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Guest Blog: Rethinking the Traditional American Lawn, Part I

High Country Gardens specializes in drought-tolerant plants.

High Country Gardens specializes in drought-tolerant plants.

AS A PART OF OUR ongoing campaign to reduce the impact of the American lawn, we launched guest blog series with our sponsoring partners at High Country Gardens in New Mexico.

Rethinking the Traditional American Lawn is a four-part series by High Country Gardens Founder and Chief Horticulturist, David Salman. Salman also writes The Xeric Gardener. We’re excited to have High Country Gardens and the Salman family on board with this mission to represent a part of the country where water resources, especially, are most precious. The great information provided, whether or not you live in an area where droughts are common, is superior.

News Flash: Americans Are Working Too Hard . . . Chemical lawn-care companies have us working a lot harder and spending a lot more money than we should.

SANTA FE, N.M. — As pressed as we are for time, it’s mind-boggling how much of it we spend mowing, watering, weeding, spraying and fertilizing our lawns, when the only real attention we need to give them is the long look of love that we planted them for in the first place. Some folks can barely find time to shave once a week, much less mow their grass.

The comic part is, we create this extra work for ourselves. Mega lawn-care companies, like Scotts Miracle Gro, led us into a bad cycle that we’ll have to pull ourselves out of if we want to stop overworking and start enjoying.

It starts with intolerance for dandelions, which inspires us to use numerous “weed and feed” products that are sold like lawn candy in every garden center and big box store across the country. These herbicide-loaded fertilizers weaken every non-grass plant (like trees and shrubs) with roots under and around the lawn. In this weakened state, insect attack is a common result. In response, Americans pour millions of pounds of nitrogen chemical fertilizers (with or without herbicides) on their lawns each year to counter the negative effects of weed-killing, and this eventually leads to the next rickety step in the cycle of insanity — water waste.

Chemical fertilizers go one dangerous step beyond simply rejuvenating our lawns after the weed-killing fallout — they send the grass into hyper-growth during the hottest time of the year, forcing us to water more and, subsequently, adopt an unceasing schedule of weekly mowing. And what’s the end result? A slew of other problems, including increased soil salinity, soil compaction, shallow roots, insect attack, more lawn diseases, more water waste and — what I sometimes find most tragic of all — more work.

High Country Gardens, in partnership with SafeLawns.org, wants to help lawn-lovers get off this hamster wheel of work, water and expense.

Part One: Choosing low-work and low-water lawn grasses
Native grass species such as blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) and buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides) are well adapted to drier conditions and a variety of soil types. These are warm-season grasses that withstand moderate foot traffic and require about 2 inches of rainfall (or irrigation) per month to stay green. They are also very drought tolerant and have roots that will survive without water during extended dryness. These two native species are best for yards that don’t get a lot of foot traffic or hard use by dogs and kids.

NEW PLUG-GROWN buffalo grass varieties have been developed specifically for lawn use. These improved varieties like ‘Legacy’®, ‘Prestige’™ and ‘UC Verde’® are dense, low-growing types planted as plugs and spread via runners growing across the soil surface which eventually knit into a beautiful, low-care lawn.

‘Hachita’ blue grama grass is a bunch grass that’s grown from seed. Seeded at a rate of 3-4 pounds per 1,000 square feet, it forms a dense carpet of grass that needs infrequent mowing or that can be left to seed out with its very ornamental eyelash seed heads in late summer.

NEW TYPES OF non-native lawn grasses are also excellent for planting lower water, low-maintenance lawns. These new dwarf fescue and blue grass varieties have been developed to grow much more slowly and, given an organic care regimen, produce a durable, low-care lawn that requires little or no mowing. While not as drought-tolerant as the native grama and buffalo grasses, they use considerably less water than Kentucky blue grass or tall fescue types.

'Bella' bluegrass

‘Bella’ bluegrass

A. ‘Bella’ blue grass is a dwarf lawn grass with very deep roots that spreads via runners to form a dense, bright green lawn thriving in sun, partial sun and dappled shade. ‘Bella’ only grows to a height of 3 inches and never needs mowing. It is especially useful where mowing is difficult, such as enclosed, tight spaces and slopes.

B. The ‘Low Work and Water’ and ‘No Mow’ grass mixes are seed grown, dwarf fescue types and are excellent as low care lawns. They are quick to establish with the seed germinating in both warm and cool weather. The ‘Low Work and Water’ lawn is ideal for play and higher foot traffic areas over much of the country. The ‘No Mow’ lawn is an excellent choice for informal lawns in sun and partial shade in cooler climates. Left unmowed, the ‘No Mow’ grass blades lie down and swirl, creating a soft, graceful texture. It can be mowed monthly to maintain a more formal look.

Check back here next Monday for the second part of our series, in which we’ll discuss the concept of meadows and prairies as eco-friendly alternatives to the traditional lawn, as well as how to go about deciding which kind of lawn planting is best for your plot. Till then, happy lawning!

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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