Good Oak News

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

American alternatives to European lawn grasses

A few years ago I was helping a friend down in Urbana get her yard going with native landscaping.  While clearing out some weeds, I noticed something odd about her lawn grass in the small strip of lawn between her and her neighbors house.  It was in fact not grass at all, but was a sedge!  It seemed quite happy there mixed with the Kentucky bluegrass and was surviving mowing just fine.  Since she is a botanist, I asked her to bring it to work and have the sedge experts there tell us what it was.  Jamie Ellis from the Illinois Natural History Survey identified it for us as Carex jamsii... or lawn sedge.  At first I thought he was pulling my leg, since his name is James and we found it in a lawn, but sure enough, that's what it was.

Most people don't realize that the most common landcover in our urban areas, lawn, is composed entirely of non-native plants.  Kentucky blue grass (Poa pratensis) is not from Kentucky but is instead from England.  The other major component of lawns, cultivars of meadow fescue (Festuca elatior) is also from Europe, as are most of our major lawn weeds such as dandelions, common plantain and creeping charlie.  What a shame that so much of Americas landscape is covered with these non-native plants that offer almost no value for wildlife and very little of interest for people!

And indeed lawns themselves are often pretty pointless and wasteful landscape features.  Many people have a lot of lawn that is never used for anything but to dull the blade of their lawnmower.  I have blogged about this before, and so have others, so I won't go into this rant today.  However, I will admit that there is some use for some lawn in a landscape.  As Allison our landscape designer says, it makes for good "negative space".

So I started thinking about using sedges as an alternative to lawn grass.  Lawn sedge is an obvious good place to start, and it seems to grow well in Illinois and can also be found in southern Wisconsin, though I've had trouble finding a population local to Madison that I might harvest seed from.  Another one that might work in Illinois is Caitlin sedge (Carex texensis) which Dick Young notes as "a lawn weed at Fabyan Forest Preserve surviving the mowing nicely and is more graceful, soft and interesting in the moist deep shady spots than Kentucky Blue Grass."  Another closely related sedge that might work for lawn is Carex radiata, star sedge, but I don't know much about this plant yet, and finding live plants of this species for sale at a nursery is almost impossible.

Here at Good Oak World Headquarters we've been experimenting with some more common woodland sedges that tend to form "lawns".  Take a look at this lawn-like groundcover in a Wisconsin black oak woodland:
Acres and acres of Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica)!  A consistant, attractive ground cover.  So I have started testing out Pennsylvania sedge and another common woodland sedge as lawn alternatives in a few small areas at HQ.  The results, so far are admittedly inconsistant:

Pennsylvania sedge is slow to establish.  It may take years to get a consistent carpet like the photo above.  The first patch below looks pretty good, but does need some weeding at this point to keep various things such as tree seedlings and dandilions out.  The second patch looks a bit more ratty, I did get a little overambitious with herbicide in this patch earlier this summer and its been dry here so I think these guys are starting to go dormant.  Still, I think if I am patient they will be just fine.



Rosy sedge (Carex rosea) on the other hand has taken off so well, and so quickly, that we're almost not sure what to do with it.  Even though we planted it in late June, it filled in the growing space by the end of the year by growing out and just covering the ground with its leaves.  This year it was growing up as well as out,  it completely hid our stepping stone path through this lawn patch.  It also started to develop a bumper crop of seeds.  At that point we weren't sure if we should mow it (and lose the seeds), and if so, how high.  My instincts are to mow it at about 6" so as to keep the bulk of the vegetation intact while making it look a little more tidy, but my little reel mower only goes up to 2.5" and is definitely NOT up to the task of cutting long sturdy sedge blades.  So we just left it alone for now and hand-trimmed around the stepping stones and edge of the patio.

So I think rosy sedge has a great potential as a lawn replacement.  Unfortunately the patch you see below gets trampled a lot and I think has also been effected since we mix herbicide nearby.  Also, being the end of August, its not the best time for a cool-season plant like sedges.



Another sedge that's closely related to rosey and caitlin sedge is Carex radiata, star sedge, but I don't yet know enough about it to know if it might be a good lawn replacement.  A local nursery manager recently suggested path rush (Juncus tenuis) for higher-travel areas and the largely overlooked sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata).  Of course, many people have heard of buffalo grass, but it is native a bit west of here and needs very well drained soil to thrive in our area.  Still, we have one client we planted buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides) for and its doing quite well in his sandy soils.

We honestly don't know yet how these plants will handle the stresses often put on lawns such as high foot traffic and low mowing.  It seems that lawn sedges does fine with the mowing, and path rush even seems to prefer compacted soil, but the rest are thoroughly untested.  Still I have a lot of confidence that we can find acceptable native alternatives to European grasses for use as lawn areas.  The challenges are getting sources of seed or plants, learning the most efficient way to propagate and plant them, and getting people used to a slightly different, softer and more natural aesthetic for their lawn. 

It took the lawn industry 30-40 years of propagation and propaganda to cement low-cut monocultures of Kentucky blue grass and fescue as the "standard" landscape across America.  It may take us a while to change the tide so that homeowners choose something more sustainable and more... well, American.

What we need now are volunteers!  We'd love to help set up some native lawn test patches with some of our friends down in central Illinois testing James's sedge and Caitlin's sedge.  And we'd love some Madison area folks to volunteer some space trying out Rosy sedge, path rush, James's vanilla grass and more.  Interested in trying a "greener" lawn.  Give us a call!

2 comments:

Peter said...

Very Nice Blog !!!!!!!!!
Keep update................
Thanks for sharing.
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Jade Graham said...

Lots of hard work. But the hard part isn't so much the shoveling as it is moving the wheelbarrow when it's full of it. Synthetic Grass Canberra

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