With the drought expected to continue in Texas and other states into spring, interest has been growing in a native turfgrass that could revolutionize lawn care approaches.
Most lawns in Texas and elsewhere consist of Bermudagrass or other species that are not native and require extra pampering to stay healthy. But for parents like Mark Simmons, director of the Ecosystem Design Group at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, tearing the lawn out would mean robbing kids of a natural playscape. "Many people are going to prefer using thick, dense grass before resorting to stone and cacti-heavy yards," said Simmons.
Other landowners may want to reduce their water consumption, yet don't want to give up on the way conventional grass looks and feels. To overcome such challenge, Simmons and Center staff have developed a more sustainable grass mix called HABITURF™ with research funded by Wal-Mart. The mix of three native grasses provides a low-maintenance alternative that requires less watering and mowing than non-native grasses.
HABITURF™ thrives under extreme weather conditions, needing significantly less watering than non-natives such as St. Augustine. Once established, HABITURF™ needs twice monthly watering to remain green and a mere once a month watering to survive in a dormant state, whereas St. Augustine demands a weekly watering schedule.
A mix of native grasses found in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, the native turfgrass also grows much slower than non-native turfgrasses. Due to its high density, HABITURF™ has fewer weeds and pests than Bermudagrass, which draws armyworms and mole crickets. The thick native grass holds up under moderate foot traffic and does well under full or 50 percent sunlight.
HABITURF™ has been under development at the Wildflower Center since 2007. Introduced to the public in August, it has quickly become a popular product at the Center. More than $3,000 worth of seed was sold in one weekend during the Center's Annual Plant Sale and Gardening Festival.
The Center has partnered with seed distributors such as Douglas King Seeds to commercialize the product. The Wildflower Center will receive six percent of sales from this distributor, which will go towards funding development of turfgrasses similar to HABITURF™ tailored to different U.S. climates. The number of grasses may vary in each mix, with the key being having a combination that provides an advantage over single-species alternatives in terms of being adaptable at handling whatever conditions a lawn experiences.
Simmons points out that even native grasses require soil preparation. Weeds and dead grass should be removed before planting. "It would be nice to drop the seed into the ground and have the grass grow as if it is some magic seed from the Land of Oz," Simmons said, but "the soil needs to be tilled and fertilized with organic compost."
Simmons noted the biggest reason lawns traditionally fail is that seeds are planted at the wrong time. "In Texas and other Southwestern states, it's best to do your soil preparation in February and plant in March once the soil starts to warm up." That way, he noted, new grasses can establish strong roots before the heat of summer.
Three to 4 pounds of seed are needed for every 1,000 square feet of lawn. HABITURF™ is for sale in 1 pound and 2 pound bags at the Center's store.