Mississippi State University research project looks at cemetery turfgrasses

Left to right, Wayne Philley, senior research associate; Ron Bradley, then an MSU student worker and now owner of Innovative Landscapes, Inc. in Plantersville, Miss.; and Wayne Langford, technician, examine turf plots in a makeshift “cemetery” created at Mississippi State University’s R.R. Foil Plant Science Research Center. The project was designed to determine which grasses perform the best and require the least mowing in a cemetery environment.

It’s not often that cemetery turfgrass gets a lot of attention. While golf turf is better funded, and residential lawn turf is more highly touted, the grass at cemeteries is frequently overlooked. That’s a shame, because Wayne Philley, agronomist with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, says that cemeteries are a great resource when it comes to studying turf. “I’m a turfgrass breeder and evaluator,” he explains. “And I’ve found that cemeteries are a good place to look at turfgrass plants. It’s maintained turf, but typically not very maintained. Certainly not like a golf course or athletic field, and often not as much as a home lawn. So you can find some tough plants out there, and you find a wide variety of different species in cemeteries.”

By scouring cemeteries in the South, Philley has identified certain grasses that are performing well in a difficult growing environment. After all, cemetery maintenance budgets aren’t usually high; cemeteries typically aren’t irrigated; in some cases there isn’t much shade cover, and in other places there are many trees covering the turf; and fertilization often isn’t part of the maintenance program. So finding grass plants that are surviving hot, dry, low-fertility conditions can provide clues about promising grasses. “Nature has had time to select those plants and put a little pressure on them,” he explains.

Cemeteries offer another unique turfgrass feature: many different types of grass. The cemeteries that Philley has visited have a lot of carpetgrass, Bahia grass and Dallisgrass, though he says it’s difficult to tell if those grasses were planted or established naturally. “One thing is for sure: a lot of grass is being mowed at cemeteries that wasn’t planted,” he states. The problem is that some of these grasses, like Dallisgrass, require frequent mowing. Others are unable to stand up against weed pressure. The result is increased maintenance costs and decreased aesthetics.

“What I’ve also seen in a lot of cemeteries is that families introduce their own turfgrasses,” Philley explains. “They want to have good grass on their family gravesite, and it’s a small enough area that they sometimes purchase sod and put it out there, or maybe planted some sprigs, so you see what would potentially be vegetatively propagated species like zoysiagrass, centipedegrass, St. Augustinegrass and bermudagrass. You find all of the above in some cemeteries.”

Recognizing that the major turf maintenance activity completed at cemeteries is mowing, Philley says, “I got to thinking, ‘Is there a way we could reduce the need for mowing if we had a turfgrass that didn’t grow so tall?’ I wanted to find out what turfgrass was really best for cemeteries.”

That spurred a three-year research project to evaluate various turfgrass types for use in cemeteries in the South. The research project quickly accomplished one goal by drawing attention to cemetery turf. As part of the plots that were planted, Philley installed wooden “headstones” to help simulate a cemetery setting, and to help gauge the height of the grass (each headstone had inch markers on it) and determine a mowing schedule. There’s nothing like the instant construction of a graveyard to attract attention. “You should have seen how many phone calls we received!” he laughs. Some even wondered if it was a burial site for the bulldogs that serve as mascots for Mississippi State University.

Beneath the wooden grave markers, Philley established various plots of zoysiagrass, centipedegrass, St. Augustinegrass (Raleigh type) and bermudagrass, along with Mississippi Supreme, an ultra-dwarf bermuda. “We installed each by sod and watered them a few times to get them established, which is probably all they would get in a cemetery setting,” he explains. After that, the turf was left to fend for itself with no irrigation or fertilization. The desire was to discover which grasses performed the best while requiring the least mowing.

Mowing was done with a rotary mower at a height of 2 inches. “We used a rule of thumb of removing one-third of the plant height, so we mowed when the grass reached 3 inches,” Philley explains. He thinks most cemeteries probably mow on a regular schedule rather than based on the height of grass, but a 2-inch mowing height is about average for what he’s seen in cemeteries in the area. “With a rotary mower, if you try to go below 2 inches, especially if there are rolling hills, you’re going to get some scalping,” he notes.

The results of the research showed that there is no one perfect turfgrass for every cemetery in the South. Depending on various factors, ranging from climate to soil conditions to budget, different grasses might make the most sense for a given cemetery.

For starters, it turns out that probably the South’s most widely used turf-quality grass isn’t particularly well-suited for cemetery applications. “We recommend bermudagrass for almost everything; it’s our number one turfgrass,” says Philley. “But the thing about bermudagrass is that it really needs regular applications of nitrogen to be resistant to weeds and to be the turfgrass that we expect it to be.”

That type of treatment isn’t common in cemeteries, so while bermudagrass might perform well immediately following installation, as maintenance drops off and fertilizer applications drop off following establishment, bermudagrass gets invaded by weeds, he points out. Bermudagrass, therefore, is best for cemeteries with the resources to fertilize on a regular basis.

The Mississippi Supreme ultra-dwarf bermudagrass was developed – in part, by Philley – for use on golf course greens, so testing it for use in cemeteries was a bit of a leap, but he wanted to see how it would perform under the minimal maintenance and limited budgets usually found at cemeteries. “Those ultra-dwarf bermudagrasses just don’t get very tall, so they don’t require much mowing. Would it work in a cemetery? We just didn’t know until we tried it,” he explains. While the grass did require less mowing, it also showed that it wasn’t able to grow well enough without nitrogen applications to stay lush and keep out weeds. Philley hopes that future research might identify other ultra-dwarf grasses that can help cemeteries reduce mowing without increasing fertility.

Most grasses are susceptible to these weed pressures, but Philley says that centipedegrass proved that it was able to do a good job of holding off weeds while requiring little nitrogen. No matter what grass is chosen, one particular challenge in establishing turfgrass in cemeteries can be poor soil quality. When graves are dug, the most fertile topsoil is often mixed in with the soil from much deeper in the ground, leaving little fertility up top once the grave is filled back in. Centipedegrass proved that it can handle the poor soil conditions, but the grass also wasn’t as full or green as some others examined in the research, notably St. Augustine and zoysia.

Philley says one of the most promising grasses looked at was zoysiagrass. “Zoysiagrass is great – if you can get the sod established. I say that because I would never recommend planting zoysiagrass from plugs and some of the ways I see advertised to propagate zoysiagrass. You really have to use sod,” he says. Investing a little more money to plant sod can really pay off. And, because most cemetery sod is installed one gravesite at a time, he points out that the difference in cost is usually low with the small square footage involved. “It’s usually not a very big investment; the question is usually whether you can get enough water on it to get the sod established,” Philley concludes. “If you get lucky enough to get some rainfall, it can work quite well.”

St. Augustinegrass also showed some promise in certain locations. “It’s really hard to beat in the right areas,” says Philley. “Its great feature is its shade tolerance. It works great in the southern half of Mississippi and other areas where St. Augustinegrass is well established.” The downfall of the grass is that it is not very tolerant of cold weather. Once again, Philley recommends establishing St. Augustinegrass as sod, though he notes that there are few sod producers in the state growing it, and many people find success with other methods of establishment. “Because of its aggressive stolen growth, it will spread and fill in,” he notes, adding that St. Augustinegrass sod is more readily available in southern parts of Alabama, Georgia and Texas.

Philley says that cemetery turfgrass isn’t an area that’s received a lot of attention in the past, but this research project drew quite a bit of interest. He’s hoping that funding will be available for future studies to further examine which grasses can help cemeteries reduce maintenance costs while retaining a lush, green appearance. Sometimes (particularly at larger, for-profit cemeteries), grassing of new graves is overseen by the management; in smaller church cemeteries, it’s often done by individual families. Letting all parties know which grasses to consider planting will benefit everyone in the long run. With an estimated 3,000 acres of cemeteries in Mississippi alone, and guaranteed demand in the future, choosing the right grasses can have a big impact, he says.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.