Lawn & Garden
County Extension offices across south Alabama have fielded numerous calls and home visit requests this spring because centipedegrass lawns are looking bad or have large “dead” areas of turf.
Centipedegrass (Eremochloa ophiuroides) is a common warm season turfgrass in many lawns in south Alabama. Centipedegrass is commonly referred to as “lazy man’s grass” because unlike other turfgrasses—such as bermudagrass, and St. Augustinegrass—centipedegrass requires less maintenance. Problems arise when centipedegrass is cared for like other turfgrasses.
Centipedegrass is adapted to low fertility soils and grows well with 1 pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet or less per year. Over-fertilization and excess nitrogen application can lead to centipedegrass decline and kill. Perform a soil test early in the spring, before you plan on fertilizing, to determine the correct amount of fertilizer you need to apply on your centipedegrass lawn. Your local Extension office can assist you with this.
Centipedegrass has poor cold tolerance and does not do well in extremely low temperatures. The very cold weather we experienced during Christmas 2022 was enough to cause some winter kill in centipedegrass all by itself. However, the late March frost after turfgrasses had begun greening up was also a large problem. Centipedegrass is more susceptible to damage from late frosts than other turfgrass species. Because of this, no herbicides should be used during spring “green-up” the transition from winter dormancy to spring growth.
As if all of those factors weren’t bad enough, this spring’s long spell of cool weather extended the amount of time centipedegrass spent in “limbo” between spring green up and rapid growth. Although centipedegrass begins to green up when the soil temperature reaches 60 degrees F, it does not begin vigorous root and runner growth until after soil temperatures are above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the weather station used by the Auburn University Wiregrass Research & Extension Center, soil temperatures did not reach and stay above 70 degrees until the week of May 8. Despite a few warm days in March and April, cool nights meant that soil temperatures stayed in the 60s.
Since the soil temperatures stayed below 70, centipedegrass roots did not begin growing and spreading, and this means that fertilizer applications during March and April did not have a meaningful impact. Also, centipedegrass stuck in a green-up phase is less tolerant to herbicides than centipedegrass that is actively growing in warm soil.
Caring for Centipedegrass
The good news is that the temperature outlook finally seems to include warmer temperatures that will allow centipedegrass to begin to grow and repair the damage from last winter and this spring.
Looking forward, centipedegrass lawns should only be mowed and watered, and perhaps lightly fertilized (no more than 1 pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet). That is really the only required maintenance for centipedegrass turf. Mow at a height of 1 to 1 ½ inches and never take more than a third of the blade of grass off during a mowing. Use sharp blades and be sure to inspect and change blades as needed. Centipedegrass is drought tolerant and only needs about 1 inch of water per week. If you suspect that you have a fungus such as brown patch, a plant sample can be submitted and tested. Contact your local Extension office for assistance.
Herbicides should be applied in a timely manner and according to label rates on the product being used. Homeowners should make sure the product they purchase is labeled for use on the type of turfgrass they have, and that it will target the weeds they wish to eliminate.
“Weed and feed” products should be used with extreme care, or not at all. “Weed and feed” products usually contain a high percentage of nitrogen fertilizer along with a post emergent herbicide. Misapplication of a “weed and feed” product on centipedegrass lawns can result in centipede discoloration and decline.