So Many Alternatives to Non Native Turf

| Colorado Native Plants, Ecological Services, Turf Conversion

By Deb Lebow Aal; Updated October 2023 by Jen Smith

Here we are again, talking about grass. I mean the Kentucky Blue Grass (KBG) and other non-native expanses we use as our default landscape. We wrote articles on this in past Wild Ones Front Range chapter newsletters (That Non Native Turf Grass Has Got to Go! and A Lawn on the Front Range, or Native Plants?), but just as I was seeing the tide turning on non-native turf (as evidenced by the bipartisan-supported state turf replacement bill HB 22-1151 and Aurora’s proposed restrictions on non-functional turf), I got a surprise lecture on the advantages of a KBG lawn from a gardening expert. So, I scrapped the article I was originally writing to address this issue again.

The unexpected speech was as follows: We need KBG because: 1) kids and dogs need a place to run around; 2) it provides cooling in a hot environment; and 3) it contributes moisture to this dry environment through evaporation.

Are these true? Yes, perhaps, except there are alternatives to non-native grass that can also achieve these goals with added ecological benefits, and without the distinct disadvantages of non-native turf. Two key disadvantages include:

  1. An expanse of KBG is an ecological dead zone, supporting very little or no wildlife
  2. KBG is actually quite needy. It requires a lot of water to thrive here on the Front Range (why one might praise it for “contributing moisture” when it’s simply just sending the water it needs back into the environment). KBG also demands “pochkying” (Yiddish slang for “fiddling with,” e.g., mowing and adding fertilizer and pesticides, if you want it weed-free). I suspect this gardening expert was thinking that the alternative to a KBG lawn is rock – pure rock – with no plants. Otherwise, huh?

The reality of the problem is that we have over 40 MILLION acres of lawn in this country. That’s the size of New England. That’s 40 million acres of a water-thirsty, ecological deadzone, as stated above. And, very little is ecologically healthy – Doug Tallamy says that only 5% of the land in the lower 48 states is in its natural state. We have logged it, tilled it, grazed it, mined it, built on it, paved it, drained it, etc. We’ve carved up the natural environment so much that what’s left is tiny fragments, not enough to support a healthy ecosystem. We have the insect apocalypse and bird population decline to show for it. So, if you think your little piece of land won’t help, and that it is up to our national parks and other public land to do the heavy ecosystem lifting, we have to think again.

As for the water needs of KBG, the amount of water the average Denver metro area household uses for landscape irrigation (55% or more) is simply unsustainable. This is not a future problem. An emergency federal order was just issued on June 14 for the seven states that comprise the Colorado River Basin to come up with a plan within 60 days to slash water use by millions of acre-feet to stave off a potential collapse in the Colorado River system (more info on that here) And (for now), I won’t even get into the carbon footprint of mowing!

So, what are our alternatives? Here are three great ones for starters.

Native Grasses

Here on the front range of Colorado, Buffalo Grass (Bouteloua dactyloides) is one heck of a solution. It is a drought resistant North American prairie grass that can make soft, dense, verdant lawns with a fraction of the water that KBG needs, little or no mowing, no pesticides or fertilizer, and it provides habitat for numerous species of insects. It grows 5” tall and has lovely seed-heads if left unmowed. Or mow it monthly for a more familiar, neat turf aesthetic. Admittedly, it won’t hold up as well as KBG to very heavy foot traffic for sports, but it can tolerate moderate traffic to provide an area for children and dogs to run around. Like KBG, it will cool down a hot environment, but the roots of Buffalo Grass go down much deeper than KBG (12-14 inches deep for buffalo grass, whereas KBG is about 1-2 inches deep), and for that reason will retain moisture in the area very well. It also sequesters carbon in those deep roots, and is resilient to weather extremes. What are the downsides, you ask? It is a warm season grass so it won’t come out of its winter dormancy and green up as early as non-native turf. On the other hand, once established, a Buffalo Grass lawn will remain green during the peak summer heat when traditional non-native lawns will turn brown without heavy irrigation. So that would be my number one solution.

Blue grama grass "lawn".
Blue grama grass “lawn”.

A Blue Grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) lawn is a beautiful native solution too. Blue Grama is co-dominant in short grass prairie with buffalo grass and is often seeded for a native turf mix with Buffalo Grass. Blue Grama reaches 1 foot tall and has attractive blue seed heads if left unmowed. Blue Grama is one of the host plants for Leonard’s Skipper and the common branded skipper. However, it does not like to be trampled, so it is not a solution to the running kids and dog problem. Kelly Grummons’ Dog Tuff Grass is another alternative for areas where you would like to walk or, as the name says, where you have heavy dog traffic. While it requires a lot less water than KBG and is very resilient, Dog Tuff is not a native plant solution.

Less Lawn

Shrinking your lawn to half its size is another solution. By expanding your flower beds, and planting mostly native plants, you will solve much of the problem. Tallamy suggests that if everyone cut their lawn size in half, and planted native plants on that half, we’d have 20 million more acres for Homegrown National Parks. He also suggests we switch the paradigm from lawn as the default everywhere, with a few foundation plant beds, to native plant beds as the default, with lawn as the pathways and/or small areas for sitting and playing.

More Prairie

For non-trafficked areas, you can also plant a prairie meadow by seed. It does require proper site preparation, regular maintenance up front, and a careful selection of native grasses and forbs to make sure the plants you want don’t get out-dominated. This is not a solution if you like a neat-looking landscape, and it does not particularly like being trampled, but once established is low maintenance, and the insects, butterflies and birds you will attract will be astounding.

We have a whole other article on how to take out your turf, but for now I’d say start slowly. Take out one piece where you’d like to see more insects and beautiful plants so that you don’t get overwhelmed. Make sure you plant native plant species there. Xeric plants are good for water conservation, but if they are not native, they will not render the ecological services we need. And, do some research (see our Toolkit) on which species to plant, as not all native plants are xeric.

In the NY Times article “Yes, You Can Do Better than the Great American Lawn“, the always amazing Margaret Renkl suggests strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) as an alternative to lawn, suggesting you can walk on it. I have yet to see this in real life, and I don’t know whether it would actually survive on less water than a conventional lawn here on the Front Range, but it’s an intriguing and delicious idea.

And I do want to emphasize we are not saying kill the lawn, although there are many books to that effect. If you love your lawn, try some alternatives to KBG, or just shrink the size of it. As always, if you plant even a few native plants, you will be helping solve some of the ecological problems we now face. I know there’s much more to discuss on this topic, so please email us with your comments and/or to share your “before and after” turf replacement pics.

Curious to learn more about transforming your garden into a habitat with Colorado native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees? Check out our native gardening toolkit, register for an upcoming eventsubscribe to our newsletter, and/or become a member – if you’re not one already!