Issue: April 26, 1999

Failed Buffalo Grass Planting


I have tried several times to plant buffalo grass in my lawn. I removed the old grass, rototilled, and planted the buffalo grass seeds. I watered once every day for two weeks and only a few grass plants grew. What is wrong?


Assuming you used new seeds with high viability and vigor, I would guess that many of the new seedlings died from lack of water. Buffalo grass grows well under low water conditions, but the seed must be kept moist when they are germinating. In discussions with people who have had poor success in establishing buffalo grass lawns, it seems one of the common factors is that the seeds were not kept moist enough during germination. Some people planted when the soil was too cold and then gave up watering too early. Others watered too infrequently and the New Mexico sun and wind dried the seeds. They should be watered several times each day to ensure that they do not dry just as they are germinating. Buffalo grass may take 15 to 21 days, or more to germinate, so watering several times each day is required for this duration or until a good stand of grass is developed. Many people who succeeded with starting a buffalo grass lawn watered frequently, long enough, and also used a straw mulch (or other mulch) to protect the young seedlings as they germinated.

A bluegrass or fescue lawn often seems to establish more rapidly because they are genetically programmed to develop their leaves first since they are native to regions which are more moist than New Mexico. Native grasses develop their root system first to avoid the problems of running out of water as they develop. The leaves of native grasses are slower to develop. However, because native grasses are adapted to dry climates, they tend to spread their germination over a longer period of time. This assures that some will survive and grow. However, this makes it difficult for us to germinate a sufficient number of grass seedlings to form a nice looking lawn. This takes time and water. Often we think we have failed because the grass doesnít seem to be as thick as we wish, so we stop watering and at that time the lawn fails to establish.

During the time of seed germination it is not important to apply large quantities of water, moistening the soil deeply until the seedlings have germinated. So, even though we must irrigate frequently, we need only irrigate briefly. Once the seedlings have begun to develop, however, it is important to increase the depth to which we moisten the soil. Once there is a good stand of grass (enough seeds have germinated to give good coverage of the soil), we can then reduce the frequency of irrigation but continue watering more deeply. Since native grasses develop an extensive root system before devoting much energy into development of the leaves, deeper irrigation must begin earlier with them. Once a good root system develops, then they will thicken up and begin to look like a nice lawn. After about three weeks to a month, buffalo grass may be on a mature lawn watering schedule. That schedule will depend on the type of soil in which it is growing, the weather conditions, and how well the soil was prepared before planting the lawn.