Many lawn grasses are described in gardening magazines and books. Which grass is best for lawns in northern Illinois? The choice depends largely on characteristics of the grass and the intended site for it to grow. Grasses vary in growth habit, appearance quality, ease and rate of establishment, maintenance needs, adaptability to shade, wear tolerance, ability to recover from damage, cold hardiness, susceptibility to pests and diseases, and other factors.
Grasses may grow in bunches or have the ability to spread via modified stems. Bunch-type grasses grow in clumps and spread very little via tillers from the base of the plant. Grasses with this type of growth habit do not readily recover from damage or fill-in bare areas on their own. Rhizomes are stems that grow horizontally underground. Stolons are horizontal stems that grow above the soil surface. Grasses with either of these types of growth habit can readily fill-in adjoining bare areas and also recover more readily when damaged.
Kentucky bluegrass is by far the most popular species used in home lawns in northern Illinois, due to high quality appearance, hardiness, and recovery ability. Kentucky bluegrass spreads by rhizomes. Most cultivars of Kentucky bluegrass require moderate to high levels of maintenance (such as fertilizing, watering, and mowing) to maintain high quality. Kentucky bluegrass prefers full sun, although a few cultivars have tolerance to light shade. Kentucky bluegrass is slow to establish by seed, yet readily available as sod.
Fine fescues require less maintenance and many adapt to shade. The fine fescues include red and chewings fescues, sheep fescue, and hard fescue. Leaf width is narrow, and most are bunch-type grasses (red fescue has rhizomes). Wear tolerance (such as foot traffic) and recovery ability of fine fescues is fair. Maintenance levels are generally low, especially fertilizer needs, and fine fescues may decline in full sun when mowed frequently. Fine fescues are seeded and are often used in seed mixtures of grass seed for areas of differing light intensities.
Perennial ryegrass offers quick establishment and good wear tolerance. Perennial ryegrass is a bunch-type grass with quality very similar to Kentucky bluegrass. Maintenance needs are moderate to high, similar to Kentucky Bluegrass. Perennial ryegrass is not suggested to be used alone as a lawn grass; but as part of a lawn seed mixture instead.
These are the primary lawn species suggested for northern Illinois. All are cool-season grasses, growing most actively in spring and fall. Suggested mixtures are found in Suggested Lawn Mixes for Northern Illinois and cultivars are listed in Recommended Grass Cultivars. Additional species not commonly suggested for lawn use in northern Illinois, such as zoysiagrass, are discussed in Grasses for Special Sites & Uses.