Native Turf Grasses

9

I’m starting this post with a picture I’ve previously published in this blog.  At the risk of seeming repetitive, I want to explain why it speaks to me so strongly

The most contradictory aspect of the contemporary lawn is its fussy, problematic nature.  The modern American lawn cannot seem to survive without huge and continual inputs of chemicals, fertilizers, and labor. Indeed, gardeners have come to accept as gospel that turfgrass is inherently needy, an impractical fashion foisted on us Americans by English aristocrats.

This is the story you find in most critiques of the lawn.  I myself assumed this was the whole story until I stumbled upon the photograph in question.

It’s a study from the turn of the 20thcentury by the great photographer of Native American life, Edward S. Curtis, of a Piegan Indian encampment on the Montana prairie.  When I first looked at this, it was the surprisingly familiar, domestic nature of this scene that struck me.  The woman with the kettle has wandered out of her house, her tipi, into what constitutes her yard: an endless expanse of neat, short turf.

Who cared for this lawn?  No one, of course.  It flourished naturally over this vast acreage because it was the only kind of flora sufficiently tough to withstand the bitter winters and hot, dry summers of the region.  It was a lawn, and as intrinsically American as the woman who was the subject of the photograph.

There have been efforts in recent years to move from the Euro-centric lawn of imported grasses to one more like Curtis’ native model.  Agricultural universities in the Plains States have been experimenting with lawns composed of natives of the shortgrass prairie for some time.  Perhaps the most successful example of this is the “Habiturf” seed mix perfected by the late Mark Simmons for the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas.  A blend of three different native grasses, buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides), blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), and curly mesquite (Hilaria belangeri), this forms a soft, fine-textured turf that thrives with minimal watering and mowing in full sun in the semi-arid West; it is especially well adapted to the dry regions of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Habiturf Lawn

The turf industry in the eastern half of the United States has been slower to investigate native grasses, though there has been an interesting project at Cornell, where wildlflower gardener Krissy Boys Faust planted a native lawn of locally collected native grasses and forbs in 2009.  The basic grass of that lawn, poverty oat grass (Danthonia spicata) has also been under evaluation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service.  In the Midwest, researchers at the University of Minnesota have been working with prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) as a low-input turf for that state.

With conventional lawns coming under increasing attack for their unsustainable environmental and economic costs, I believe the interest in American turfgrasses can only increase. Personally, I’m curious – and excited – about where this will take our landscapes.

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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 30 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Essential Perennials, a guide to the best contemporary perennial flowers co-authored with Ruth Rogers Clausen and published by Timber Press.  I’m currently working on a book about ecological gardening with Larry Weaner.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.

 

Contact Tom by email

9 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t think the challenge to find low input and visually pleasing native grasses is nearly as great as finding those that are also able to withstand foot traffic and the other physical challenges that traditional turfgrass is expected to endure. In my experience, Koeleria macrantha would not be a great candidate for those uses. Completely aside from that, given climate change, it may also soon be due for renaming as May Grass.

    • I’d be very interested to hear about your experience, in particular with relation to prairie junegrass. Please share!

  2. Having lived in Austin, TX, I’m familiar with Habiturf and buffalo grass (also Bermuda and St. Augustine). I now live in east Texas and according to the local extension agent, there are no native grasses for our area. (I asked.) Buffalo grass won’t grow here apparently. People in this area take big pride in their lawns, lavishing them with herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and water. Their lawn IS their garden. My best guess is whatever new native turf is introduced will be on the market a long time before someone tries it here, and that’s kind of sad. There’s sort of an attitude that says, “We’ve always done it this way, and we always will.” I have native sedge in my backyard and LOVE it. That said, I was told by a local expert that only people in California grow sedge in their yards.

    • I know of many non-Californians who are growing sedge lawns. Pam Penick in Austin is doing it — see her book “Lawn Gone”. But I agree, the inertia in the lawn industry is immense. I do believe, though, that change is coming.

  3. Great post, thank you. Having lived in semi-arid, high-elevation Colorado for more than three decades, I’m still wondering why Buffalo grass and blue grama aren’t used more here. Industry pressure by Scott’s and the other companies invested in the East Coast / Kentucky Bluegrass style and products? Neighborhood peer pressure? People here are planting more blue gramas & little bluestem grasses but not as lawns. Think I will check in with CSU to see what they might be doing.
    An interesting, informative read and always a pleasure to see a photograph by the great Edward Curtis. Thanks again.

  4. Loved reading this. post. I have a lawnette of Danthonia spicata in my middle Tennessee garden and it is lovely. It grows well in dry soil in shadier locations, but, it doesn’t do well with competition from other plants so, it’s not completely maintenance free. it’s what I call lower maintenance… To keep it attractive, I weed out wildflowers that seed in it.

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