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Friday - June 11, 2010

From: Colorado Springs, CO
Region: Rocky Mountain
Topic: Grasses or Grass-like
Title: Native grasses for medians in Colorado Springs
Answered by: Nan Hampton, Mark Simmons and Steve Windhager


Our city has stopped watering our historic landscaped medians due to severe budget shortfalls. The medians were historically tree boulevards but have had curb and gutter and blue grass added over the years. Is there a native grass that we could use to overseed the bluegrass that would thrive with once a week deep watering for the trees in the medians? I heard a speaker from your center talk about experiments with different types of grasses at the National Public Gardens Association conference in St. Louis last year. NOTE that I live in Colorado Springs. Many thanks.


You can read about the research on turfgrasses that the Wildflower Center has been conducting in our article, Native Lawns.  We also have two How to Articles—Native Lawns: Buffalograss and Native Lawns: Multi-Species.  Two of the grasses—Bouteloua dactyloides (buffalograss) and Bouteloua gracilis (blue grama)—are native to Colorado, but Hilaria belangeri (curly-mesquite) does not occur naturally in Colorado.  There is, however, a closely-related Colorado native warm-season grass, Pleuraphis jamesii [syn. Hilaria jamesii] (James' galleta), that is has a similar size and growth pattern that could be subsituted for the curly-mesquite.  There are two potential problems with overseeding with buffalograss or a mixture of the two grasses (buffalograss and blue grama) native to Colorado:

1.  Unless the bluegrass is removed, any plants produced by seeding with buffalograss or a mixture of buffalograss and blue grama will not be able to overtake and out-compete the established bluegrass.

2.  You say that there are trees growing in the medians.  Buffalograss and blue grama need several hours of full sun to grow well.  They can manage in some dappled shade as long as they have had several hours of full sun as well.  If, however, the trees create a dense shade, buffalograss and blue grama will not flourish.

Bluegrass does require considerable watering to do well.  With one watering per week the blue grass might be able to survive but won't look good—native grass will do well and stay green.  So, I think you would need to remove the blue grass to insure that it doesn't compete with the native grasses.  If supplemental watering is stopped completely the bluegrass is surely going to die—the native grasses will survive although they will turn brown without summer watering.  Since the look of your medians are definitely going to change, our ecologist at the Wildflower Center, Dr. Mark Simmons, suggests that you might want to introduce a campaign of education for having "brown'" medians for part of the year.  You could start with a small high profile area and reseed with native warm season short grasses (buffalograss and blue grama where there is sufficient sun) and include the most reliable spring/summer wildflowers to create a mini-meadow effect.  Wildflowers selected that tolerate dry conditions and have a long bloom period combined with the native grasses should give you medians that can be attractive for the spring and, at least, the early summer.  As an example, the medians in the streets around Stanford University in Palo Alto, California are not watered. (The average rainfall in Palo Alto is 15.32" and the majority of the rain occurs in December, January, and February; whereas, the average rainfall in Colorado Springs is 17.40" and is relatively evenly distributed throughout the year.)  In the winter the medians are seeded with a mixture of grasses and wildflowers and they resemble mini-meadows during the spring and early summer.  They eventually turn brown in the summer.  For your area of Colorado there are warm season non-turf grasses that are attractive both in their green state and in their dry state (e.g., Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem), Bouteloua curtipendula (sideoats grama)—both tolerate some shade).  Some possible wildflowers for your area that are tolerant of dry conditions are Delphinium nuttallianum (twolobe larkspur) blooms March through July, Liatris punctata (dotted blazing star) blooms August through October, Melampodium leucanthum (plains blackfoot) blooms March through November, Machaeranthera tanacetifolia (tanseyleaf tansyaster) blooms May through October, and Penstemon barbatus (beardlip penstemon) blooms June through October.  You can find more on our Colorado Recommended page.  In order to get these grasses and wildflowers established they will need water, either from winter and spring rains and/or supplemental watering.  Once they are established, however, they won't require supplemental watering.  The perennial grasses will turn brown at the end of their season and leave their stalks standing which, to my eye, are very attractive in themselves.  The perennial wildflowers will brown but their roots remain to grow next season and the annuals, left unmowed till seed set, should reseed themselves.  You are going to have to do some surveying and educating, however, to convince most people that brown medians are attractive and acceptable.

Colorado State University Extension has a very good article on native ornamental grasses for different habitats in the state.

Bouteloua dactyloides

Bouteloua dactyloides

Bouteloua gracilis

Bouteloua gracilis

Schizachyrium scoparium

Schizachyrium scoparium

Bouteloua curtipendula

Bouteloua curtipendula


Pleuraphis jamesii

Pleuraphis jamesii

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