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Turf grass is so common in residential landscape design that the word “lawn”, which technically refers only to land covered in short grass, is used synonymously with the American “yard” or British “garden” to refer to all of the land adjoining a house. In landscape design, a grass-filled lawn is very often part of the plan. There’s a significant movement to minimize lawns, however, replacing them through xeriscaping or other techniques with cultivated beds, garden plots, natural areas, hardscaping, or even meadows that provide more natural habitat and require less maintenance than the typical lawn.

Reservations about lawns typically revolve around the water and chemical needs of a typical turf grass planting, as well as the maintenance required in terms of mowing, aerating, and over-seeding. Given how many grasses survive difficult conditions (drought or winter, depending on variety and location) by going dormant and turning brown, why not save time, effort, resources and money by going with another plan for landscape design?

Nevertheless, the urge for lawns is strong, particularly in the United States. Perhaps the best strategy is to reserve some space for turf and handle the rest of the landscape in other ways, and then select a turf grass that is appropriate for your climate and has as few needs as possible. After all, most would agree the dream lawn requires no fertilizer, little to no irrigation, and needs infrequent mowing to stay reasonably short.

In quite a few parts of this country, you may have access to something very close to this dream. It’s called buffalo grass, and it is the only turf grass native to the United States. The name comes from the animal whose herds were once supported by this hardy prairie grass. It is extremely drought resistant, it spreads primarily by underground shoots but doesn’t tend to invade garden beds, it doesn’t grow very tall, and fertilizer harms rather than helps it. Once established, it grows densely enough to help choke out weed growth. The general recommendation is to mow it to about 3-4 inches about once a month and otherwise to leave it alone. The only way in which it departs significantly from the dream is that it does turn brown in winter – a fairly attractive brown, as it happens. If you have enough other areas in your garden that are green or colorful in the colder parts of the year, the payoff should be worth this drawback.

If you live in California with summer drought and winter rain, there is a particular named cultivar of buffalo grass that was created to thrive in that environment. “UC Verde” buffalo grass has the added advantage of being sold in female-only plugs that rely on underground shoots to spread the grass. Having female-only grasses gives this cultivar an extremely low pollen count, which is important to the allergy sufferer. Other cultivars that are adaptable to large portions of the middle of the country are planted from seed that has been through a non-toxic priming process as buffalo grass is slow and reluctant to germinate from seed.

If you live in a part of the country that can support it (look for hardiness maps on any number of state extension service websites), it’s worth serious consideration for the part of your landscape that you’d like to see covered in grass.


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