Grass Powered

by | Nov 1, 2012 | Native Plants

FOR HALF A CENTURY, a prized green lawn in the United States meant fighting against nature – taking a once-balanced grassland ecosystem and turning it into an unnatural monoculture in need of an arsenal of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, along with gallons of water and gasoline and hours of work mowing and weeding. Increased awareness of how maintaining an emerald-green lawn can contaminate water and air has given traditional turfgrass a bad rap.

At the same time, our understanding of native plants and their use in yards and lawns has grown. Scientists and landscapers are working together to create lawns using a combination of native grasses that allow homeowners to have a thriving lawn that can be easier on the environment.

Lawns serve a purpose and are an intrinsic part of the American lifestyle. Imagine kicking a soccer ball through beds of mealy blue sage (Salvia farinacea) or having a backyard barbeque while dodging spiky cacti and succulents. And sometimes it just feels good to have a barefoot stroll with cool, soft grass underfoot.

Native grasses can allow many homeowners to have it all – a lawn as attractive as traditional turf without the hefty environmental price tag. Austin- and Phoenix-based landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck says, “It just makes all the sense in the world to use the plants that thrive here naturally. They can take the heat and the cold, are insectfree, and don’t need fertilizer. You don’t have to deny yourself having a lawn, but use these tough native plants that belong here.”

From a design perspective, Ten Eyck adds, “We use lawn as a foreground for other plantings. It gives people that lushness that we all crave living in a hot region.”.

Ten Eyck first used native grasses on residential projects in West Texas and since has incorporated them into residential landscapes in other parts of Texas, Arizona and Oklahoma. She relies mostly on buffalograss sod but also uses blue grama and sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula).

At a Marfa residence, Ten Eyck incorporated buffalograss sod in a cozy walled backyard, providing a child-friendly play space as well as attractive backyard entertaining and a comfy way to enter and exit the pool. At a West Texas ranch where she again used buffalograss and a variety of other native grasses, it’s hard to tell where the planted grasses end and where the vast Chihuahuan desert that surrounds the ranch begins.

In an effort to create lawns that need fewer resources, Wildflower Center scientists have developed a multi-species perennial native grass blend called Habiturf™ made up of buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides), blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and curly mesquite (Hilaria belangeri). The mix looks and feels like other lawns and performs well in full sun or partial shade with moderate foot traffic – requiring less water, less frequent mowing and fewer amendments once established. With an extensive root system, the grasses go dormant during periods of drought or high heat but revive once conditions improve.

All three species thrive in dry prairie habitats. Buffalograss and blue grama are native from the central plains of southern Canada to central Mexico, while curly mesquite is native from Central Texas west to Arizona and south to the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon.

Inspired by the grasslands of his native England, the Center’s Ecosystem Design Group director, Mark Simmons, sought to replicate a grassland ecosystem that he’d studied in regions such as Box Hill on the chalk downlands in southern England and the grasslands of southern Africa. These ecosystems are maintained by animals and receive enough air, water and nutrients to make additional fertilizers or pesticides unnecessary.

Simmons says, “By studying and copying the processes and components found in these balanced ecosystems, we can create more sustainable landscapes.”

Commercially available since January 2011, Habiturf lawns are flourishing. Simmons receives photos from happy homeowners eager to show off their beautiful, low-maintenance native lawns. He is always on the lookout for future uses for native lawns such as green roofs, miniature prairie landscapes that include tiny flowering plants to improve habitat value for beneficial insects, and ecological lawns for rainy locales.

Written by Andrea Abel