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Roots and Shoots: Better Choices for Dry Lawns

The Highlands Current logo: MainLogo The Highlands Current 8/5/2022 Pamela Doan

One thing I like about this hot, dry weather is the respite from mowing, even if it means crunchy, brown grass. 

Despite our use of landscaping or naturalizing to turn more of our acreage into areas that don’t get mowed, mowing is still a time-consuming and carbon-emitting task. Ideally, there would only be mowing a few times a season or not at all.

For my own purposes, and for you, I’ve completed a lot of research about groundcovers. Here are my criteria for replacing turf grass: 

  • Low maintenance in terms of mowing or other labor-intensive care. In terms of emissions, the Union of Concerned Scientists calculated that one hour of mowing is the equivalent of eight cars driving 55 mph for an hour. 
  • Drought-tolerant, meaning it can withstand periods without rain and stay green, or at least not die. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a third of residential water in the U.S. goes to water landscapes, as many as 9 billion gallons a day. 
  • Pleasing to look at and complements other plantings.
  • Grows in densely to keep out invasive weeds like stiltgrass and will not even tempt someone to use an herbicide. 
  • Can withstand a running dog, children and a fair amount of pedestrian traffic. 
The current condition of the lawn can be a good motivator to plant something different. Photo by P. Doan © Provided by The Highlands Current The current condition of the lawn can be a good motivator to plant something different. Photo by P. Doan

The current condition of the lawn can be a good motivator to plant something different. (Photo by P. Doan)

What are turf grasses? There are many types of plants that will function to become a lawn, which we can define as a homogenous planting area used like an outdoor rug in the landscape. Common turf grass plants are cool-season or warm-season. 

Cool-season grasses are best suited to the northeast and include Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and tall or fine fescues. Commercial lawn mixes combine these and each has different merits for growth, drought-tolerance and maintenance. Without regular mowing, they can look weedy and neglected. 

Should I be mowing now? Your lawn is dormant and should not need mowing. Mowing can damage already sensitive areas that are under pressure from the heat and lack of rain. 

Don’t I need to water to keep the grass from dying? Grass needs 1 inch of water per week. With less water, it won’t die but will enter dormancy and grow less vigorously. (Brown grass is not necessarily dead.) If you feel like watering, and community conservation rules aren’t in effect, follow best practices.

Measure the amount to avoid overwatering, which damages grass roots and wastes water. Run sprinklers in the early morning. Leave grass clippings on the lawn to act as mulch and even out soil temperature. Set the mower for 3 to 4 inches. Taller grass can develop longer root systems and be healthier in trying conditions. 

Alternatives to turf grass 

Eco-lawn and no-mow lawn seed mixes Prairie Nursery, High Country Gardens and Wildflower Farms are online retailers that offer specialized mixes that rely mostly on fine fescues to create sustainable lawns. Some can be mowed occasionally or left alone, depending on personal aesthetics. They are deep-rooted plants that grow in densely, stop growing at 3 to 4 inches tall and can grow in sun to part-shade conditions. 

Clover and microclover On its own or overseeded into a lawn, clover has a lot to offer. It fixes nitrogen in the soil, which is helpful to turf grass. The flowers are useful to pollinators and the flowers are lovely. White clover is the key. Other clovers grow much taller and make good cover crops but not great lawns. It does dry up in hot, arid conditions, though, turning brown and going dormant.

Microclover is a shorter-growing hybrid and available through many online retailers. It has the advantage of being a no-mow choice and can work on its own or overseeded into an existing lawn. 

Fleur de lawn

A friend who is a landscape architect used this mix for her lawn from PT Lawn Seed in Portland, Oregon, which also has other lawn alternative seed mixes. It has several low-growing flowers mixed in, giving it a not-quite-lawn, not-quite-meadow feeling that is original and beautiful while also being sustainable. 

Thymus x Creeping thyme is a full-sun plant that is low-growing, drought-resistant and sustainable. It could be challenging to replace a large lawn with creeping thyme, but in smaller spaces, it could look, feel and smell lovely. It comes in pink, red or green varieties and could be very striking.

Gardening questions? Email me at rootsandshoots@highlandscurrent.org.

Roots and Shoots: Better Choices for Dry Lawns was first posted on August 5, 2022 at 8:17 am.
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