Native Grass Alternatives to Lawns
By Audrey Pongs
There are few things more American than the concept of expansive lawns. We love our dutiful blades of grass, all lined up and trimmed, just waiting to receive picnic blankets and soccer balls. We love grass so much that lawn care is a multibillion-dollar industry. Grass permeates our culture—countless movies, advertisements, and jokes reference this icon. However, grass is under stress in California. With the ongoing drought, the governor and local water districts have issued water-use restrictions, a main portion of which are aimed at turf grass designated as non-useful. But does this mean we will have to give up our lawns? Fear not! California native grasses and sedges are here for the win.
I stand on the shoulders of the experts (my plant-loving father and other industry professionals) to bring several recommendations for easy lawn replacements. An obvious option is to tear out lawns and fill the area with hardscape, but this is a bad idea. By doing so, we lose the numerous benefits of living lawns. This seemingly useless turf cools the environment, allows water to return to underground reservoirs, provides refuge for insects and small animals, and aids in protecting mental health. Consider replacing your turf with native plants, particularly grasses and grass-like plants that require less water and fewer resources to maintain.
When recommending native grasses for a project, we roughly divide them into two categories: meadow plants and lawn replacements. The term “meadow” is used liberally here and applies to an untamed area primarily composed of grasses. A meadow needs minimal maintenance (usually annual) and anticipates occasional foot traffic. A lawn replacement expects to be regularly mowed and anticipates moderate foot traffic.
Visually beautiful, the “meadow” grasses are excellent for commercial areas, medians, planters, parks, you name it. The following plants are some personal favorites:
Muhlenbergia rigens – Deer Grass
When it comes to landscaping, I am in love with Deer Grass. It has gorgeous texture and movement, and is evergreen. As far as care goes, this grass is bulletproof. It adores the sun, so plant in an area with full sun or some very light shade. When it comes to water needs, Deer Grass is not a thirsty plant. Once established in a landscape, almost no additional water is needed besides once a week in the summer to keep the foliage green. Trim to a low dome when the weather begins to cool off and fertilize if needed. Deer Grass can be grown successfully throughout California, from coast to desert to mountain.
Calamagrostis foliosa – Reed Grass
Reed Grass is another favorite of mine that I feel is underutilized but well suited to a landscaped environment. A coastal plant, it does prefer partial shade in hot inland climates (such as my hometown of Riverside). We do successfully grow it in full sun at the nursery, but it requires regular watering, which defeats our purpose here. In winter, water once a week or to supplement seasonal rains. For summer, water twice a week as needed in dry climates. Trim to a low dome when the weather begins to cool off and fertilize if needed. C. foliosa can be grown successfully throughout California.
Aristida purpurea – Purple Three Awn
Purple Three Awn is an evergreen grass that loves life. This grass is excellent for commercial spaces and homeowners who want to fill space in their yard without maintenance. It readily reseeds where it is planted and gives that beautiful rolling prairie effect when planted in mass. Established plants require very little water, possibly once or twice a month during the summer to keep the foliage green. This is a shorter grass, growing 1–2 feet tall. It can be regularly trimmed to give the effect of a lawn or left whole and cut back to roughly 3 inches tall when the weather begins to cool. A. purpurea can be successfully grown throughout California.
For those of us who aspire to maintain the more traditional lawn look, here are two excellent choices. When switching to a native lawn, there are concessions to be made regarding appearance. While your water and fertilizer needs will be drastically reduced, expect to face some instances of rust, die out from pet use (pee spots), uneven color, and thinning in shady areas. The following are the most bulletproof recommendations.
Festuca Rubra – Red Fescue
Based on personal experience, Red Fescue is the best option for a usable lawn, particularly the cultivar ‘Molate.’ It is remarkably tolerant of stressors such as foot traffic, pets, and rust. To prevent summer dormancy, water as needed, but otherwise water once a month until the weather cools. Mow regularly or leave F. rubra to grow into a softly tousled meadow look. Many sources will say that the full sun of inland climates is too extreme for this grass to grow well, but we have seen success both at the nursery and for a project we supplied outside Hollister, CA.
Carex praegracilis – Meadow Sedge
While not technically a grass, Meadow Sedge closely imitates the look and feel of a traditional lawn when mowed. This sedge is best suited to coastal and temperate climates. Without regular water during the summer, it will go dormant in warm climates. From experience, for the best success in a landscape plant a cultivar such as ‘Chisai,’ as cultivars have more resistance to rust and drought.
Plants provide us with so much! Cooler temperatures, cleaner air, a soft place to sit and walk, and to see urban landscapes give way to dirt and concrete would be devastating. By using native plants, we can reduce our water demands and still have a beautiful place to live. Whether you choose to leave your new lawn wild or trimmed and tidy, these and many more amazing native options are readily available.
Even during these trying times, I say grow more grass!
Audrey Pongs – Plant Enthusiast and Nursery Consultant