They say necessity is the mother of invention, but it is also the mother of research. I recently started a project where I needed to decide on a ‘lawn alternative.’ But in researching the topic at great length, here is what I discovered: There is no true replacement for that emerald green carpet, all smooth and beckoning, if what you are looking for is an emerald green carpet.
There are however, lots of other ways to fill the space that is normally reserved for lawns: ways that are colorful, interesting, and much more sustainable. There are options such as low growing natives, sedums, and other drought tolerant groundcovers such as dymondia. But what if your client really wants something that looks like lawn?
So, I went to the great grass guru himself, John Greenlee, to ask for his recommendations. Not only did I want to know which variety of plant to use, but I wanted to know what I needed to do to create a successful result. Because, how often have you walked by a ‘lawn alternative’ and thought it looked a little messy, or brown, or worse?
So though he prefaced the conversation by telling me that ‘nothing is perfect,’ there were definitely some things that could greatly improve the chances of getting what you were envisioning:
- Preparation is absolutely everything! If you currently have turf, and do not make sure that you get rid of absolutely every last bit of grass seed, rhizome and stolen, you will quickly become frustrated as the Bermuda reclaims your grasslands and all your hard work is lost. And though I take pride in being a sustainable landscaper, according to John, sometimes there is nothing else that works like Round-up. This is the process he suggested:
- Water and fertilize your existing lawn for about a week, – yes, that’s right. Water and fertilize. From what he explained, Round up works best on an actively growing lawn.
- Apply an even application of Round-up, let it set for about 7-10 days before you scrape. Still watering. Note, Round up does not work nearly as well in cooler weather when grasses are going dormant.
- After you scrape the existing turf, water and fertilize again, to germinate any remaining grass. Remove as necessary. Another spot spraying of Round-up may be necessary.
- He sometimes will add a thin layer of bark to the top of the soil; thin enough for the weeds to come up, but enough to prevent a mud pile while the work is in process.
As you can see, this is not a quick process. But taking the time to eradicate as many of the weeds as possible will go a long way towards success.
- Selecting the right variety. John has several beautiful books on grasses (which I’m looking forward to getting for Christmas). For my particular situation, he recommended the Carex pansa. What adds to the confusion on this question, is that Carex pansa and Carex praegracilis are often sold interchangeably, and they are not the same plant. The Carex pansa that he grows is evergreen, tolerates sun or light shade, can be planted any time of year, and can be kept to about 2-1/2 – 3”. Once established, it needs only to be mowed 4-6 times per year. In areas that are more shady he suggested several varieties including Carex remota, texensis, & carex tumulicola, but one of the best ones was Carex divulsa.
- Establishing the lawn. What was really interesting was that he mentioned several times that if you wanted these carexes to look like lawns, you needed think about what makes a lawn grow. True, these carexes do not need nearly the water or the fertilizing that a traditional lawn does, but they do need to be watered so they don’t dry out, and they do need fertilizer, especially nitrogen, to grow properly. Recommendations for planting:
- Plant plugs (much cheaper than 1 gallons) anywhere from 4” – 18” o.c, depending on budget and how quickly you want the plants to grow in
- Do not let them dry out. He suggested watering every day the first week; every other day the second week; and every third day the third week to get them established. And try to give them a little extra during the Santa Anas. One of the major reasons the lawns fail is that since they are supposed to be more ‘drought tolerant’ many folks under water them.
- Once they have a chance to get a bit settled (about 5-6 weeks), give them their first haircut: weed whacker, shears, mower, it didn’t seem to matter. By giving them a quick chop, it stimulates their side growth and encourages a quicker filling in. He recommends doing that every 4-6 weeks until the grass has grown in. Come warmer weather, they will grow like gangbusters.
So now I know much more about grasses than I did before, and am most grateful to John for having shared his time and knowledge. Hopefully, I have interpreted his recommendations correctly, and I look forward to creating beautiful, sustainable lawn alternatives.