Native Turf Grasses

I’m starting this post with a picture I’ve previously published in this blog.  At the risk of seeming repetitive, I want to explain why it speaks to me so strongly

The most contradictory aspect of the contemporary lawn is its fussy, problematic nature.  The modern American lawn cannot seem to survive without huge and continual inputs of chemicals, fertilizers, and labor. Indeed, gardeners have come to accept as gospel that turfgrass is inherently needy, an impractical fashion foisted on us Americans by English aristocrats.

This is the story you find in most critiques of the lawn.  I myself assumed this was the whole story until I stumbled upon the photograph in question.

It’s a study from the turn of the 20thcentury by the great photographer of Native American life, Edward S. Curtis, of a Piegan Indian encampment on the Montana prairie.  When I first looked at this, it was the surprisingly familiar, domestic nature of this scene that struck me.  The woman with the kettle has wandered out of her house, her tipi, into what constitutes her yard: an endless expanse of neat, short turf.

Who cared for this lawn?  No one, of course.  It flourished naturally over this vast acreage because it was the only kind of flora sufficiently tough to withstand the bitter winters and hot, dry summers of the region.  It was a lawn, and as intrinsically American as the woman who was the subject of the photograph.

There have been efforts in recent years to move from the Euro-centric lawn of imported grasses to one more like Curtis’ native model.  Agricultural universities in the Plains States have been experimenting with lawns composed of natives of the shortgrass prairie for some time.  Perhaps the most successful example of this is the “Habiturf” seed mix perfected by the late Mark Simmons for the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas.  A blend of three different native grasses, buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides), blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), and curly mesquite (Hilaria belangeri), this forms a soft, fine-textured turf that thrives with minimal watering and mowing in full sun in the semi-arid West; it is especially well adapted to the dry regions of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Habiturf Lawn

The turf industry in the eastern half of the United States has been slower to investigate native grasses, though there has been an interesting project at Cornell, where wildlflower gardener Krissy Boys Faust planted a native lawn of locally collected native grasses and forbs in 2009.  The basic grass of that lawn, poverty oat grass (Danthonia spicata) has also been under evaluation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service.  In the Midwest, researchers at the University of Minnesota have been working with prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) as a low-input turf for that state.

With conventional lawns coming under increasing attack for their unsustainable environmental and economic costs, I believe the interest in American turfgrasses can only increase. Personally, I’m curious – and excited – about where this will take our landscapes.

Native Turf Grasses originally appeared on GardenRant on March 4, 2019.

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