Centipede grass is a slow-growing turfgrass that is known for being a low maintenance grass requiring little care. As with all yards, however, it does require some fertilization. But, it is important to know how much and when to use the fertilizer to prevent damaging the grass.
What centipede grass fertilizer should you use and when? The key to proper fertilization of centipede grass is to use soil testing and a schedule to avoid over-fertilization and to ensure proper pH levels of the soil. There is no every-case solution regardless of what advertisers claim!
Centipede grass is considered low maintenance because it requires little fertilizer, infrequent mowing, and will tolerate moderate shade. However, it can be very finicky requiring very specific soil conditions, temperature, and care. Without proper care, it can easily become diseased and die. We’re going to cover all the hows and whens of caring for this grass.
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What to Use to Fertilize Your Centipede Grass – and When
This schedule below will give you a good idea of what needs to be done during each phase of growing and nurturing centipede grass.
Early Spring (Jan-April)
- Good time for soil testing
- Apply when beginning to green up
- Don’t use a fertilizer high in nitrogen
- This can lead to fast grown that coupled with late frost can result in significant damage
I tend to use a 15-0-15 fertilizer during this time like Ferti-Lome Centipede Weed and Feed (link to Amazon). The brand really doesn’t matter, what is important is that you aren’t overloading the grass with high levels of nitrogen at this stage.
Late Spring through Summer (May-August)
- Apply fertilizer once in early summer and once in late summer.
- Use ½ to 1 pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet of lawn each time based on soil type
- Apply twice during this time period
- Clay soils ½ pound per 1000 square feet
- Sandy soils 1 pound per 1000 square feet
- Do not use over 2 pounds of nitrogen per year
- Use phosphorous as needed, as determined by soil testing.
- Apply sulfur as needed to lower a pH to 5.5 to 6
- Apply 5 pounds of pelletized sulfur per 1000 square feet of lawn
- Only apply at air temperatures below 75 degrees
- Re-check soil testing in 3 months
During this time of year, I use Scotts Turf Builder Southern Triple Action which has a higher nitrogen ratio and includes weed killer and fire ant killer. While I tend to allow most ants to populate my lawn as it is beneficial to the clay soil that I have, fire ants near the house are not something I’m willing to live with so I might as well include this in my spring fertilization plan.
Late summer application (Approximately August 15th to September 1st)
- Needs to be done between these dates, based on region
- Use a fertilizer high in Potassium to help prepare for winter
- Yellowing can indicate an iron deficiency
Scotts Turf Builder Lawn Food – Summerguard with Insect Control is a phosphorous-free high Potassium fertilizer that is good for this time of year. Click here for latest pricing from Amazon.
Fall to Winter (September to December)
- Do not use nitrogen
- Use sulfur or lime depending on pH of soil test
- Potassium (potash) can be applied
- 1 pound per 1000 square feet
- 4-6 weeks prior to first expected frost
- To help with winter dormancy and hardiness
Following this schedule, and the details of what kind of fertilizer to use, and how to use it, will give your centipede grass a strong start and stay healthy throughout the growing season.
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History of Centipede Grass
Centipede grass was introduced to the United States by Frank Meyer from China. Due to its slow growth and low maintenance, it was initially used in cemeteries. During the Depression, it started being used in lawns. It was considered a “lazy man’s grass” due to the ease of care or a “poor man’s grass” due to the low cost.
Centipede does well in the acidic soil of the Southeastern United States. Because of this, over time, it has become a primary turfgrass in certain areas of the United States, such as the coastal plains and lower Piedmont areas.
It is grown in these areas because it is very well suited to the climate and soil types there. It will often thrive in places that other grasses do not grow well.
Other varieties of centipede grass have been developed over time that has better cold tolerance. However, most of these newer varieties are not available through seeds for planting. One variety has also been modified for better growth in alkaline soils. This has extended the growing area for centipede grass to some extent.
However, in order for centipede grass to grow well, it needs at least 6 hours of full sun. It does not tolerate traffic, compaction, high phosphorus soils, high soil pH, low-potassium soils, excessive thatch, drought, or heavy shade
Characteristics of Centipede Grass
Centipede grass is a Granny apple green. Over-fertilization with nitrogen to make it a darker green will lead to several different problems, including increasing maintenance and decreasing cold hardiness. Centipede grass likes acidic soil that many other kinds of grass would not be able to tolerate.
Centipede grass does not go dormant in the winter, so it is not cold hardy. It does best in zones 9-10. It is tolerant of the heat and has moderate drought tolerance. It needs six hours of sunlight a day but can handle some moderate shade.
Centipede grass spreads by stolons. This means that it spreads on the surface and not through its root system. This results in a slow-growing, slow-spreading lawn. It is likely any bare spots will have to be overseeded as they fill in very slowly. However, it also means that centipede grass does well near flower gardens as it not spread under the borders.
Care of Centipede Grass
Although Centipede grass is mostly low maintenance, it does have some specific care needs for its maintenance. Proper care does not just include proper fertilization. It is important that correct irrigation, weed control, and other care is completed at the appropriate times.
Careful irrigation is important. Centipede grass has very a shallow root system. If it is not watered correctly, the root system will become weaker and less drought hardy. Frequent light waterings will create root system damage. Watering deeply only as needed will help prevent these problems. Water to the depth of one to six inches depending on soil type.
Watering in the winter months may be needed to prevent winter dehydration and turf loss. Water if there has not been a measurable rainfall in 3 to 4 weeks. If several bright sunny days are going to be followed by lows in the ’20s, water becomes especially important so that the excess moisture in the soil will retain heat and prevent crown death.
In the summer months, water the lawn only when it begins to show moisture stress. The yard will turn a bluish color when it is experiencing moisture stress. The other way to monitor is the footprint test. After walking across the lawn, if footprints remain, that indicates the grass is dry. Water to at least an inch deep and then do not water again until moisture stress returns.
The frequency of watering will vary based on soil types and weather. Sandy soils do not retain water and will need to be watered longer and more frequently than clay soils. Hot, dry, sunny days will lead to faster moisture stress and a need for watering. Closely monitoring the grass will give the best indication of when it needs to be watered.
To control weeds, a pre-emergent herbicide can be used in early spring to prevent weed seed from germinating. If weeds do appear later, a post-emergent herbicide can be applied. Centipede grass is sensitive to some herbicides. So, the herbicide used should
- Not be applied during the “green up” time
- Only be applied once the grass if fully green
- Should be applied selectively to the area with weeds
- Should never be 2, 4-D herbicide, especially during green-up and in the hot summer months.
- Make sure the herbicide selected will work on your specific weeds
- Always read the label and use with caution
- In some areas, you can find herbicides specifically labeled safe for centipede grass
Care needs to be taken to make sure the grass is able to withstand the treatment. Otherwise, the herbicide will kill not just the weeds, but the whole lawn.
Overall, I find centipede grass to be pretty hearty and tolerant of herbicides so long as it specifically states that it is safe to use on this grass type. Note: If you are dealing with crabgrass, be sure to read our article on dealing with crabgrass in a centipede lawn.
Insect activity is reduced during the winter months and often needs no treatment. Once it starts to warm up, begin by monitoring for mole crickets damage and grubs, especially if grubs have been a problem in years past. Do not apply insecticides during early spring unless the damage is extensive. Wait until the grass has fully greened.
During the summer months, several different pests may attack Centipede grass. These insects can cause considerable damage. It is important to identify the specific pest so that the correct insecticide can be chosen.
Local extension offices can often help with identification and providing resources to determine the best pesticide.
Any insects that were missed during summer applications can be addressed with a fall application. Again, knowing the pests involved will ensure the use of the correct insecticide. It is best to make the final application before the first frost. Once it frosts, this should prevent further damage over the winter months.
The main disease of Centipede grass is a large patch, also known as brown patch. Large patch is a fungal disease that grows best in the warm, humid weather of spring and fall. Since moisture level is a contributing factor, good irrigation practices and adequate drainage can help prevent it.
Circular areas of yellow and brown patches that slowly grow can be evidence of large patch. This mostly occurs where the turf stays wet. In the center, the grass may re-green. If the lawn is heavily infested, the rings may grow together and lose their circle shape. Fungicide treatment is needed when edges become smoky brown and appear to be rotting.
Treatment of large patch will need to be continued during the fall months. Warm temperature and excessive rainfall can lead to a rapid progression of the disease. Shorter days and cooler temps will hinder the lawn recovery. To ensure the grass recovers in the spring, fall application of a fungicide is necessary.
Core aeration involves punching small holes in the turf and soil to decrease compaction and allowing air to the root system. The purpose is to correct the problems caused by poor infiltration and drainage. Aerification can be combined with de-thatching to address compaction problems. This needs to be done after the threat of frost has past and the lawn has fully greened up.
Aeration will need to be postponed if a pre-emergent herbicide was applied. Disturbing the soil after application will break the barrier designed to stop the seeds from germination created by the herbicide. This will allow the weeds to emerge.
For more information on aerating, read our article Does Centipede Grass Need To Be Aerated?
The ideal mowing height for Centipede grass is 1 to 2 inches. The first cutting in early spring should be before it greens up. For this cutting, the blade can be set slightly lower, around one inch high. After this, it is fine to set the blade slightly lower as long as the yard does not become too thin or bare. But, it still needs to be at least one inch.
If the lawn is stressed due to high heat or decreased rain, the mowing height should be raised ½ to 1 inch higher. The mower blade needs to be sharpened at least once monthly. Mowing with a mulching mower will leave clippings to nourish the soil.
Centipede grass is a slow-growing grass that thrives in acidic, infertile soils that many other grasses will not grow in. It is low maintenance but can be picky about its growing conditions. So, it grows best when what maintenance it does requires is done on a routine with products designed to meet its specific growing needs.
Note: I’ve found benefit in mulching instead of bagging grass clippings. Read this article on mulching centipede grass to learn more.
You don’t want to overfertilize your centipede lawn. Caring for the soil underneath it to ensure that nutrients are freely available and the ground is not so compacted that it prevents strong root growth is one of the most important things you can do to ensure a thriving centipede lawn.
Begin with a soil test like this one from Amazon and determine exactly what is lacking. Give the soil what it needs and it will feed the lawn.
If you have clay soil, be sure to read our five-step strategy for improving clay soil lawns without digging.
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