To sort out which grasses to use and where, we consulted native grass expert Bill Neiman, head of operations and farming for Native American Seed in Junction, Texas. For much of the United States, he recommends “Native Sun Turfgrass,” a blend of 34 percent Blue Grama and 66 percent Buffalo grass created by his Native American Seed Co. It’s ideal for urban and suburban lawns, with an average height of 5-8 inches, un-mown. Once established, Neiman says, it looks like any other lawn, but requires far less water and mowing. “If you didn’t know it wasn’t some imported grass, you’d think it was Bermuda or St. Augustine. It gets that thick and lush.”
Neiman explains that the turf grass mix will sprout after the first one-inch rainfall if the soil is warm enough. And, depending on seeding rate, you could have a solid stand of grass within 90 days. With light seeding (which is cheaper), it can take up to one and a half growing seasons.
Other ideal native grasses for lawns and landscaping Neiman recommends include:
Buffalo grass — A short, 5 to 8 inch height, sod-forming grass. Lives on as little as 12 inches of water per year. It spreads by seed and surface runners and is a good choice for sunny sites. Buffalo grass prefers loamy or heavier clay soils, has no natural diseases or pests and does not need fertilizing. It can withstand extreme heat or cold and is found naturally growing from Minnesota and Montana to Mexico.
Exotic lawn grasses such as Bermuda and St. Augustine, require five or more times as much water — 60 to 120 inches of water per year, need frequent mowing, can freeze out in harsh winters and need regular applications of fertilizer and pesticides (unless you follow an aggressive organic plan using natural pre-emergent weed killers and fertilizers).
- Blue Grama — This grass grows just 3 to 6 inches tall and requires just 7 inches of water per year. If left unmown during the flowering period, the grass produces a beautiful 10-inch seed stem. Excellent stands can be readily established from seed. Because of its wide adaptation (all soil types, including alkaline soil) and ease of establishment, Blue Grama is used extensively as a water conserving grass. It makes an excellent lawn grass in sunny areas in combination with Buffalo grass. It’s ideal for an accent when landscaping.
- Little Bluestem – At home on the range or in your yard, this beautiful blue-green bunch grass turns red-bronze after frost with fluffy, silver-white seeds. It grows 2 to 3 feet at maturity with the seed head adding another one to two feet in height. Roots reach 5 to 8 feet deep and it grows on soils of sand, loam, clay or caliche. It appears in a variety of places in Texas’ divergent ecosystems: alongside Big Bluestem grasses in the deep soils of hardwood forests and prairies; with Indiangrass/Sideoats on the Edwards Plateau and rolling plains; and on the coastal prairie.
Little Bluestem is found throughout the southern and central United States, and provides excellent nesting cover for birds and larval food source for butterflies.
Sideoats Grama — This mid-sized grass is the official State Grass of Texas and is often used in ornamental plantings. The grass grows 1 to 2 feet tall, with oat-like seeds along one side of its stem from July to September. It spreads by seeds and roots and makes a good planting with Little Bluestem. Sideoats grows on well drained uplands, shallow soils on ridges and rocky areas. It may be found on sand, loam and clay soils, ranging from deep to very shallow, from Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico. Sideoats takes full sun to dappled shade. It is a larval food source for butterflies and turkeys use it for food and cover.
- Prairie Wildrye — A cool season grass that’s tall and works well in landscaping, Prairie Wildrye grows abundantly on moist open prairie sites, but is also found in shaded areas. It is one of the few native grasses that does well in shade. This cool season grass begins growth in the fall and grows slowly through the winter, maturing in late spring to early summer. It mixes nicely with all other warm-season native grasses. Its seedlings are vigorous and produce ground cover rapidly. Height with seed head is 2 to 4 feet. It is a larval food source for butterflies, and the grain from seed is an important food for wildlife. For more info about planting native grass, see The Native Seed’s tip sheet.
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