In the past few years, turfgrass researchers have been interested in native grasses as a replacement for some managed turfgrass areas. Traditional turfgrasses generally require more resources, especially on home lawns and golf courses. Typically, native grasses require less fertilization, are more drought tolerant, and are more disease and insect resistant. Severe droughts over the past few years have increased the public’s awareness of and requests for low-input turf-type grasses. Fortunately, continued breeding and wider-spread use of native grasses have led to the production of high quality native grasses that can stand up to the expectations of golf course superintendents and homeowners.
Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides (Nutt.) J.T.Columbus):
Buffalograss is native to the Great Plains, the southeast, and the southwest United States. It is a warm-season grass that is naturally adapted to hot, dry environments, and is tolerant to extreme temperatures and drought conditions. During periods of drought, buffalograss will go dormant sooner and revive more rapidly than other turfgrasses, retaining its sod-forming ability and making it a good alternative for bermudagrass in some situations. While not widespread in the Carolinas, NC State’s Turffiles (http://www.turffiles.ncsu.edu/) suggests that buffalograss is an excellent option for a low-maintenance turf-type grass along roadsides, in parks, on school grounds, and in open lawn areas. It requires little fertilization but is not well-adapted to shade or areas of heavy traffic.
In recent research plots at the Horticultural Field Laboratory in Raleigh, this grass was established by vegetative plugs, and lightly-managed as a low-input lawn. The “turf” was mowed every two weeks at 10 cm, and fertilized only lightly and occasionally. Once the area grew in fully, the buffalograss “lawn” maintained both a nice verdant color and good density (see photo). If weeds can be managed (or tolerated to some degree), this grass might have the potential to be used as a native turfgrass in low-input lawns and lightly managed turf areas. It is important to note that this research did not look at the effect of traffic on the quality and establishment of this grass as this factor should be taken into account when choosing a location for planting.
Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis (Willd. ex Kunth) Lag. ex Griffiths):
The gramas, closely related to buffalograss, are a group of warm-season bunchgrasses native to much of the United States, including portions of the southeastern United States. These grasses are well-suited to the Carolinas, as they are tolerant of saline soils, moderate alkalinity, and sandy to clayey soils as well as drought conditions.
In a 2014 study conducted at NC State University, blue grama did not perform well as a ground cover at lower mowing heights, but exhibited good turf quality and color at mowing heights of at least 10 cm. Blue grama also performed better at a mowing frequency of every fourteen days when compared with the typical seven-day frequency. These characteristics make this grass well-suited to a low-input, low-maintenance open landscape setting, as this grass does best under full sun, and does not tolerate shady conditions.
Poverty Grass or Poverty Oatgrass (Danthonia spicata (L.) P. beauv. Ex Roem & Schult.):
An excellent cool-season grass that is beginning to catch the attention of researchers is poverty oatgrass. This extremely drought-tolerant, clump-forming grass is native to much of the United States and Canada, and does well on poor, acidic, and rocky soils. In fact, this grass seems to prefer sites with particularly low moisture and nutrition, such as roadsides and pastures. This grass does not tolerate competition from taller vegetation (weeds), but, there are no known pest issues.
Recent research at NC State University also evaluated the performance of poverty oatgrass as a potential alternative to traditional turfgrass in a low-input, “lightly managed” lawn-type setting. In our field trials, poverty oatgrass performed best under low- to no- irrigation. Under regular irrigation (one inch of water per week), poverty oatgrass displayed less desirable turf quality and eventual death, likely due to the excess moisture. With no irrigation, poverty oatgrass maintained good color and turf quality. We did see that after a few seasons, weed competition hampered overall quality, probably due to the grasses typical slow growth rate. One advantage of this slow rate of growth, though, is that this grass can tolerate infrequent mowing. The grass demonstrated the best turf quality when these plots went 21 days between cuttings, as compared with a weekly or bi-weekly mowing frequency.
A greenhouse drought study, also conducted at NC State, demonstrated the durability and drought-tolerance of poverty oatgrass. In a comparison of five grasses – buffalograss, blue grama, bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon (L.) Pers.), poverty oatgrass, and tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea L.) – poverty oatgrass maintained its green color the longest over the thirty days of continuous drought, and responded with more rapid green-up after water was re-applied.
Native grasses, such as the ones mentioned here, have promise for use in sustainable landscape designs that strive to incorporate water conservation, reduce fertilizer inputs, and contribute to a more biologically diverse landscape, whether it be on a golf course or a home lawn.
— Written by Danesha Seth Carley