Changing Thoughts on Turf Grass

Posted: October 13, 2011

Want to reduce mowing? Try planting one of our native grasses in a small area of your yard and see how you like it!

Some of our native grasses have proven to make great, low maintenance “lawns”.  One of these grasses, Carex, is clump forming and arching in form.  Recommended for mowing only twice per year, this group of native grasses gives texture to your yard and can replace traditional turf grass areas that may be low traffic areas.  Although most Carex species can tolerate traffic, as a clump forming grass, it may not be as comfortable to walk on as the typical turf type grasses.

As a result of a broken lawn mower, I have determined that it’s time to consider converting some of our unutilized lawn space into a grass that is low in height, low in maintenance, and high in texture and beauty while using native plants to achieve this purpose. Not only will it reduce time spent cutting grass, it will also reduce gas usage and air pollution.

Whenever starting a new project like this, I like to be sure I’m planting the right plant for the growing environment. I want to have as much success as possible. Many of the Carex species are great for shade, making my location more of a challenge, since I have a sunny spot that I would like to transition to this new grass area.  However, after researching the native grasses, I have determined that the best species for my location is Carex pennsylvanica.  This arching, low grass can tolerate dry shade to sun.  It gets about 1 ½ feet tall at maturity.  In a mass planting, as I plan to use it, it should form low mounds, giving an interesting texture to the yard. 

Another grass that I could probably use is Carex eburnea, or bristleleaf sedge.  This sedge looks very similar to Carex pennsylvanica; however, it seems to do better in shade than sun.  I may try some of this species just as an experiment to see which does better in my environment.

When starting an area with this type of grass, seed typically doesn’t work.  It is difficult to germinate; therefore, very poor success will be achieved.  The recommended way of starting this type of planting is by using plugs.  These are small plants that are planted in the soil as you would plant annuals. For large areas, this can be expensive, but if you are testing a small area, like I am, it’s worth a try and the investment.   Bed preparation is the same as starting any vegetable or perennial garden.  Till the soil, rack out stones and clumps of grass and weeds, mix in organic matter, plant and water!

In our side yard, where little happens, our turf grass – blue grass and rye grass mix - is the first to brown out.  It is the eastern side of the house, but gets full sun where the turf is growing. Our soil in this area is rocky and shallow; which is why I’d like to try Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans.  This grass gets to be much taller than the Carex, reaching up to 5’ high.  It’s very tolerant of many types soils, from loam to clay to gravel, as well as dry environments.  The infloresents bloom in late summer-early fall and the fall color of this grass is beautiful, getting almost a coppery color in the leaves.  This will give us a lovely fall color to the yard and be low maintenance: mowing is recommended only once a year in the early spring.

Unlike the Carex, the Indian grass is easily started from seed.  This makes it much more affordable.  Starting the planting for Indian grass is very much like starting a typical turf grass.  Soil preparation should include tilling the area, raking clumps and stones/rocks from the area, adding organic matter, and sowing seed and watering it in.

The game plan is to work these areas this fall, planting the plugs as well as sowing the seed.  I’m excited to see our results this coming spring and summer – I’ll let you know how it goes!

Mary Ann Ryan is the Extension Consumer Horticulture Educator serving the southeast region.  Penn State is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity, and the diversity of its workforce.  Penn State Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County is located at 310 Allen Road, suite 601, Carlisle, PA  17013, phone 717-240-6500, Office e-mail