The Traditional Lawn needs to go!

Here's what to try instead

April 4, 2019. Author: Kevin Jinn

Traditional lawns vs. native alternatives

With the global movement towards Environmental Sustainability, homeowners are looking to do their part for a greener, less harmful, and less costly lawn. Native grasses are naturally growing grasses that have existed in the environment before settlement, and offer a unique solution to this problem. They are different from the traditional turf grasses that have been imported into the country, require constant irrigation, chemical fertilizers, and herbicide treatment to thrive in our climate here in British Columbia. Our native grasses, having survived naturally for thousands of years, can grow quite happily on their own, without the high maintenance costs of a traditional lawn. Though at first appearance they may seem boring, the landscaping world has recently come to embrace these underrated plants.

Graminoids include true grasses, sedges and rushes. For the most part, these are all grass-like in appearance, but there are several differences. True grasses have ‘knees’ that are joint like nodes around a hollow stem. Sedges are triangular and solid in cross section. Rushes have a rounded cross section and a solid stem. All three of these can be useful plants to solve problems that landscapers have been having in their green spaces.

Native Grass Solutions

California Oatgrass, Danthonia californica.

The key to these plants is their ability to flourish in traditionally difficult garden settings where other plants struggle. Leading landscape designers and landscape architects are using these plants in formerly infertile spots such as the spaces between tree roots, or inhospitable spots such as wet, shady areas where lawns have traditionally done poorly. Forested gardens can be planted with sedges that work in dry shade. Wet, soggy conditions that most garden perennials would sulk in are well suited for rushes or other water loving native grasses. Furthermore, many are deer resistant, and don’t need spraying with chemicals. These are all great assets to the Environmental Sustainability movement.

Green Mulching

Native meadow restoration at Haliburton Farm in 2014.

Even modern ideas such as mulching are being challenged by our native grasses. Say goodbye to yards of mulch required for garden beds every year. Green mulches have become practices pioneered by landscape architects such as Thomas Rainer and John Greenlee, who replace mulch with grasses for a meadow garden effect. Brown mulch, often bark chips or partially composted bark material, needs to be reapplied every year as erosion and runoff deplete it seasonally. With living mulch, sedges or bunchgrasses are planted around the landscape plants once, and that is it. The increased number of plants helps provide habitat for critters, songbirds consume seed heads from bunchgrasses, and the deep roots prevent erosion. As an added bonus, many grasses are host plants for butterfly species and their young.

Chafer Beetle Resistance

On top of costly lawn inputs such as chemical sprays, mowing and watering, homeowners now have to deal with Chafer beetle damage to lawns when birds and raccoons dig them up looking for larvae. One way to avoid these pitfalls is to try native lawn alternatives. The roots of traditional turf grasses are very shallow, making these spaces very attractive for overwintering European Chafer beetles. Deep rooting native grasses naturally control erosion better, and are unattractive for Chafer beetles.

“The beauty of sedges is that they work so well with almost any type of planting.”

Native Grass Picks

Red Fescue, Festuca Rubra Molate.

Commercially available native grasses can now be purchased in the Lower Mainland. Our native Festuca rubra var. rubra Red fescue is similar to the Eurasian Chewing Fescue Festuca rubra var. commutata. It is more adapted for this climate, and can be mowed short for a traditional lawn look, or kept longer for an ‘unmowed’ bunchgrass appearance. It can be kept lush and green with regular watering, or left to brown out in summer, from whence will come back in spring.

Sun sedge and Common Woodrush between native annual and perennial flowers.

Shady sites have always been problem areas for lawns, as most turf grasses require well-drained, moist soil and full sun. When a lawn area with shady conditions is forced, homeowners end up with moss. There are native grasses that thrive such as perennial rush Luzula multiflora, Common Woodrush, that will thrive in dry shade of woodlands and Carex deweyana, Dewey’s sedge, that excels in moist shady forests.

Sedges

Sedges have come into the spotlight as a natural look to the traditional lawn. There are low growing sedges such as Carex pansa (up to 12 inches) that only needs mowing once a season. These and other natives are water-wise, as they survive only on natural rainfall in our climate. As a lawn alternative, sedge plantings have several benefits over turf: They require little in the sense of irrigation, chemical fertilizers or herbicides, and are chafer beetle resistant.

Sedges have come into the spotlight as a natural look to the traditional lawn. There are low growing sedges such as Carex pansa (up to 12 inches) that only needs mowing once a season. These and other natives are water-wise, as they survive only on natural rainfall in our climate. As a lawn alternative, sedge plantings have several benefits over turf: They require little in the sense of irrigation, chemical fertilizers or herbicides, and are chafer beetle resistant.

Grass restoration meadow planting

Sedges truly are a fresh take on traditional gardens. There are enough monocultures of English Ivy and other overused groundcover plantings covering our outdoor spaces. Instead, take the time to grow and nurture native sedges. You will be rewarded with increased biodiversity, easy care landscapes and a natural beauty that will stand out amongst your neighbours.

Native grasses can stitch together a tapestry of plants to create a beautiful picture in the natural landscape. They can also support small ecologies and provide real habitat for wildlife. Whether homeowners will accept the naturalistic look of our native grasses and give up their lawn fixation is uncertain, but there is great upside to a native sedge meadow alternative.

Planting Guidelines

Ground covers and living mulches should be planted in numbers. The initial investment should have enough sedge plugs or containers to fill the area, but also give enough space for the plants to spread out as they mature. Think about mature sizes of all the plants 2 or 3 years later when planning. This green mulching can effectively replace traditional brown mulch as a much more economical and environmentally friendly alternative.

Seed heads of Deschampsia cespitosa, Tufted Hair Grass

Native Grasses for Shady Gardens

  • Carex deweyana – Dewey’s Sedge
  • Carex obnupta (wetter) – Slough Sedge
  • Luzula multiflora (dry) – Common Woodrush
  • Melica subulata – Alaska Oniongrass
  • Festuca occidentalis – Western Fescue
  • Elymus glaucus – Blue Wildrye

Native Grasses for Sunny Places

  • Festuca roemeri (dry) – Roemer’s Fescue
  • Danthonia californica (dry) – California Oatgrass
  • Koeleria macrantha (dry) – Junegrass
  • Carex inops ssp. inops (dry) – Sun Sedge
  • Juncus ensifolius (moist/wet) – Dagger-leaf Rush
  • Deschampsia cespitosa (moist) – Tufted Hairgrass
  • Carex kelloggii (moist/wet) – Kellog’s Sedge
  • Carex lyngbyei (moist/wet) – Lyngbye’s Sedge
  • Eriophorum angustifolium (wet) – Cottongrass
  • Scirpus microcarpus (wet) – Smallfruit Bulrush
  • Achnatherum lemmonii – Lemmon’s Needlegrass
  • Bromus vulgaris – Columbia Brome
  • Bromus carinatus – California Brome

Lawn Grasses

  • Festuca rubra var. rubra – Red Fescue
  • Festuca occidentalis – Western Fescue
  • Festuca roemeri – Roemer’s Fescue
  • Carex pansa – Sand Dune Sedge
  • Bromus carinatus – California Brome

Nurseries in British Columbia that sell native grasses for the Lower Mainland Gardener:

More Native Grasses