Japanese lawn – in comparison with western lawns

This topic was requested by one of our readers and I apologize that it took this long until I was able to write about Japanese grass.

The one or other, who loves to look at pictures of various japanese gardens, might have seen photos taken in winter, where the grass seemed yellow and dead.
Expats, who are coming to Japan in spring or sommer are surprised that their lawn suddenly turns yellow when it becomes cold and phone their landlord that the grass died out of the blue.

Don’t worry! This yellow color is perfectly fine for japanese lawn!
It is another variety of grass used here, called Zoysia.
One of the most popular is “Kōraishiba” – Zoysia matrella var. pacifica.

Zoysia matrella / Z. japonica
Zoysia is a warm-season grass
Dormant in winter (becomes brown)
Best planted in spring
Heat, drought and traffic-tolerant
Sun to light shade
Low maintenance

However, why are Japanese use a grass, which looks dead in winter?
There are several reasons:
Zoysia is perfectly strong in japanese summers.
Most areas of Japan are extremely hot and humid, but have not much rain after the rainy season ended.
A strong grass is needed, which can withstand drought and intensive sun.
The “native” Zoysia (it once came from southern Asia / Japan’s Ryukyu Islands) is perfectly fine for that, while lots of “foreign” grasses fail here.
Another reason is, that Zoysia is slow growing and doesn’t become as high as foreign grass naturally.
While one needs to mow foreign grass (in Japanese called “Seiyōshiba”) twice a week for a perfect lawn, Zoysia needs a cut only every other week.
And last but not least: Japanese enjoy the changing landscape according to the seasons!
There is the cherry blossom viewing, the viewing of fresh green leaves in spring, the autumn foliage viewing and so much more!
Almost every month is famous for a different flower blooming.
For the people in Japan it is totally normal, that grass changes its color in winter and they don’t mind, because Seiyōshiba is not common and “normal”.

We as foreigners keep asking, why they don’t prefer the always nice green grass.
It is not only a cultural difference, but also has something to do with the adaptability of the plants.
As I already mentioned, Seiyōshiba is not perfectly adjusted to the common japanese weather, although there are already a lot of varieties, which can handle it.
A very popular one is Kentucky blue.
A problem is the high humidity and continuous rain during the rainy season and the very strong sun.
People from the northern or more southern regions of the earth might surprise how fast they get a sunburn in Japan..
Also people don’t like to spend too much time in the garden, mowing their lawn while the mosquitoes try to suck out all their blood.
They like to call a maintenance service once a month, maybe only once every second, who does the lawn maintenance.

The maintenance by the way is exactly the same for both varieties.
If the conditions for the lawn are not perfect, weed tend to take over the space.
I maintain one garden, where my customers try for three years now to get beautiful lawn. It seems impossible…
The landlord promised good lawn and re-did it twice in the first year.
The second year my company did the maintenance with aeration, fertilizing, weeding and mowing, we even sprayed against the weed with a selective herbicide, however, this year nothing is left of the lawn…
Our customers even tried their luck by seeding Seiyōshiba in those places where the Zoysia died. It did well in the beginning, stayed green in winter and died the next summer..
We think it has something to do with the shade. The landlord long time refused to cut back the high trees and the garden was in shade all winter.
Here, a Seiyōshiba for shade might be the best solution, however, it would also be very maintenance intensive..
Another option I would love to try but don’t get the chance is buffalo grass from Australia.
It seems to be strong in shade and hot summers, however there might be problems in colder winters.

The last thing to mention: Zoysia is also not too strong against cold.
The strongest might be Noshiba – Zoysia japonica.
However, even in Japan’s colder regions, Kōraishiba seems to be used in combination with Seiyōshiba (Kentucky blue) and seems to withstand the cold and survives.
Some years ago a German gardener tried to use Zoysia in his home country, but it wasn’t able to survive the cold and wet winters there.

The way how Zoysia lawn is planted here in Japan might also be fascinating.
It comes in mats and is not placed mat to mat, but with a small gap between the mats. This gap is around 2cm wide and should be closed by the grass after a few months.
When all the mats are placed, the gaps are filled in with special lawn soil, normal soil or sand. It is also spread over the mats, which makes the newly planted lawn look not very appealing.
However, this seems the style to work out best for this kind of lawn in Japan.

My personal feelings about japanese lawn:
When I came to Japan and had my first winter here, I felt exactly like those expats, calling their landlord.
I was like “What the s…, what’s with this lawn? It’s ugly!” However, the more I adapted to Japan and the more I tried to understand the Japanese (man, that’s not easy! And I am still working hard on it..) the more I learned to see the beauty behind the yellow grass.
It truly shapes the gardens and  parks in a special way and creates different landscapes each season.
In Europe, we also enjoy flowerbeds with changing flowers over the months of a year.
A perfect flower garden has different flowers all year round. Why is it so hard for us to accept a changing lawn?

By the way, my father always tried hard on our lawn, but he never got an English one… I as a child however enjoyed nothing more than to examine the weeds in our lawn and weave wreaths out of clover, which flowered there. I was lying on my belly, observed the bees and bumblebees (and never got a sting) and played with the plantains.
For me the perfect lawn has a good mix of grass, moss, clover (Trifolium repens) and plantains.


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If you would like to try Zoysia in your own garden, you can order it via Amazon.com

6 thoughts on “Japanese lawn – in comparison with western lawns

    1. Hi D jay!
      You can google 殺菌剤 芝生. First is fungicide and second is lawn. Several products will show up. But if you are not sure about those, the best might be to call a pro.
      Where in Japan are you?

  1. Very enlightening. Thank you. I had the good fortune to visit Okayama Korakuen recently and the extensive lawns had a striking golden appearance in the winter sunshine. A very appealing contrast with the foliage of the small pines and other evergreens. I don’t think bluegrass is going to catch on somehow. Excellent blog. Back now in London I know where to come for a fix of Japanese gardening.

  2. Great post. As we are planning to lay our new turf in our yard, our turf supplier recommends Sapphire Buffalo grass for our yard which is best to grow in both shade and sunlight with less maintenance, I prefer Sapphire Buffalo turf. Here I got ideas of many turf varieties to use for the various purpose and different soil types. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for the interesting information. Indeed, you need to learn Japanese wisdom and enjoy the colorful nature at any time of the year.

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