It’s a little rough around the edges. It stands a little taller and looks a little wilder. Native grasses sustained the heartland of America before the settlers came through the plains and prairies; it was there before the Native Americans and bison roamed the land.
Is native grass right for your lawn?
What Are Native Plants?
Native plants are those that are original to an area whether it be an immediate area or even a broader scope such as original to a state, country, or continent. The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service says they consider native plants species indigenous to a region at the time of European settlement.
The History of Native Grasses
When the settlers first made their way westward from the founding colonies, they were greeted with a wide expanse of native grasses across the plains and prairies. Gorgeous, unadulterated acres that rustled in the breeze and protected the underlying soil from erosion and degradation. Having evolved in the Americas, they needed no watering or fertilizing to thrive.
As populations moved westward, the native grasses commenced a decline that almost led to their demise. Well-heeled colonialists preferred to emulate the European grasses, and brought over many varieties from the continent — Kentucky bluegrass the most prevalent.
In addition to the introduction of competitors, several other factors contributed to the decline of native grasses. Among them:
- The settlers began to move across away from the original colonies exploring the interior of the country. Cattle and horses were allowed to graze on prairie grasses, sometimes in large herds as entire communities picked up to move west.
- Cowboys turned the prairies and grasslands into range territory as they drove thousands upon thousands of cattle to market. Native grasses were dangerously overgrazed.
- Settlements established and populations increased. The land where native grasses were once allowed to grow freely was now being lost to farmland cultivation.
- When farming first took hold, most of the farm power came from mules and horses. To feed these animals families had a grassy meadow for grazing. The introduction of mechanized tractors negated the need for grazing meadows and more land was lost to cultivation.
- Naturally occurring wildfires knocked down burgeoning wooded areas and promoted the reintroduction of young native grasses. Wildfire management saw a drastic reduction in natural fires and woodlands began to crowd out what little native grassland areas existed.
As populations continued to grow, and more land was dedicated to cities and cultivation, the native grass populations continued to dwindle. Americans’ love for well-tended turf became so well established that the nonnative grasses became a “traditional” lawn.
Fast forward to today. As consumers display an increased appreciation for conservation and sustainable lawns, interest in native grasses has grown. As interest in sustainability grows, more people are looking to rebuild native populations by planting natives species in their landscape, whether as ornamentals or in place of turf.
Types of Native Grasses
As grasses are one of the most bountiful flora on most of the continents across the globe, excluding Antartica, native grasses are taking on a major role in sustainable landscaping.
The types of native grasses available are divided into two classes, warm-season varieties or cool-season varieties. Within those two classes are both ornamental grasses and varieties suitable for turf.
Warm-season versus cool-season
Warm-season and cool-season grasses differ in their photosynthetic pathways, demanding slightly different growing conditions. Hence it’s important to understand the different types if you are choosing a native grass for your landscape.
- Need a minimum air temperature of 60 to 65℉ and soil temps of 50℉ for growth to begin.
- Produce most of their biomass in the hottest months of July to September.
- Optimum biomass production when average temps are 85 F to 95 F.
- Have a greater photosynthesis rate at higher temps to better utilize nitrogen and phosphorus.
- Better adapted to high-stress situations such as drought, high temperatures, and high oxygen/low carbon dioxide concentrations.
- Go dormant and turn brown in areas with a cold winter.
- Need a minimum air temperature of 40 to 42℉ for active shoot growth.
- The plants produce most of their biomass in the spring and late fall in cooler air and soil temperatures.
- Optimum biomass production when average temps are 65 to 75℉.
- Require more water to stay green in a hot summer.
Sod-Forming and Bunch-Type Native Grasses
We are all familiar with the standard concept of turfgrass — the sod-forming types that spread by runners above and below ground. Some native grasses form sod, but most are “bunch type” grasses, which grow in separate clumps. A few of the bunch types can be planted so closely together that they form a turf-like surface, but most like a little elbow room. That means most native grasses are ornamental — they make your landscape look good with very little maintenance, but they’re not a turf substitute.
Others are prairie grasses meant to grow tall.
That means most native grasses are ornamental — they make your landscape look good with very little maintenance, but they’re not a turf substitute.
Some of the most widely used ornamental and prairie natives include big bluestem, little bluestem, sorghastrum nutans (indiangrass), and panicum virgatum (switchgrass).
Advantages and Disadvantages of Native Grasses
Native grasses have some advantageous reasons for including them in your yard, but they also present some very distinct disadvantages.
- Consume less water, more drought resistant.
- More hardy than developed species.
- Increased resistance to pests, insects, and diseases.
- Encourages animal biodiversity and wildlife habitats in open areas.
- Significantly fewer weeds due to increased leaf density.
- Sequesters carbon dioxide from global warming.
- More native ornamental grasses than turf species.
- Takes more effort at first, as sod-type native grasses are harder to establish as a lawn.
- May not look as green and uniform as a “traditional” lawn from nonnative turfgrass species.
Establishing a Lawn with Native Grass
So, time for some honesty. While there are many advantages to establishing a lawn with native grass there will be some drawbacks versus using the standard “grass seed” we are all familiar with. Native grasses will not grow in as thickly and may not provide the pristine, quintessential look of a traditional lawn. With some time and effort though, you can establish a native lawn that is more drought-tolerant, low maintenance, costs less money, and still looks good.
Types of Native Grasses Good for Lawns
While there are many types of native grasses available, not all of them are the best type to use to establish a lawn. Shortgrass does better than tallgrass if you are looking to have a lawn that is kept mowed.
Choose whether you want to seed your lawn with a single native grass, or a blend of several. The increased demand for natural plants has spurred amazing research and development of new native blends that work well for creating lawns.
Pure native seed types
- Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides): The king of the native grasses. Native to a wide swath of America from North Dakota and Montana south to Texas and New Mexico. A warm-season native suited for light traffic areas. Short and slow-growing with low water requirements. Native seed mixes often use buffalograss as the base, with smaller volumes of other natives blended in.
- Sedges (Carex spp.): popular bunching, glass-like plants that do well in light-use turf. Dozens of varieties handle a range of climates, soil types, and sun exposure. Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) is one variety gaining popularity as a lawn alternative in the eastern half of the U.S.
- Red fescue (Festuca rubra): a cool-season, sod-forming grass that can withstand heavy foot traffic. Also shade and drought tolerant. Already commonly used in “traditional” turfgrass seed mixes to increase overall shade tolerance.
- Seashore bentgrass (Agrostis pallens): cool-season, dark green turfgrass that withstands heavy traffic and low mowing heights. Native to West Coast states, but also found in pockets of Idaho, Montana and Nevada. Extremely drought tolerant.
- St. Augustinegrass (Stenotaphrum secundatum): Technically a native because early European explorers found it on the shores of Florida and the Gulf Coast, as well as the Caribbean and Western Africa. However, turf growers have introduced far outside its native coastal niche. It’s a warm-season perennial grass that grows in thick and dark green, handling heavy traffic, dense shade, and mild drought.
- Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis): Another warm-season native that performs well in light traffic areas. An important forage plant widely used in native seed mixes with buffalograss. Tolerates low nutrient soils and moderate drought.
- Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula): warm-season bunchy or sod-forming perennial grass that is extremely drought tolerant and great on slopes for erosion control.
- Habiturf: Warm-season seed mix developed for states in the Southwest and West. A blend of buffalograss, blue grama and curly mesquite seeds. Establishes quickly and needs little resources, while staying soft to the touch.
- Native Mow-Free: Cool-season three fescue blend that can be maintained as turf or left unmowed.
- No mow: Cool-season mix that grows in densely, to handle heavy traffic and out-compete weeds. More drought tolerant than traditional turf.
The above lists are nowhere near complete, as there are dozens of proprietary seed blends, and universities are developing new strains of natives at a speedy clip. Consult your local garden store of university extension service to see what seeds or seed blends might work with your “untraditional” native lawn.
Step-by-Step Instructions for Establishing a Native Grass Lawn
- Plan – Sit down and really think about the areas in your yard. Not all areas may be suitable for establishing native turf. In these sections think about incorporating other native plants or ornamental bunch grasses.
- Assess the site – Test the soil to determine the pH, organic matter content, and overall soil type. Take a realistic look at sun exposure and drainage, making note of spots that are different from the main sections.
- Choose grass species – Determine if warm-season or cool-season natives are better suited for your climate and location and choose one that will thrive in your area.
- Prepare the soil – Remove existing vegetation with a sod cutter, a rototiller, or by using black plastic to smother out established grasses or plants. Till the top 6 to 8-inches of soil, amending it based upon soil tests taken, and then level and smooth the tilled ground to create a uniforming planting bed.
- Plant – Seed is the best option for large scale areas, but you can also purchase plugs, or even rolled sod in some areas. Planting in the fall is ideal for most species because moist soil conditions and cooler temps allow for the root system to establish before winter; early spring increases the risk of losing plants to summer heat. Seed at a rate desired for the density and coverage you are hoping to establish.
- Maintain – Apply slow, light irrigation to keep soil moisture consistent and moderate. Cover seed with a light layer of straw to keep them in place and provide protection from the sun. The first year mow at a higher height to reduce stress on the grass(es) while controlling annual weeds. In the second year let native grasses grow until seed heads form to increase plant density.
Then, let it grow! Most native grass lawns do best with little help from you!