Easy Lawns: Low Maintenance Native Grasses for Gardeners Everywhere

It is possible to have a great-looking lawn without hours of mowing, watering, fertilizing, weeding, and reseeding—think native! Native grasses are easier to care for than conventional high-maintenance turf, and they help restore biodiversity because they don't disturb the surrounding natural habitat. Best of all, native grasses create a beautiful lawn. This groundbreaking guide tells you everything you need to know to choose, buy, plant, and maintain native lawns in every region.

  • Introduction: The New American Lawn, by Stevie Daniels
  • Planting a Native Grass Lawn Step by Step, by Stevie Daniels
  • Planting & Maintaining a Buffalograss Lawn, by Terrance P. Riordan
  • Low & Slow Fescues, by Stevie Daniels
  • Sedge Lawns for Every Landscape, by John Greenlee
  • Junegrass for Dry Sites Across the Country, by Stevie Daniels
  • Little Bluestem Blends for the East, by James C. Grimes
  • Meadow Gardens for the Northeast, by William A. Niering
  • Native Grasses for the Southeast, by Will Corley
  • Native Lawns for Florida, by Craig Huegel
  • Native Lawns for California, by Jeanne Wirka & John Anderson
  • Native Grasses for High Desert Landscapes, by Judith Phillips
  • Native Lawns for Colorado, by Jim Knopf
  • Native Grass Encyclopedia, by William A. Niering
  • Nursery Sources
  • Contributors
  • Index

Introduction: The New American Lawn

by Stevie Daniels

Fifteen years ago environmental concerns spurred the movement to reduce the size of the lawn or replace it with other plants. Back then, even in Colorado, parts of the Southwest, and California, where annual rainfall is 15 inches or less, turfgrasses native to Eurasia and adapted to double that amount of precipitation were considered the ideal. This practice put an unnecessary strain on limited water resources. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides used to keep the grass green and weed-free were degrading water quality and harming nontarget animals and plants.

As a result of these concerns, interest has grown in alternatives to the conventional lawn, including the use of native plants in more naturalistic landscape designs, xeriscaping or low-water landscaping, creating backyard wildlife habitat, planting wildflowers in home gardens and roadside plantings, replacing lawns with groundcovers, and restoring native plant communities. Meadow and prairie plantings have been popular and logical substitutes for lawns. Another strategy has been to take a more relaxed approach to lawn care: not fertilizing or controlling weeds, just mowing whatever grows.

A comparison of two lawns in Texas

A comparison of two lawns in Texas: water-guzzling, high-maintenance St. Augustinegrass (left) and drought-tolerant, native buffalograss '609' (right). [Photo: Terrance P. Riordan]

As I've traveled around the country exploring the landscapes of homeowners who've been growing native plants and establishing meadows or prairies, I've discovered that while many people want an alternative to their water- and chemical-dependent lawn, they don't always want a three-foot meadow. They still want a low-growing grassy area where children can play, or they can relax and entertain. I began to wonder, why have we become tied to using only nonnative species that need to be coddled with regular infusions of fertilizer, pesticides, and water? Why can't native grasses, which are better adapted to particular locales, be used in place of the imported turfgrasses? Why have we become mesmerized by the idea that a lawn has to look like a closely cropped green carpet?

I began replacing the lawn in my own yard with blends of native grasses, and I talked with native-grass experts about my idea. I discovered there are suitable grass species adapted to particular regions of the country. I also learned that this country has hundreds of locally adapted sedges (grasslike plants) that also can be used in place of a lawn.

The leading experts on native grasses and sedges have written chapters for this book. Five of the chapters that follow focus on specific grass or sedge varieties suitable for use across a wide geographic range. Another six chapters are written by either nursery owners or horticulturists from specific regions; they focus on the native grasses that are best suited to their areas and how to grow them. Still another chapter provides simple, step-by-step instructions on how to get your native grass lawn started. At the end of the book, you'll find profiles of the best native lawn grasses for every region, as well as a comprehensive list of seed suppliers.

Going Native

In the United States, 1,400 species of 170 genera of grass are indigenous. Of the 14 species that the Lawn Institute claims are suitable for turf, only two are native—buffalograss (Buchloë dactyloides), and red fescue (Festuca rubra). The typical lawngrasses—from Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) to bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon)—are not native.

The best example of a native grass being used for lawn—a great success story—is buffalograss. Native throughout the Great Plains, from Minnesota to Montana and south into Mexico, it grows where the soil is not too moist, too dry, or too shady. It can handle ­30°F and high heat. It has a fine, soft texture and spreads by stolons that root at the nodes or joints. Slow growing, it reaches a height of only 6 inches. Unlike most nonnative turfgrasses, buffalograss needs minimal water once established and no fertilizer. The first buffalograss cultivars bred specifically for lawn use were developed in the early 1990s by M. C. Engelke and his student (at the time), Virginia Lehman, of Texas A&M Experiment Station in Dallas, and Terrance P. Riordan, of the University of Nebraska (author of "Planting and Maintaining a Buffalograss Lawn").

Turfgrass researchers have also worked to improve fine fescues, a group that includes red, hard, and sheep fescue. These grasses are also slow growing, reaching a height of 8 inches. They can handle dry soil and extreme cold. They can take the heat of the upper South but do not do well in the extreme heat and humidity of the deep South. Until now, the new cultivars of these grasses have been considered a minor component in turfgrass blends that still contain mostly Kentucky bluegrass. In this book, you'll learn how to use them alone or with other native grasses.

Choosing a native grass or group of grasses suited to a particular locale is the way to create a true "natural" lawn. It doesn't have to be a 3-foot-high meadow -- the grasses and sedges you will read about in this book 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.

An additional benefit is that you will be restoring the native sod found in open sunny areas before agriculture and development transformed regional American landscapes. Lawns of nonnative species interrupt the natural landscape, breaking up the continuum of native habitats and contributing to the loss of biodiversity.

In some cases, you actually will be helping to prevent the disappearance of important forage and habitat grasses. For instance, junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) once grew widely across Pennsylvania, but due to agriculture, urban development, and the reversion of open areas back to forest, it is rare to find it now. In Florida, wiregrass and pinewoods dropseed at one time covered more than 50 percent of the state. Now they are found only in small preserves. Meanwhile, homeowners across that state struggle with irrigation systems, pests, and diseases while trying to maintain St. Augustinegrass, bahiagrass, or zoysia.

A number of the native species suitable for use in a lawnlike planting are naturally low growing (5 to 6 inches), which means they can be left unmowed if desired. Others grow somewhat taller and send up attractive seed-bearing stems. For homeowners who prefer a smoother appearance, both the short and tall types can be cut once or twice during the growing season. Since you will be creating habitat for small mammals, ground-nesting birds, and other wildlife, it is important to avoid cutting during nesting times; thus, very early spring or late fall are the best times to mow.

Native grasses, like nonnatives, can be divided into two main groups based on their growing habits: cool-season grasses, those that grow best in spring and fall, bloom and set seed in late spring or early summer, grow slowly or go dormant in summer, and stay green into winter; and warm-season, those that do most of their growing in the hot summer, bloom and set seed in the fall, and turn beige or other interesting colors when cold weather arrives. You can try blending a warm-season and a cool-season grass to extend the time the planting looks green, although the result might be a little uneven, depending on which grass dominates in a particular spot.

Another characteristic of grasses that will help you understand how to grow and manage them is growth habit. The two main types are bunch and spreading (or sod-forming). A bunchgrass grows in a circular clump, getting larger each year. Spreading grasses send out stolons (stems that grow along the soil surface and root at the joints) or rhizomes (underground stems that root and send up new plants away from the original plant). Most warm-season grasses are bunch types. They do not spread and fill in thickly as does a sod-forming or rhizomatous grass. Because they don't fill in thickly, you will need to sow seed at a higher rate to prevent broadleaf weeds from getting established, or you can use the opportunity to interplant low-growing wildflowers.

Another important thing to understand is why turfgrass is usually sold in mixtures. The goal is to plant the blend of grasses best suited to a site that will fill in thickly to keep weeds out. The blend ideally includes species that germinate quickly and cover the ground to give slower ones time to get started, species that are adapted to dry spots, others adapted to wet areas, and some that can tolerate light shade. The same should be true of native turfgrass mixtures. If you plant little bluestem and blue grama, the little bluestem will migrate to moister areas and the blue grama to drier areas.

A New Lawn Aesthetic

Like any natural landscape, a native lawn is not created by a "just let it go" approach. Nor is it inexpensive. You can expect to pay the same or slightly more than you would to install a new conventional lawn. A native lawn also requires just as much care in selecting the plant mix. The difference is you will be creating a landscape that is sustainable. Once established, a native lawn will require vastly less maintenance than a conventional lawn. If you desire a perfectly manicured lawn, you might want to weigh that desire with the costs to keep it that way.

The information about using native grasses and sedges for lawns is new and still evolving. This book is the first to provide guidance for regions throughout the country. Some of you who try it will be pioneering, especially if you experiment with blends of species or choose a grass that is native to your area but has not been tried in a lawn planting.

To some extent, your satisfaction will depend on accepting an aesthetic based on the beauty of your natural landscape. Look at open meadows in natural settings -- that's the vision toward which we are moving.

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