Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
A Changing Landscape
LAST SUMMER AND FALL, MY HUSBAND, Andreas, spent virtually every moment he was not at his demanding desk job – or sleeping – holding a pitchfork and/or pick axe and wearing a blue bandana beneath his baseball cap. His job was to till through clay soil to clear our landscape and start anew.
He collected 50 24-gallon bags of mulch that had been installed by the previous owners of our home, who had wanted to avoid the "watering and maintenance that plants require." The few plants left were overgrown agapantha, bougainvillea, and non-native irises and tea roses.
Like others who have taken on landscaping projects, we underestimated the amount of time our task would take. So when the rains came predictably in early December, Andreas was still tilling and weeding, although he traded the bandana/baseball cap duo for raingear. Passersby seemed to always choose rainy, dark evenings to ask a tired and surly gardener what he was planning to do with the yard. "Lawn," he'd say. "From a native grass. I'm seeding it."
The neighbor: "Lawn? You want all that grass? You'll have to water! You'll have to mow!" (I should point out that where we live, near the border of Berkeley, California, is far from typical suburbia. Lawn is uncommon, in some cases probably because traditional lawn has been torn out by our many ecominded neighbors and in other cases because you rarely see a yard more than 30 feet deep. Many of the postage-stamp lots are home to appropriate if not native drought-tolerant plants.)
Listening from the window, I'd usually come outside to the rescue. I would explain how our research had uncovered two California native grasses (Molate red fescue [Festuca rubra 'Molate'] and San Diego bentgrass [Agrostis pallens]) that could tolerate drought in our area and could withstand minimal mowing so that it would resemble the appearance of turf. The bentgrass is even said to need 50 percent less water than leading non-native turfgrass. Then I'd show them the lawn we had seeded earlier in the year that we hadn't watered much (and which hadn't yet received a lot of rain) since we got it established.
The neighbor would always then reassume what I call the "I'm so busy major metropolitan area resident" look and say their goodbyes.
We were left wondering if we'd been wrong to want our young boys to have a modest area to romp at home, to have something to step on curbside and not get swallowed by neckhigh agapantha and pricked by rose thorns as they made their way from the car through the mostly-mulch landscape. After all, we'd used nothing synthetic and as little water as we could to get the lawn started.
I asked the Center's director of research and consulting, Mark Simmons, Ph.D., who conducts research on droughttolerant native Texas turfgrass species, what he thought. "In trying to educate people that the way traditional turf grass has been managed is not sustainable, the message has come across that all lawn is bad," Simmons told me.
"The lawn is a natural landscape. Short grasslands occur in nature throughout the world and grow without artificial irrigation. It's the way we've approached the suburban lawn that is to blame, not lawn itself. There are – as we know – grasses that can be used as lawn that need few resources. Like with any native plant you choose, though, you'll have to find a grass that is well-adapted to your drought-prone spot."
I thought of the green grassy hillsides near our home and of the few native grass lawns I'd seen – a few of Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides), including one display area at the Wildflower Center and a couple in California also created from the grass species we'd used in our yard. I remembered how when I looked at purchasing sod of the native species we'd selected for our yard (one of the few commercially available native sod blends) the price was five times that of the traditional non-native sod.
I thought about the seed suppliers who market the species we used for erosion control purposes and wondered whether at our home the grass would work to keep some of that frequent winter stormwater that falls on the slight slope of our side yard from seeping downstream, polluting as it goes. There are a lot of unknowns about native grasses and whether particular grasses will solve particular ecological problems. Thanks to research from the Wildflower Center and other places like it, more is known about how if the right grass is chosen for the right place, homeowners like me may be able to have their lawn – and water it less.
— Christina Kosta Procopiou, Editor