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Native Grass Lawns
July 19, 2001 by Evelyn J. Hadden
People choose to substitute native grass lawns for conventional turfgrass when they want part of their garden to have a carpeted look or be used for walking or running activities, but they don't want to embrace the regimen of chores that conventional lawns require. They may also be concerned about excessive water use, health hazards of chemicals in pesticides and fertilizers, and environmental effects of fossil fuel-powered lawn tools.

A native grass lawn may fit your needs and give extra benefits over traditional turfgrass. Installing a native grass area requires work and money up front, but is expected to repay the gardener with a healthier lawn that needs little or no water, uses no pesticides or fertilizers, and needs less frequent or no mowing.

Native grass lawns take different forms depending on their projected use and the gardener's personal taste. And of course, different grasses are native to different regions.

Look #1: Grass looks like traditional turf—clipped short and remaining green through the growing season.

In some situations, turf can be an effective use of land--to handle foot traffic or play activities, if you'd rather control weeds with a mower than hand-weed or use chemicals, to control populations of mice and bugs, as a fire break near a building, or as a green expanse to open up the view. Some North American native grasses and sedges "give you the opportunity to have a lawnlike planting of indigenous species while eliminating the need to apply fertilizer regularly, mow every week, and use herbicides," writes noted author Stevie Daniels in the introduction to Easy Lawns, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden's slim introduction to native North American grass lawns. (Daniels wrote a detailed primer, The Wild Lawn Handbook, now out-of-print but still available in some used bookstores.)
  • Buffalo grass
    According to Daniels, buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) makes a fine short turf for much of the United States. Buffalo grass is a warm-season, sod-forming grass that needs full sun and grows well from Minnesota to Montana and south to Mexico. It grows best in sunny, dry areas.

    Water-Wise Gardening author Thomas Christopher advises giving buffalo grass one to one-and-a-half inches of water monthly during its growing season to ensure that it stays green rather than going dormant. He cautions that over-watering any grass compacts the soil and encourages grass to develop shallow roots, making it less drought-tolerant. Overwatered lawns (such as those with automated sprinkler systems that disregard the weather) usually have roots less than four inches deep, while underwatered grasses, depending on the species, can send roots down to five feet below the surface, which helps them find their own water.

    Golf course managers are experts at creating healthy turf, and economics have prompted many to investigate grasses that thrive with little water. Some golf courses have dramatically reduced their water use by replacing traditional turfgrass with native grasses. In a recent article, the director of the United States Golf Association's Green Section estimates that replanting fairways and roughs with buffalo grass could cut water use by half on midwestern golf courses. (Read a LessLawn article about golf courses shrinking turf.)

    "Most broadleaf herbicides damage or destroy buffalograss," cautions Colorado landscape architect Jim Knopf in a chapter of Easy Lawns, but weeds can be controlled by mowing a buffalo grass lawn every two to four weeks during the growing season.

    The University of Nebraska extension service has developed a useful fact sheet for buffalo grass, with a photo showing the difference between male/female and female-only turf and a summary of maintenance recommendations.

  • Look #2: Grass is longer than turf, makes a green carpet 4 to 8 inches high.

    A longer lawn can survive drought and temperature extremes better and feed itself without fertilizer. Less formal than a manicured lawn, it can provide a neutral area in a landscape but with a flowing texture and lush appearance that ultra-short turf lacks.

    • Buffalo grass
      For this look, you can also use buffalo grass. In The Undaunted Garden, Colorado author Lauren Springer writes that her unmowed buffalo grass lawn "is too short to sway in the breeze." It stands up well to the daily traffic of neighborhood children to and from school, and it "never gets more than four to six inches tall and is a soft-textured gray-green."

      Buffalo grass seeds produce both male and female grasses on separate plants (the technical term is dioecious), and male plants send up seedheads on thin stalks above the leaves. Gardeners who want an uninterrupted surface of leaves will need to either mow every couple of weeks during the growing season or pay more to use only female plants. Female plants also produce seedheads, but they are shorter than the leaves and therefore hidden from view. They are available in plugs or as sod.

    • Mixed fescues
      Use a mix of red fescue (Festuca rubra) and hard fescue (Festuca ovina var. duriuscula), cool-season grasses 6-8 inches tall that grow best in the northern U.S. in areas with medium rainfall. Fescue species are clump-forming, but some cultivars that spread have been developed, and these will create a more solid, continuous planting. Mow once in early spring to remove dead leaves and once after flowering to remove stalks. Don't fertilize. Neil Diboll, owner of Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin, developed a "no-mow" seed mix containing six varieties of fescue. He says the average height is six inches or less, but "it can reach a height of eighteen inches if it flowers (which doesn't happen often)." Miriam Goldberger of Wildflower Farms markets a (not entirely native) mixed fescue eco-lawn. Read her LessLawn article about it.

    • Sedge
      For partly shaded areas, try sedges. These clumping, grasslike plants will make a loose carpet that can be easily interplanted with bulbs and other flowering plants. However, they won't stand up to heavy foot traffic. Many are not hardy north of Zone 6; Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) is an exception, hardy across much of the eastern and northern U.S. and Canada. In a chapter of Easy Lawns, John Greenlee of Greenlee Nursery in Pomona, California, suggests that sedges be mowed two to three times per year at most and that chemical fertilizers, pesticide, and herbicides should not be used on sedges.

    Look #3: Grasses grow to their natural heights and are mixed with flowering plants in a meadow or prairie.

    Grasses mixed with wildflowers make a colorful carpet, taller than a traditional lawn but alive with activity. Use this type of planting to create a rewarding vista or stroll garden.

    You may need to mow a few times during the first year to keep broadleaf weeds and woody species from taking over while the grasses establish. After they have established, leave seed stalks up all winter to provide food for birds, then mow or burn annually in mid-spring before the ground-nesting birds build nests. You may choose to mow or burn only one-third of the area each year to allow butterflies to reproduce.

    Do not fertilize meadows or prairies, advises Nigel Colborn in The Garden Floor, because "the more fertile the soil, the more successfully the grass will compete, driving out the wildflowers."
  • Dry shortgrass meadow
    In dry, hot areas, Knopf recommends planting a shortgrass meadow—a mix of buffalo grass and blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) with suitably aggressive wildflowers—such as blue flax (Linum perenne), purple prairieclover (Dalea purpurea), and stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida)—that will not be smothered by the buffalo grass. Such a mix would need a dry site to avoid being overrun by taller grass species. The flowers should be planted or seeded along with the grass so they have a chance to take hold before the grass covers the ground.

    Alternately, only blue grama grass can be used as a basis for a dry meadow, and this bunchgrass will allow more moderately competitive wildflowers, such as chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata), blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata), and Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera) to establish.

  • Bulbs and buffalo grass
    Springer doesn't recommend using buffalo grass in a meadow planting because it is "aggressive enough that perennial wildflowers have a hard time competing." However, she added spring-flowering bulbs among her buffalo grass plugs to extend the season. She writes: "... the grass had proven so vigorous and filled in so well in just three months that it was a real pain grubbing down into the mats to get to the soil to poke in the bulbs." She has bulbs now until early June, then she rakes away the bulb foliage and dead grass from the previous year, and the lawn requires no other maintenance. "The dense turf of the buffalo grass and the lack of irrigation both see to it that weeds have a hard time gaining any foothold," she declares with satisfaction.

  • Fescue meadow
    Wildflowers can be added to Diboll's "no-mow" fescue mix for a short meadow.

  • Prairie
    Diboll, whose nursery designs custom prairie seed mixtures for locations across the United States, singles out three native prairie grasses that "make excellent companions for wildflowers": little bluestem (Andropogon scoparius), sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). All are warm-season bunchgrasses. He cautions that a wildflower planting without grasses will attract them, as they've evolved to fill the gaps between the flowers. For lowest maintenance, therefore, plant a mix of grasses and flowers. For more information about designing and maintaining prairies, visit Prairie Nursery and/or read Sally Wasowski's Gardening with Prairie Plants: How to Create Beautiful Native Landscapes .
  • "Native Grass Lawns" was written using information from these sources:

    To find out what type of grassland (and what plant species) are native to your area, try the following resources. Usually one resource will lead you to another and so on, following your own interests, so these are merely ideas for starting points—there's no need to try them all unless you keep wanting more information!
      regional nurseries that sell native plants
    • regional botanic gardens and arboreta

    • your state's Department of Natural Resources

    • regional Natural History Museum

    • local university's Environment, Ecology, or Biology department

    • local university's Agricultural Extension office or Master Gardener program

    • local university press

    • your state government's official bookstore

    • local library that serves as a repository for government documents

    • local bookstore, or online bookstores

    • sources listed at the backs of books on natural landscaping

    • nonprofit organizations that run your local curbside recycling, public composting, or other conservation programs

    • local garden clubs

    • American Horticultural Society or your state's Horticultural Society

    • Wild Ones--Natural Landscapers or local chapter of Wild Ones

    • Brooklyn Botanic Garden's list of "Dominant Species by Plant Community"

    • local Community College or University Extension courses on natural landscaping or native plants

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