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Reinventing the Lawn

Discussing eco-friendly lawns and ground cover alternatives to turf grass. Originally published by Ecological Landscaper, newsletter of ELA.

Reinventing the Lawn  

 Alex Feleppa


     There is no question that lawns are a fundamental part of American landscape design.  From Olmsted’s Central Park to our own front yards, lawns are an element in the landscape that we rely on.  From an environmental standpoint, whether urban or rural, lawns reduce soil erosion and runoff, reduce glare, and help reduce traffic noise.  In terms of function and design, they provide a foreground, add spaciousness to an area, help to define space, accentuate other forms in the landscape, and soften the look of hardscaped surfaces.  We can accept lawns as an important component in the landscape while exercising our knowledge and creativity by employing alternatives to typical lawn species.

     The reasons to choose alternatives are straightforward and the methods we adopt do not have to be insurmountable.  Picking the right plant for the right site does not apply only to our garden beds.  Reduce water consumption by selecting species that require little or no supplemental water during the growing season.  Matching species and selections to your individual site reduces the need to over-fertilize, allowing the use of organic slow-release fertilizers.  Planting the right species, or combination of species, and creating a healthy ecological balance eliminates our dependence on chemicals.  There are both broadleaf species and alternative grasses that can be applied to the landscape while still providing ideal texture, height, and color on which we can play, sit, and enjoy.

     Tom Cook, of Oregon State University, has worked for over ten years incorporating beneficial broadleaf legumes into lawns of perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass to create “ecolawns” of ecologically stable mixtures that persist with fewer inputs than a traditional lawn.  Accepting that grasses and broadleaf species should be planted together, Cook has documented gorgeous green carpets of two inches or higher that require mowing every two or three weeks at most, thrive with one-third to one-quarter the amount of water,  and recycle their own nutrients so that fertilizing is reduced to a one- or two-time application.  Realistically the plots take a year to achieve a mature appearance, and require initial irrigation and possibly a fertilizer application for successful seedling establishment.  The result, however, is an ecological system that remains stable and requires no future treatments of insecticides or fungicides. 

     Successful ecolawns consist of a 10% mixture of legumes added to 90% grass seed.  In trials white clover, Trifolium album was considered too vigorous and produced more dry matter than was desirable, but strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum, proved much more useful.  Without being overly aggressive, strawberry clover blends well with other components, remaining dense, low, and compact through the hot summer months.  In both cases the only notable drawback was that the intense flowering of clover attracts bees to the lawn which can be a problem for bare feet.  Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, was selected for its dark green foliage, rhizomatous habit, plus drought and wear tolerance.  It quickly stole the show.  Providing green while the grasses begin to go dormant, yarrow mowed every three weeks creates a dense, non-flowering texture that surprises even the most conservative lawn enthusiast.  A third broadleaf of importance is English lawn daisy, Bellis perennis.  Mixed alongside clover and yarrow, the English lawn daisy provides a strong flowering of white to red blossoms from March through May, even while mowing on a three-week cycle.  Though the daisies slowly dwindle in population over four or five years the springtime flower adds sparkle to our traditional green expanses.  Honorable mention goes to baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesii.  Planted in the fall, baby blue eyes is stunning the following spring with its attractive blue flowers.  The drawback is that you will have to sow yearly to enjoy this plant.

     If you decide that a traditional turf look is what you are after, then familiarize yourself with these alternatives for full sun applications.  Buffalo grass, Buchloe dactyloides, forms a finely-textured blue-green turf which turns gold in autumn.  Spreading by seed and stolons, buffalo grass garners praise for its dense weave as a deterrent to invasive weed seeds.  Native to American prairies, this naturally low-growing perennial proves very water efficient and rarely needs mowing.  This species, however, is not an effective choice for consistently wet soils.  Considered hardy from zones 3 to 5, cultivars are being bred for performance in more moist northern zones, such as ‘Tatanka’ and ‘Texoka’.  In warmer zones red fescue, Festuca rubra, is another sun-loving, drought-tolerant species.  Also a short, fine-textured plant, red fescue prefers infertile soil, so do not fertilize.  Cutting back on mowing and allowing it to get a little higher during the hottest months of the summer will provide your lawn with a soft look and feel, while also preventing your lawn from going semi-dormant.  Lastly, if you have a full sun application with significantly more moisture, consider sheep’s fescue, or Festuca ovina.  Native to both the U.S. and Europe, this fescue naturally tolerates more dampness than buffalo grass or red fescue.

     For turf style grasses in a shady environment turn to the sedges.  Catlin sedge, Carex texensis, is a fine, short sedge well-suited for partial to full shade.  Even though considered to be tolerant of sun, you might find that too much sun will lead to faded foliage and the need for more water.  Hardy from zone 6 down to zone 10, this is an excellent choice for hot climates of the south.  For the same Carex pennsylvanica lawn photo by Scott LaFleursuccess in cooler locations, turn to Pennsylvania sedge, Carex pensylvanica.  Also a short, fine sedge for shady applications, Pennsylvania sedge is a strong alternative due to its tolerance for a wide range of soils.  An amazing characteristic of both these sedges, as passed on by a colleague of mine, is that they only need to be mowed two or three times a year.  The third recommendation for this category is the finest textured of the three, Carex senta, or Baltimore sedge.  Very similar to Carex texensis, Baltimore sedge performs excellently in shade.  For this sedge, however, you may find that it requires more regular mowing than others.

     Finally, let’s discuss a few clumping grasses for both sun and shade.  Sometimes a lawn can become much more manageable if it is simply made a little smaller.  Or in the case of my work, dealing mostly with front plots in crowded urban settings, these grasses are an easy way to add form and texture to small, nonfunctional spaces.  June grass, Koeleria macrantha, is a taller candidate (16”-20”) that can be mowed or left to grow tall.  Junegrass is fabulous for its ability to thrive in full sun and infertile soil.  Little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, is another option for infertile soil.  Tolerant of a dry setting, little bluestem looks great all year and provides winter interest with an upright stature and rich rust-gold color.  Like the sedges described before, little bluestem only requires mowing a couple times a year.  Another candidate which I really enjoy working with is purple love grass, Eragrostis spectabilis.  Not only is this plant drought-tolerant, but it also adapts to a wide range of soils, from sand to heavy clay.  Lower than little bluestem, purple love grass gets its name from their showy seed heads.  To propagate, rely on seed or division of the rhizomes.  The last clumping grass for sun is common hairgrass, Deschampsia flexuosa.  As the name might imply, this grass provides a very fine, low texture in the landscape.  Tolerant of average soils and some drought, this is another alternative which, when left unmowed, creates a soft look through the summer.  Suggest leaving the taller species unmowed for fall and winter interest.

     Always searching for new shade alternatives myself, here are two last clumping sedges to consider for shadier locations.  Plantain-leaf sedge, Carex plantaginea, forms neat clumps in average soil.  This species puts out eye-catching seed heads early and holds up well when summer’s dryness takes hold.  Mow this grass right after it blooms for a fresh and attractive tussock.  Broad leaf sedge, Carex platyphylla, also forms neat clumps like C. plantaginea.  You will find the puckered leaf adds an extra textural interest.


      Alex Feleppa is the Director of Horticulture for the Horticultural Society of New York, a 107-year-old nonprofit organization located in midtown Manhattan, devoted to improving the lives of New Yorkers through horticulture. Alex is also a former Garden in the Woods intern.


References cited:

Colston, Burrell C., Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants, Brooklyn Botanic Garden,             2006.

Cook, Tom, “Low Maintenance Turf?” Oregon State University, revised, Jan. 2005

Smarr, Tom. “Where Conservation and Lifestyle Meet: Alternatives to Lawn Obsession,”

            New England Wild Flower Society, 2007.

last modified June 23, 2014