WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. -- If you really want to improve the environment around you, rethink how much lawn you really need. Traditional lawns, comprised of non-native turf grasses, are simply unsustainable -- demanding copious amounts of watering, fertilizing and mowing -- from spring through fall. Keep the lawn that you really use and replace the rest with ecological native plants.
Choosing Alternatives to Turf
How lawn-like must your alternative be? Meadows with a combination of native grasses and flowering perennials, make wonderful lawn substitutes and are ecological workhorses. Mixed plantings of native groundcovers are another great choice.
If you can’t tear yourself away from that grassy look, consider native grasses or sedges. Keep in mind that none grow exactly like lawn, or are as tolerant of foot traffic.
Most native grasses are warm-season plants, greening up later in the season than turf. In the fall, native grasses put on a spectacular display with showy flower heads and a variety of fall colors. Many native grasses, like Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) are much taller than turf grasses. A few native grasses, including Little Bluestem, tolerate mowing, but it would be a shame to lose their lovely flower heads and deprive songbirds of a feast.
Side Oats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula var. curtipendula) is one native grass worthy of consideration as a mow-able alternative. Endangered in New York State and Connecticut, Side Oats Grama is a host plant for several types of skippers (similar to butterflies). Being a creeping species, it fills in an area nicely and is fairly short - growing to a foot or more without mowing.
Native to Western states, Buffalo Grass (Bouteloua dactyloides) is the native grass most often used as a native lawn alternative. Short with a creeping growth habit, it grows over time to create a solid turf that can be left un-mowed. One major caveat – Buffalo Grass prefers arid conditions and can be weedy in the Northeast. Choose a cultivar that has good performance in our cooler, wetter climate, such as ‘Bison,’ ‘Cody,’ or ‘Legacy.’
For shady areas, native sedges can be a great choice. Sedges are low-growing, grass-like plants which produce flowers in the spring. Their flowers are subtle, but beautiful, and have the additional benefit of providing seed for birds and other creatures.
Some sedge species have thin, grass-like leaves, such as Appalachian Sedge (Carex appalachica). Others, like Blue Wood Sedge (Carex flaccosperma) have wider leaves with an appearance more like Lilyturf (a vastly overused non-native plant).
Some sedges are quite showy – Seersucker Sedge (Carex plantaginea), is an easy one to love with its puckering leaves. Most sedges appreciate shade and moist soil, but some, like Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex appalachica), a narrow-leaved sedge, tolerate drier soils and can even be successful under deciduous trees.
Any native plants can be viable alternatives to turf - just remember to plant the right plant in the right place.
Kim Eierman, a resident of Bronxville, is an environmental horticulturist and Founder of EcoBeneficial. When she is not speaking, writing, or consulting about ecological landscapes, she teaches at the New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Native Plant Center and Rutgers Home Gardeners School.
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