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How to Articles: Native Lawns: HABITURF™ - the ecological lawn

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Ever wondered how to grow bluebonnets, collect rainwater or create a garden that attracts wildlife? The articles listed below contain a wealth of information that will help you transform your yard into a Native Plant landscape.

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Native Lawns: HABITURF™ - the ecological lawn


How to Install A Multi-Species Native Lawn That Involves Less Mowing, Less Water, Less Weeding - And Yes, Less Guilt

The Wildflower Center has developed a mixture of native grass species that works well in dry regions of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. Here are instructions for establishing a native lawn for these climates.

watering native lawns

The Mix.
From research here at the Wildflower Center that was originally funded by Walmart, we have found that a mix of Bouteloua dactyloides (buffalograss), Bouteloua gracilis (blue grama) and Hilaria belangeri (curly-mesquite) and other species needs less mowing, watering and weeding and also replicates nature's shortgrass prairies. Although the species are different, these grasses have almost identically shaped leaves and color and produce a great-looking, even-textured, dense lawn that does well in full sun but also tolerates some percent shade. It will not grow under dense shade. The turf should have at least 4 - 5 hours of direct sun during the growing season. The seed mix is available from Douglass King Seeds Company. For every 1,000 square feet you will need about 3 to 4 pounds of HABITURF™.

A well-textured, well-drained soil is essential for long-term lawn success. Normally, after construction, developers spread a couple of inches of imported soil over soil compacted by heavy construction machinery. A sustainable lawn needs deep roots, so rip, till or disk your soil to at least 8 inches - the deeper the better. Then incorporate a 1/2 inch layer of living compost into the top 3 inches of your prepared soil. Ask your local plant nursery for recommendations. DO NOT use tree bark, wood shavings or mulch. Grass won't grow in this. The soil surface should be finished to a fine granular texture and free from large stones. Note: If you are on undisturbed, uncompacted native soils then till lightly and add 1/4 inch compost into the top 1 inch or alternatively add a compost tea. Whatever you add make sure it has some organic form of nitrogen - this helps healthy seedlings. Additionally, depending on soil conditions, multiple treatments of organic fertilizer during the first months can be used if you see slower growth or 'yellowing' of the young leaves.

Sow the seed - the small, hand-cranked seed broadcasters are great or by hand - and rake and press with a garden roller or your feet. Seeds need good soil contact. Spring is the best sowing time once soil temperatures warm up (day time temperatures constantly above 85F). Later in the growing season also works well but will require more water. Avoid sowing in late fall and winter (October through mid-March). It’s a good idea to retain a small proportion of the seed to fill in any gaps that occur in the first few weeks. Store seed indoors in a cool (not frozen) location.

watering native lawns

The lawn area should be irrigated every day for the first 10 days or longer, up to 15 days, under very hot, dry or windy conditions to prevent the soil from drying out. Thereafter, two soil-wetting (top 4 inches of soil) events per week for the next month, then two soil-wetting (top 6 inches of soil minimum) events per month for the remainder of the growing season which is March through November. Remove weeds as they appear, before they go to seed or become too established. Once the lawn is established in three to four months, you may opt to stop irrigating to save water and allow the lawn to go 'drought dormant'. The native grasses will go brown and temporarily stop growing but, adapted to drought, will green-up once rain returns. In prolonged drought (say over 6 weeks in summer with no rain) an irrigation event (if allowed) once every 5 - 6 weeks while not triggering "green-up" will keep the dormant turf alive.

LEFT Native Lawn Research Plots containing different native grass mixtures and some contain bermudagrass. In comparison studies, the native grass mixtures compared well in texture and density to the bermudagrass. MIDDLE When mowed to about four inches, the native grass mix forms dense, fine-leaved turf softer than common bermudagrass or St. Augustine. RIGHT As an option allowing the grass to seed-out once a year, produces a softer longer appearance and allows the grasses to set seed providing a good seed bank - insurance against drought, heavy foot traffic and weeds. It also provides high habitat value.

Less is more.

Simulating the natural conditions in a native grassland -- low-nutrient soils, native grasses, occasional rainfall, occasional grazing -- can help us achieve a sustainable, healthy native lawn. So:

· Prepare the soil. Prairie soil takes thousands of years to form, you will need to kick-start yours with the techniques mentioned above.
· Use appropriate native species. If they couldn't take the heat they wouldn't be here.
· Mow less. Natives grow much slower than overfed St. Augustine and bermudagrass.
· Irrigate with occasional deep water events and rainfall, and maybe let it go dormant in summer.
· Minimize nutrient inputs. Native prairies aren't synthetically fertilized.

For more information and to see how our on-going native lawn research holds up go to our website: http://www.wildflower.org/nativelawns/


We suggest a 3 to 4 inch cut for a great-looking, dense turf, resistant to weeds and light to moderate foot traffic. However, a 6- inch cut will produce a beautiful deeper lawn with a few seed heads if watered. Mow once every 3 to 5 weeks when growing and not at all when drought or cold dormant. Mowing shorter - 2 inches or less- will damage your lawn's health. Conversely, not mowing at all through the growing season will produce a longer turf (8 inches or so high) with a lower density. This may be acceptable depending on how you use your lawn. However, allowing the grass to seed-out once a year, perhaps when you go on vacation, guarantees a good seed bank - insurance against drought, heavy foot traffic and weeds. It also provides high habitat value.

Make sure that the lawn overwinters as a think lush turf greater than 4 inches high. Observations have clearly shown that this dramatically reduces weeds the following spring - such as clover, dandelions and thistles. This means that the last mow should be a high (> 4 inches) mow and no later than Mid-October.

If you return the grass cuttings directly to the soil, annual feeding should not be necessary. A healthy, living soil with live compost plus the natural 'rain' of airborne nutrients will be sufficient to keep your lawn at ecological equilibrium just like a natural prairie. But for high-use lawns with children and/or pets, or on freely-draining soils, a fall dressing with a low-nutrient, living compost or compost tea plus aeration with a garden fork will certainly help.

* If you do not prepare the soil adequately, your lawn will suffer be less drought resistant and you will get weeds
* If you mow too often and too short, you will get weeds
* If you over-water, you will get weeds
* If you over-fertilize, you will get big weeds

For more information and to see how our native lawn research holds up go to our website: http://www.wildflower.org/nativelawns/ and the research paper.


Download a HABITURF™ brochure (pdf)

Purchase 2 lb Bag of Habiturf Seed

The HABITURF™ grass mix is currently available for sale online from the Wildflower Center Store and may also be purchased from Douglas King Seeds. All of your purchases from the Store benefit the research and educational programs at the Wildflower Center.


Frequently Asked Questions

Where can I get the seed?
At the Wildflower Center Store, Douglass King Seeds, or Native American Seeds

How much seed should I use?
About 3 – 5 lb per 1000 square feet. The more the quicker it will in fill. Good idea to reserve about 1/10th of your seed to fill in any gaps that appear after a couple of weeks.

What species are in the mix?
Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides), blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and curly-mesquite (Hilaria belangeri) and depending on the source: Texas grama (Bouteloua rigidiseta,) hairy Grama (Bouteloua hirsuta), poverty dropseed (Sporobolus vaginiflorus).

How much water does it need?
One watering every two weeks to keep green once established – BUT you can do less and it will go dormant – only to recover once watering or rainfall starts again.

How must I prepare the soil?
A well-textured, well-drained soil is essential for long term lawn success. Rip, rotovate or disk your soil to at least 8" - the deeper the better. Then incorporate a ½" of living compost with a low nitrogen and low phosphorus content into the top 3" of your prepared soil.

How often must I mow?
Its up to you how long you want it, and depends on how much water it received, but under spring conditions once every 2 weeks at 4 - 6 inches height looks great. And in the heat of the summer once a month is OK if watered. If not then stop mowing until it greens up. You can mow once a year if you like a longer shag-pile look. Always return mow clippings to the lawn.

How often must I fertilize?
Never for lightly used lawns if you prepared the soil correctly. Otherwise a fall dressing with a low-nutrient, living-compost or compost tea plus an aeration (with a garden fork or similar tool) will certainly help.

Should I remove my current lawn before I sow a native one?
Yes, you should remove all above and belowground plant material prior to preparation of the soil. For a dead or dying existing lawn you have a few options. A.) Give a good watering wait a week and then spot spray with a herbicide any green shoots. A follow up spray a week later will get remaining living shoots. B.) Non-chemical solarization also works by simply placing clear plastic tarp over the lawn for four to six weeks (this essentially cooks the grass roots). C.) Physical removal of top 2-3 inches of soil and plant material for small areas you can do this with gardening tools, or rent a bob-cat. Alternatively, there are lawn care services that can do this for you and prepare the soil (see instructions above under "Soil") as well.


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