Native Grasses for Your Native Lawn

Photo © Todd Valley Farms

Once you’ve made the decision to install a native lawn there are several choices that can be made in regards to aesthetics, best practices, and your local conditions.

Photo © Julie Orr

When converting to a native lawn, you have the opportunity to re-imagine the entire space and make efficient use of the open areas. In the ‘lawn’ above, the landowner has made the open green space a part of the garden design with a blend of unmowed red fescues. It is primarily ornamental but is short and rugged enough to invite foot traffic.

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Photo © Todd Valley Farms

Cool season grasses are green in the spring and all through fall, whereas warm season grasses will green-up as summer temps turn the heat up.

Determining the lawn’s use will help with selecting the most appropriate species to install. Some native species are rhizomatous, or stoloniferous like the buffalograss above, creating dense sod, while others are bunch grasses that can either grow close enough together to form turf or slightly spaced for a more ornamental look. Ask yourself what will be the primary purpose of the lawn and how much foot traffic will it potentially receive? Will it be be strictly ornamental or will the lawn be used as a family picnic area or for light recreational play?

Photo © tfross99

The little lawn pictured above is used by this homeowner much the same way traditional, non-native turf is used. This lawn consists of mowed clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis), a native to most of the U.S and Canada. Sedges are an excellent grass-like alternative when selecting plant species for your native lawn. Below is young sedge lawn, just beginning to get established.

Susan Harris (2)

Photo © Susan Harris

Before you begin the conversion process, there are a few more points to consider to help determine which species, or mix of species, will perform best:

  • Warm or cool season grasses? Cool season grasses grow greenest with temperatures around 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Warm season grasses thrive in 85-95 degree heat. Cool season grasses may require more water to stay green in a hot summer and warm season grasses will go dormant and turn golden brown in areas with a cold winter.
  • Soil type and available moisture? Most native grasses, however, will do well in a variety of soils and require little watering.
  • Full sun or mostly shade? This will play a big part in limiting which species are suitable.
  • Personal preferences. Color, texture, and style are distinct in every variety and choosing the qualities that appeal to you will only add to the appreciation you’ll have.
  • Recommended native species commonly used in traditional turf replacement:

    Festuca rubra

    Photo © Valerie Schutz

    Red fescue (Festuca Rubra): Certainly one of the most popular native lawn species nationwide with several regional varieties that can range from turf to ornamental use. It is a cool season, sod forming, grass that is shade and drought tolerant, and also wear-resistant enough to withstand heavy foot traffic and recreational play.

    Susan Harris_Pennsylvania Carex

    Photo © Susan Harris

    Sedges (Carex spp): A very popular bunching, grass-like plant for use in both light-use turf and ornamental lawn applications. There are dozens of native varieties across the country that should appeal to any style of lawn and garden. This low growing, low maintenance plant provides multiple options for lawn replacement in various types of soil, sun, and climate.

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    Photo ©

    Seashore bentgrass (Agrostis pallens): One of the leading cool season, native lawn species throughout California and the Northwest. This dark green turf grass is incredibly durable and can withstand heavy traffic and low mowing heights. Seashore bentgrass thrives in both full sun and partial shade and is extremely drought tolerant.

    Forest & Kim Starr_StAugustine

    Photo © Forest & Kim Starr

    St. Augustine grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum): This beautifully thick and dark green, warm season grass is native to the southern half of the U.S. and parts of California. It grows well in a wide range of soils and survives dense shade, heavy traffic, and mild drought.

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    Photo © Todd Valley Farms

    Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides): Buffalograss is a warm season grass suitable for use in light traffic lawns. It is native throughout the central U.S. and is becoming popular in hybrids and native grass mixtures in the west. Buffalograss is short and slow growing, forming a dense sod. It is also high heat tolerant, staying green throughout the summer with low water requirements.

    Bouteloua gracilis lawn at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

    Photo © Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

    Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis): Often found mixed with buffalograss, blue grama is another very short, warm season grass that can handle light traffic. It is a bunch grass that will form turf and requires little maintenance in terms of weeding and mowing. Blue grama will also tolerate low nutrient soils and moderate drought.

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    Photo © Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

    Many lawns are often a mix of several species to provide the color and growth habits that are desirable as well as the seasonal stability that polycultures can offer. When it comes to native lawns you can also find several commercially available mixes. Here are some options for quick reference in acquiring native seed mixes.

    Habiturf: A warm season, native mix for Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. It has been developed to be a dense but soft-to-the-touch lawn that establishes quickly and, once established, requires very little resources.

    Native Mow-free: A cool season, fine fescue blend suitable for the northern half of the U.S. This low maintenance, versatile blend of three fescue species can be maintained as a turf lawn or left unmowed. It is very shade and cold tolerant, and requires little mowing.

    No mow: Suitable for cool season lawns throughout the northern half of the U.S., this mix will grow to a dense sod that will handle heavy traffic and block out weeds. It will establish quickly, thrive in full sun to partial shade, and is more drought tolerant than traditional turf grass.

    Once you have determined the native grass species that meet your needs, it is time to prepare the ground, sow the seed and begin the process of establishment.

    Continue on to to the next article:

    Installing and Maintaining a Native Lawn
    -Also see PART 1 in this series: Native Lawn FTW! (For The Win!)

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