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Saturday - February 06, 2010

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Compost and Mulch, Grasses or Grass-like
Title: Native grass for caliche soil in Austin
Answered by: Barbara Medford


I am interested in using native grasses in part of my lawn per the recent article on these from the Wildflower Center. The problem is I live W. of Austin where there is very little top soil and caliche almost immediately. The recommended planting suggested turning the soil 8" down. That would probably take an air hammer in my back yard. Is there an alternative solution? I hope so, because I'd really like to plant native grass. Thanks so much.


We assume the article you are referring to is our How-To Article on Native Lawns. Even with the disadvantages of your soil, you probably realize that the natives, which have evolved in that kind of soil, will have a much better chance than the non-natives like St. Augustine. We have no personal experience with any of the tilling options that were mentioned in the article, but would suggest you go to a rental operation and talk to the people there. Possibly the soil could be more malleable now that we have had some rain, or there is equipment specifically for that kind of soil. We quite agree that it is tough to hear "CLANK" when you stick a shovel in the ground, but a few hours of rental fees might save your back and your lawn. Also, that article recommends mixing in some good compost in the top of your soil, so have that ready on hand, and get it tilled while you still have the equipment. Use a lot; it will help with drainage, nutrition and soil texture, which is your biggest problem.

Now, let's talk a bit about caliche. Those of us who grew up in West Texas thought that was what all dirt looked like, except for the sand in the sandstorms in the mid-1950's. "Caliche" is calcium carbonate, and the name comes from the Spanish word for lime. Read this Arizona Master Gardeners article on Conquering Home Yard Caliche. They recommend either putting down 8 inches of topsoil (for lawns) or digging chimneys out of the soil, replacing the caliche in the holes with topsoil and compost. In both cases, they recommend removing the caliche. 

So, guess what? In our Native Plant Database Recommended Species section, there are 17 grasses or grass-like plants recommended for Central Texas, of which 10 are listed as growing in caliche soils or having high tolerance of calcium carbonate, or both. And, in the online Catalog of Native American Seeds, there is a Caliche Mix, specially composed to give good coverage in that type of soil. This, however, is a Full Sun mix, which we consider to be 6 or more hours a day of sunlight.  Now you have your choice of how to put native grasses into caliche soil: dig out the caliche, cover the caliche, learn to live with the caliche.

Grasses native to Central Texas with high calcium carbonate tolerance and/or grow in caliche:

Andropogon gerardii (big bluestem) - high tolerance

Bouteloua curtipendula (sideoats grama) - medium tolerance

Bouteloua dactyloides (buffalograss) - caliche soil

Bouteloua hirsuta (hairy grama) - high tolerance, grows in caliche

Dasylirion texanum (Texas sotol) - caliche soil

Hilaria belangeri var. belangeri (curly-mesquite) - caliche soil

Muhlenbergia reverchonii (seep muhly) - caliche soil

Nolina texana (Texas sacahuista) - caliche soil

Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem) - high tolerance

Sorghastrum nutans (Indiangrass) - high tolerance

From our Native Plant Image Gallery:

Andropogon gerardii

Bouteloua curtipendula

Bouteloua dactyloides

Bouteloua hirsuta

Dasylirion texanum

Hilaria belangeri var. belangeri

Muhlenbergia reverchonii

Nolina texana

Schizachyrium scoparium

Sorghastrum nutans







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