Whether or not global warming is the culprit, many cities are facing water shortages, and conservation measures are resulting in the browning of lawns.
Despite dwindling water supplies, there may still be a way to grow enough verdant parkland to toss that Frisbee around or drum up a game of flag football: replace existing turf with native grasses!
A typical Kentucky bluegrass or Bermuda grass lawn can soak up over fifty inches of water every year (requiring two to three inches of supplemental water every week during the summer). Many native grasses only need one-half to one inch weekly during the height of hot weather.
Not all native grasses are suitable for lawns. Most bunchgrasses, for example, don’t lend themselves well to uniform lawns. However, several other varieties do create mats of continuous turf that compete very well with weeds, and many cultivars have been adapted specifically for use in residential settings.
A perennial plant native to the Great Plains, this grass supported the vast herds of buffalo that once roamed America’s prairies. Buffalo grass also supplied the sod from which early settlers constructed their homes.
Selection and adaptation have produced varieties like “Prairie”, “609”, “Prestige”, “Legacy” and “UC Verde”. Buffalo grass seed germinates poorly, so using plugs is the most economical and sure way to establish a buffalo grass lawn.
Buffalo grass will grow in most soil types but prefers heavier clay-like soils. Unless mowed, it will grow up to six inches tall.
Buffalo grass doesn’t do well in areas that receive less than a half-day of sunshine or where rainfall exceeds 30 inches annually. Some varieties (e.g., “Legacy”) are more tolerant of heavy foot traffic.
Another Great Plains native, blue grama is known for its “eyelash” seed heads. It can grow up to 15 inches high, but it can also be mowed monthly to maintain a soft, traditional lawn.
“Hachita” is the best-known and most vigorous cultivar of blue grama. It grows well in both clay and sandy soils. Blue grama seed germinates well, so both seed and plugs can be used to establish a new lawn.
Blue grama grass is particularly well-adapted to “short-grass prairie” landscapes. Whether intermingled with native wildflowers and other perennials or mowed to a length of two to three inches, one can use the same grass variety to create a xeric, low-maintenance area right beside an expanse of traditional lawn.
Fescues, a genus of about 300 species, are perennial, cool-season grasses that are native to Canada and the northern US. Unlike many other native grasses, fescues are relatively shade tolerant.
Fescue seed germinates well, so reseeding is the usual method used to establish a lawn. Fescue’s water needs are slightly higher than other native grasses at 30 – 40 inches annually, but still less than that required by Kentucky bluegrass or Bermuda.
Dwarf fescue and other fine-leafed varieties make the best fescue lawns.
Although not native to the US (the genus originated in southeast Asia), Zoysia has found a place in xeric American landscapes. It is extremely drought-tolerant (although it will turn brown under severe drought conditions).
Zoysia also turns brown after the first autumn frost, but it is one of the first grasses to become green the following spring.
Zoysia is tolerant to a wide variety of soils as long as they are well-drained, and it grows reasonably well in shade in warmer southern climates. In cooler areas, it is probably less tolerant of shade than the fescues.
Zoysia forms a compact sod, and plugging is the most common means of establishing a lawn.
Native and other drought-tolerant grasses offer a means for water-deprived homeowners to maintain their lawns. These alternatives to Kentucky bluegrass or Bermuda grass require far less water, tolerate a wide variety of soils and light conditions, and usually require mowing—for people who insist on maintaining short turf—less frequently…often only once each month.
The only question that remains is: Why has everyone waited so long to plant a water-wise lawn?