Wild About Texas – October, 2007
Water conservation is “the single most critical conservation issue in Texas” (Governor’s Task Force on Conservation 2000). Turfgrasses, including residential and commercial lawns and golf courses, are the single largest irrigated crop in America in terms of surface area. Turfgrasses cover about 50,000 square miles – an area the size of the state of Mississippi.
As responsible citizens, we need to consider what type of turf, if any, we choose to maintain in our yards. It may not be financially practical to uproot an existing thirsty lawn, but if you are planning a new lawn, buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides) is a drought-tolerant native turf option.
Buffalograss is a fine-textured plant that spreads by stolons to form a sod. It grows best in full sun or part shade and where there is good drainage and light foot traffic. It requires little or no supplemental water. With only natural rainfall, it typically becomes dormant during dry periods; irrigate as necessary to keep it green during the summer. Buffalograss forms a deep root system and thrives on soils at least 12 inches deep. Where soils are thin, it can become weak and susceptible to weed infestation.
Weeds are a common complaint. The most serious invader is bermudagrass, which is very similar in appearance and can easily be missed until it has already gained a foothold. Infrequent mowing dramatically reduces most annual weeds. The best-looking and healthiest buffalograss lawns I’ve seen have never been mowed. Uncut, buffalograss will reach 6 to 8 inches, undulating gracefully on breezy days. This “prairie” look may take getting used to for some homeowners, but is quite elegant to the initiated eye.
So, do you really need a lawn? Some argue the need to accommodate pets and kids. Pets are happy romping on mulch or paths amidst flowerbeds, (although some are too rambunctious to be tolerated in a garden). And what better place for kids to explore and engage than in a garden with caterpillars and lizards? Send them to a neighborhood park to play football or frisbee.
A good reason to appreciate lawns is the smooth “neutral” canvas they provide in the landscape. Turf can be a welcome “palette cleanser” for transition areas within a garden. Many native groundcovers can meet the design requirements usually filled by grasses. Gregg’s dalea (Dalea greggii) is one of my favorites, with its spreading silver stems. Frogfruit (Phyla sp.) is another that fills in densely via runners and is great mowed. Other options are various sedges (Carex spp.), silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea), wooly stemodia (Stemodia lanata) and horse herb (Calyptocarpus vialis) for shady places. To green up winter dormant plantings, try overseeding with spring blooming annuals such as Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) or baby blue-eyes (Phacelia congesta).
For more information about Texas native plants, visit the Wildflower Center’s website at: www.wildflower.org. The mission of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes.
About the author: Andrea DeLong-Amaya is the Director of Horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.