Ornamental Grasses as Lawn Alternatives
by Sonoma County Master Gardener Steven Hightower
To review some important statistics about lawns and lawn alternatives: typical turfgrass uses 5,600 gallons of water per month per 1000 square feet of lawn (that’s only 20 ft by 50 ft). That’s 20-plus thousand gallons, in the summer alone. According to the Sonoma County Water Agency, the average three-person family in a single-family home uses approximately 60-80,000 gallons per year for lawn. Given water restrictions imposed last year, and the increasing evidence of climate change, reduced water supplies and rising drought conditions, it makes less and less sense to support significant amounts of water-sucking lawn.
There are numerous options to lawn, including Mediterranean planting, Xeriscape, herbaceous borders, and natural or native plantings. But what if you still want ‘grassy’ What if you want what’s closest to lawn in look, but with a much more water-efficient profile? Or a combination of lawn-like areas and larger grasses? Then think water-wise bunch and mound grasses—sometimes known as ornamental grasses.
There are several families of grass-like plants: Poaceae, true grasses, Cyperaceae, the sedges, Restionaceae, the restios, Juncaceae, the rushes, and Typhaceae, the cattails. Bamboo are also actually grasses, being in the Bambusoideae sub-family of Poaceae, and several Nolinas are quite grass-like. Much confusion can exist in the naming of grasses, as things may have the words ‘grass’ or ‘rush’ or ‘sedge’ in their common name, and actually be in another family. But what really matters is the look you are trying to achieve, and the suitability of the particular grass plant for your location, exposure and climate. You needn’t be concerned with nomenclature, as most of these plants coexist quite happily.
While certain varieties will grow large, and stay very individually mounded, other varieties will merge together in an undulating swath, such as Carex pansa (California meadow sedge), Carex tumilicola (Berkeley sedge) and Carex subfusca (Monterey Sedge).
A design challenge came recently when a friend with several areas of lawn had a mid-summer water bill (under current restrictions and tiered pricing) in excess of $1000! First up was a 15‘ deep x 40’ wide area of lawn, roughly rectangular in shape, that borders a driveway on one side, and an area of shrubs on the other, which is backed by some property-line screening trees.
At the rear of the house was a section of lawn in full sun behind a pool, backed by an arbor of wisteria and hedged on the sides by rosemary. Here we looked at a stone path from pool to arbor planted with a border of Miscanthus sinensis Arabesque (Japanese silver grass)
In another situation one might create a “prairie” landscape to replace a water-sucking expanse of lawn that once was used by the children for play, but which hasn’t been needed that way for years. You can mix grasses of different shapes and heights, that take little water and don’t need mowing more than once or twice a year: Panicum virgatum (switchgrass), Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem), Sporobolus heterolepsis (prairie dropseed) and Helictotrichon sempervirens (blue oatgrass). A variety of perennials mix well, too, in a prairie type setting. Blend in Coreopsis, (tickseed), Echinacea (coneflower), Perovskia (Russian sage), Eschscholzia (poppies) or Gaura for color and contrast.
In a more urban setting it might be desirable to replace one of the dreaded boring grass strips between sidewalk and curb. Again, Carex pansa or Carex praegracilis would provide a lawn-like undulating swath, or a blue fescue would create that nubby blue-green carpet.
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners