Lawn Alternatives

Native flowers and grasses are low-maintenance and a beautiful alternative to grass.

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An ordinary turfgrass lawn can be very demanding and—let's be honest—dull. But you can transform your lawn into an extraordinary display of interesting foliage and blooms that changes each week. Replace the sod with native wildflowers, grasses and ground covers, and you'll have a lawn that needs little more than annual mowing. And, once it's established, a lawn full of native plants almost never needs watering, which will make your lawn the best-looking in your neighborhood when drought turns all the other yards brown. Returning the grassy area of your yard to a meadow of indigenous species will also attract birds, butterflies, and beneficial insects to your yard.

The single most important maintenance rule for growing healthy, attractive grasses—with few exceptions—is to cut back the foliage at least once a year, says John Greenlee, author of The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses. Cutting back is a substitute for the natural processes of periodic burning and grazing that take place in natural grassland ecology. Spring burning removes last year's growth and exposes the soil to the warming rays of the sun, a boost for newly emerging grasses. Here are some hints from Greenlee on caring for your grasses.

 

Caring for Ornamental Grasses

  • Many grasses prefer to be burned, but that can be dangerous and often not possible for the home gardener. Always check with the authorities in your area to find out if burning is permitted.
  • Or, cut back ornamental grasses just before or as the new season's growth begins to appear. It's best to cut most grasses back in late winter. This allows you to enjoy the glories of winter foliage.
  • In mild climates, some warm-season grasses such as kangaroo grass (Themeda spp.) are sheared in September to force new growth for the fall. This sacrifices the flowers, but the fall foliage is particularly showy.
  • Cut warm season grasses to within a few inches of the ground. Cut cool-season grasses to two-thirds of their full size.
  • Use a pair of sharp hand pruners to do the cutting. You can use a string trimmer (aka weed wacker) to cut large clumps of soft grasses.

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