Sustainable “Imperfect” Turf Options

Sustainable "Imperfect" Turf Options Featured Image
The “perfect lawn” – that oft-celebrated but all-too-rarely achieved carpet of unblemished turf grass – is a seductive concept.  It’s also impossible to grow in most areas of the United States without major inputs of pesticides, fertilizer, water, and labor (as well as cash).  This is not to mention the significant secondary costs that come with chemically supported lawns, such as damage to beneficial soil microbes and the neighboring environment.  What’s good for that velvety green carpet is often not good for other forms of life.
Fafard Premium Topsoil packA more affordable, achievable, and organism-friendly approach is to choose and use a mix of turfgrasses and other plants that will do well in your yard’s various conditions and habitats.  Some even produce bee-friendly blooms. The resulting lawn may not be as plush as a chemically sustained monoculture of Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), but it will be considerably more affordable, sustainable, and engaging.  And you can always keep a couple of hundred square feet of more heavily pampered turf grass for those times when you want to sink your toes into something plusher.  For the less plushy areas of the lawn, here are some possibilities to consider.

A Potpourri of Turf Grasses

Grass on bridge
Mixed grasses lend a yard or landscape a natural look.

Sow a mixture of several low-maintenance turf grasses, varying the mix to match the conditions.  For example, fine fescues and perennial rye are among the best choices for relatively shady, dry, infertile sites, whereas Kentucky bluegrass should be reserved for sunny lawn mixes.  Look for grass seed varieties that harbor beneficial fungi known as endophytes, which enhance the grasses’ vigor and pest-resistance.

Sow the grass seed in bare, freshly tilled soil during cool weather, preferably in early fall.  Add appropriate amendments (based on a soil test) before tilling the soil.  After sowing the seed, cover it with a ¼-inch of Fafard Premium Topsoil, and water lightly.  Give the seedbed a daily spritz of water during dry weather.

Colonies of Clover

White Dutch clover
White Dutch clover lends a pastoral look to lawns and feeds bees.

In the early twentieth century, before “perfect lawns” on chemical life support became all the rage, Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) was a standard ingredient in lawn seed mixes.  This mat-forming legume was valued for its ability to add nutrients and all-summer greenery to the lawn via its nitrogen-capturing roots and drought-resistant foliage.  For these same reasons, it’s making a well-deserved comeback as a subject for sunny to semi-shaded lawns.  It’s also becoming available in low-growing, sparse-flowering varieties (known as microclovers) that blend beautifully with turf grasses. Their blooms also feed bees.

A Mélange of Mosses

Tree covered with moss
Well established moss lawns are truly beautiful.

Does moss keep invading your turf grass?  Then maybe it’s time to take the hint and treat the grass rather than the moss as the weed.  A patchwork of mosses can make a striking ground cover for an area of the garden that’s too shady and acidic for turf grasses.  You can amend or extend your moss carpet by digging and planting chunks of moss scavenged from nearby areas (your neighbors may be more than happy to contribute some clumps from shade-challenged portions of their lawns).

Most mosses do not tolerate frequent, heavy foot traffic, so keep the parties and volleyball tournaments to other parts of the yard.  An occasional pass with a leaf blower will help keep your moss lawn free of weed seeds and smothering plant debris.

A Sward of Sedges

Pennsylvania sedge
Dense sedges, like Pennsylvania sedge, are great for shadier, moister landscapes.

If you’d rather grow something grassy in your shady lawn areas, consider the sedges.  Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) spreads steadily into thatches of low, grassy leaves that arch with age, giving them a windblown look.  The seed of this species does not always germinate readily, so it’s usually planted as plugs, spaced 6 to 8 inches apart.  Also excellent as a shady lawn subject is ivory sedged (Carex eburnea), which forms tight, bristly clumps of 4-inch-long leaves.  An easy germinator, it can be sown, turf grass style, into suitable garden areas.

A Plethora of Robin’s Plantain

'Lynnhaven's Carpet' sunny daisies
The sunny daisies of ‘Lynnhaven’s Carpet’ light up unconventional lawns. (Image by Russell Stafford)

Going by the botanical name of Erigeron pulchellus, this spreading perennial is a common invader of drought-stricken lawns throughout its native range of eastern and central North America.  Accordingly, its attractive, mat-forming cultivars ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’ and ‘Meadow Muffin’ make excellent subjects for lawn areas (sun or shade) that are too dry and infertile for turf grasses.  Both spread into dense carpets of furry, gray-green leaves, topped in late spring by palest pink or white daisy-flowers on fuzzy stems. (These feed all manner of insect pollinators.) The larger, more rapidly spreading of the two, ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’ has 4-inch, tongue-shaped leaves, and 14-inch flower stems.  In contrast, ‘Meadow Muffin’ is distinguished by its congested, crinkly leaves and its relatively short-stemmed (10-inch) flowers.

Patches of Pussytoes

Pussytoes bloom
Pussytoes bloom in spring with their unique fuzzy flowers.

Native to the Americas, pussytoes (Antennaria spp.) are naturally low-growing, spreading bloomers in the daisy family that form broad patches of fine, silver-gray foliage. They naturally favor drier lawns and will tough it out during the hottest summer weather. In spring, they send up small stems of fuzzy flowers that feed bees and other insects. Pussytoes lay so low that they are missed by mowers. Established colonies are long-lived and make nice additions to lawns.

If you want a lawn that’s easier on your budget, your schedule, and the environment, early fall is a great time to make the switch to one of the many less burdensome options – and to escape the grip of that mythical velvety turf.

About Russell Stafford

Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University.

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