Native Grasses in the Urban Landscape

Turfgrass is the most common plant found in the urban landscape. It is found in parks, along roadsides and around buildings and homes. Turfgrass is also the largest consumer of water and nutrients, requiring extensive irrigation and fertilization. Because most of the common grasses used in the urban landscape are not native to our region, they are often more susceptible to the pests and climate extremes of the prairies. Pesticide applications have become routine and are often used even without reason. All things considered, turfgrass is extremely high maintenance.

Increasing public awareness of environmental issues such as water shortage and pollution has created an interest in using native grass as turfgrass. The tradeoff? The superior colour and texture of common turfgrasses for the low maintenance and decreased inputs associated with native grasses. Native grasses have adapted to similar soil types and temperatures as well as insect and disease pressures. Therefore, native grass may be a viable alternative to high maintenance, high input turfgrass. A suitable native grass candidate should be low growing and competitive with a tolerance for infertile soils and drought.

The following native grasses have been identified as potential candidates for low maintenance turfgrass:

1. Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis)

Blue grama grows between 20-40 cm and requires very little mowing. It is a long-lived perennial that is both drought and salt tolerant. It prefers fine textured soils but will adapt to sandy conditions. A limitation to blue grama is its poor tolerance for flooding.

2. Rough hairgrass or ticklegrass (Agrostis scabra)

Rough hairgrass grows to an undisturbed height of 50 cm and can be mowed according to preference. It is an aggressive spreader that competes well against weeds. It will thrive in part shade to full sun and prefers moderate soil moisture. The soft, fine blades are desirable for a native lawn.

3. Western wheatgrass (Agropyron smithii)

Western wheatgrass grows to a height of approximately 40 cm. It is a sod-forming, long-lived perennial that, once established, will compete well against weeds. It is both drought and salt tolerant and will adapt to heavy clay, alkaline soils.

4. Junegrass (Koeleria gracilis)

Junegrass grows between 10-50 cm in height. It can grow in almost any soil type but prefers somewhat dry conditions. It is salt tolerant.

5. Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides)

Buffalograss grows to a height of approximately 10 cm. It is a low-growing, sod-forming perennial with curly, grey-green leaves. Other desirable attributes include drought tolerance and competitiveness. It is an ideal candidate for a low maintenance native lawn. However, buffalograss is actually native to the Great Plains of the United States and may exhibit marginal winter hardiness on the Canadian prairies. In the future, hardier varieties may be developed that are better equipped to handle the harsh prairie climate.

Native grass seed should be obtained from a reputable seed company in order to ensure seed viability, germination and establishment. Collecting seed from natural stands is not recommended, as it may not yield maximum performance.

Other references:
McKernan, D. 1994. Great Plains Turfgrass Manual. Patterson Productions, Alberta. 184 pages.

Mintenko, A.S. 2000. Turfgrass Evaluation of Native Grasses. University of Manitoba. 152 pages.