needs a grass species that wears well and can recover quickly from injury. A lawn used to make neighbors envious and seldom walked on doesn't require a grass that wears well or recovers quickly. Often a mix of turfgrasses that have good wear resistance and good recuperative ability are best for the lawn.

Wear Resistance   Recuperative
Fine Fescue Low Ryegrass
Bluegrass   Tall Fescue
Ryegrass   Fine Fescue
Tall Fescue High Bluegrass

How much maintenance are you willing to provide? What quality level are you willing to accept?

The level of maintenance you are willing to provide and the quality you are willing to accept often go hand in hand. A high quality lawn requires more maintenance than the average lawn. High quality lawns require more frequent fertilization, mowing, and applications of herbicides and insecticides. They also are irrigated on a regular basis. Turfgrass species vary in their quality and maintenance requirements. Cultivars also vary in their response to different levels of maintenance. For example, some Kentucky bluegrass cultivars perform best under high maintenance. Others respond well to a low maintenance schedule.

Maintenance Requirements
Most Ryegrass
  Fine Fescue
Least Tall Fescue

Once you have considered these four questions, you can decide which turfgrass species is best for your lawn and conditions. Specific information on each of the turfgrasses best suited for Iowa is presented below.

Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis)

Kentucky bluegrass is one of the best turfgrasses for Iowa. It forms a dense, medium textured, dark green turf. Kentucky bluegrass has extensive underground stems (rhizomes), giving it the ability to fill in and recover quickly from damage. When mowed at the proper height of 2.5 to 3.5 inches, this grass is very competitive with weeds. Kentucky bluegrass has poor shade tolerance. There are, however, some cultivars that are better suited for part-shade locations. Kentucky bluegrass also has a shallow root system and therefore a high demand for water, especially in summer. It does not tolerate high temperatures well and often goes dormant in summer. However, Kentucky bluegrass quickly recovers when provided adequate moisture and when temperatures cool in the fall.

Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne)

Perennial ryegrass is a dark green, medium textured grass. It germinates and establishes quickly and has excellent wear resistance. Perennial ryegrass is a bunch-type grass. It recovers slowly after damage because it has no stolons or rhizomes. Like Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass should be mowed 2.5 to 3.5 inches tall and performs best in full sun. It is best used in mixes with Kentucky bluegrass, especially in high traffic areas, because of its wear resistance. It also is not tolerate of low temperatures and therefore may suffer winter damage.

Fine Fescue (Festuca spp.)

Fine fescue is the name given to a group of fine-textured, medium to light green grasses that are well adapted to shade. Good species of fine fescue for Iowa include creeping red fescue (F. rubra), chewings fescue (F. rubra ssp. fallax), and hard fescue (F. brevipila). All spread by above and below ground stems and have fair drought tolerance. They do, however, lose their color during dry periods. Mow at 2.5 to 3.5 inches tall.

Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)

Tall fescue is a coarse, dark green turf. It has excellent wear resistance, but like perennial ryegrass, is a bunch-type grass and therefore recovers slowly from damage. This grass has good drought and heat tolerance. Mow at a height of 3 to 4 inches. Sometimes considered a weed in Kentucky bluegrass lawns because of its coarse texture, new cultivars with finer texture have been developed. These turf-type tall fescues are preferred because of their finer texture and dense growth.

More information can be found in the following extension publications, available at your county extension office.

  • Selecting Turfgrass Species PM 1578
  • Purchasing Seed PM 1577
  • Establishing a Lawn from Seed PM 1072
  • Turfgrass Renovation PM 1055


Christians, N. 1998. Fundamentals of Turfgrass Management. Ann Arbor Press, Chelsa, MI.

Sanchez J.H 1995. Lawns, Groundcovers and Vines. Meredith Corp., Des Moines, IA.


This article originally appeared in the 8/13/2004 issue.


Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Horticulture and Home Pest News, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on August 13, 2004. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.