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Grass alternatives give more, take less

May 22, 2015
Marie Narlock

Horticulturally speaking, lawns are boring, water-hogging time wasters. Few plants ask so much and give so little. Congratulations if you’ve already killed your green dinosaur; you’re helping to ease the effect of drought. If you still have a lawn, then why not get with the program — and get off the grass?

It’s easier than you think to kick a lawn habit. The first step is identifying your needs. Sometimes we become so used to looking at lawn that we lose sight of the fact that there’s a better use for that space. Perhaps what you really need is something completely different. How about a seating area? Or would you like to attract wildlife? Create an outdoor kitchen? A fun play area for the kids? Start with function; that way you won’t be disappointed.

Let’s assume for grins that you want your non-lawn to mimic your current lawn — that is, you like a low green expanse. No problem. You have numerous options. Here are a few to get you started.

Let’s start with an oldie: clover. That’s right, the stuff we used to think was a weed makes an awesome nonlawn, with many fringe benefits. White clover (Trifolium repens) is drought- tolerant, grows in bad soil, adds nitrogen to the soil, attracts bees, takes some shade and — get this — resists pet urine. That’s right, no more brown spots! Mow it or grow it long enough to enjoy the sweet flowers. Other nongrass alternatives include golden lime thyme, which forms a fragrant, brilliant gold carpet, or woolly thyme, its super unthirsty cousin.

But let’s get back to that grassy effect. If you have your heart set on grass, you have many low growers to consider. These include California’s sedges, such as the billowy meadow sedge (Carex pansa) that stays around 6-feet tall if left unmowed. It needs water to get established, but after that it does not require much if any irrigation. Slender sedge (Carex praegracilis) grows a little longer, creating a softly cushioned effect, and it’s somewhat drought-tolerant. It is commonly found in meadows and open areas. Both of these native winners take some shade, as does the red fescue (Festuca rubra), which has become a popular lawn alternative. These grasses are runners, spreading out gently as they age. Mow them or let them grow tall and lean this way and that. Depending on how green you want your grass in summer, your native lawn may use just half the water of a conventional lawn.

A nice example of native grasses is at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, where sweeping green drifts (predominantly Festuca ‘Aurora gold’) wave beautifully in the breeze — and soak up the fog with gusto. It took three years to establish that grass, but now it does not require irrigation or frequent mowing. In summer it is allowed to go dormant, resulting in a gentle golden color. A good reminder that we live in the Golden State, not the perpetually green state.

There are numerous other grasses, including bunch grasses of all sizes, colors and shapes. The nice thing about bunch grasses, which form tidy mounds, is that you can easily create a meadow effect by planting bulbs and other flowering plants between them (the running grasses will eventually snuff them out). For instance, you could use leafy reed grass (Calamagrostis foliosa) and our native fescue (Festuca californica) as a beautiful backdrop for seasonal flowers such as yarrow, native onion, sticky monkey flowers and milkweed. If you don’t find this more interesting than a green slab, the real question is… what are you smokin’?

Some sod purveyors carry native and/or drought-tolerant species, meaning you can roll out a green carpet just like you would conventional turf. A few we’ve found include: Delta Bluegrass (800-637-8873), S&S Seeds (805-684-0436),and Pacific Sod No Mow (800-942-LAWN).

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