Lawn Alternatives

Native flowers and grasses are low-maintenance and a beautiful alternative to grass.

December 9, 2010

An ordinary turfgrass lawn can be very demanding and—let's be honest—dull. But you can transform your lawn into an extraordinary display of interesting foliage and blooms that changes each week. Replace the sod with native wildflowers, grasses and ground covers, and you'll have a lawn that needs little more than annual mowing. And, once it's established, a lawn full of native plants almost never needs watering, which will make your lawn the best-looking in your neighborhood when drought turns all the other yards brown. Returning the grassy area of your yard to a meadow of indigenous species will also attract birds, butterflies, and beneficial insects to your yard.

The single most important maintenance rule for growing healthy, attractive grasses—with few exceptions—is to cut back the foliage at least once a year, says John Greenlee, author of The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses. Cutting back is a substitute for the natural processes of periodic burning and grazing that take place in natural grassland ecology. Spring burning removes last year's growth and exposes the soil to the warming rays of the sun, a boost for newly emerging grasses. Here are some hints from Greenlee on caring for your grasses.



Caring for Ornamental Grasses

  • Many grasses prefer to be burned, but that can be dangerous and often not possible for the home gardener. Always check with the authorities in your area to find out if burning is permitted.
  • Or, cut back ornamental grasses just before or as the new season's growth begins to appear. It's best to cut most grasses back in late winter. This allows you to enjoy the glories of winter foliage.
  • In mild climates, some warm-season grasses such as kangaroo grass (Themeda spp.) are sheared in September to force new growth for the fall. This sacrifices the flowers, but the fall foliage is particularly showy.
  • Cut warm season grasses to within a few inches of the ground. Cut cool-season grasses to two-thirds of their full size.
  • Use a pair of sharp hand pruners to do the cutting. You can use a string trimmer (aka weed wacker) to cut large clumps of soft grasses.

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Regional Grasses and Wildflowers
A comprehensive list of meadow plants for your region and sources where you can get them.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus), silver bluestem (Andropogon ternarius), tickle grass (Agrostis haemalis), blanket flower Gaillardia aristata, G. pulchella), plains coreopsis (Coreposis tinctoria), lance-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), showy primrose (Oenothera speciosa), southern ragwort (Senecio aureus), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Height: 1 1/2 -2 feet.
Maintenance: Mow no lower than 4-6 inches once a year, best in late winter.
Sources: 3, 4, 5, 6

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus), sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), red top (Agrostis alba), yellow Maryland aster (Chrysopsis mariana), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), pussytoes (Antennaria plaginifolia), crested iris (Iris cristata), wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), bird's-foot violet (Viola pedata), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Height: 1 1/2-2 feet.
Maintenance: Mow no lower than 4-6 inches once a year, best in late winter/early spring.
Sources: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Wiregrass (Aristida stricta), bottlebrush three-awn (Aristida spiciformis), pinewoods dropseed (Sporobolus junceus), sunshine mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa), twinflower (Dyschoriste oblongifolia), gopher apple (Licania michauxii), wild petunia (Ruellia caroliniensis), dwarf blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandifloria, Gaillardia pulchella).
Height: 12-15 inches; grass seed heads will be higher
Maintenance: Use string trimmer or swing blade to remove seed heads but don't cut lower than 10 inches
Sources: 1, 2

Midwest/Prairie states
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), gayfeather (Liatris punctata), prairie clover (Petalostemum purpureum), compassplant (Silphium laciniatum), mountain mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum), partridge pea (Cassia fasciculata), Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum), cupplant (Silphium perfoliatum), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata), sky blue asters (Aster azureus), New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), nodding onion (Allium cernuum), turk's-cap lily (Lilium superbum), yellow prairie coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida), Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum).
Height: 4-8 feet.
Maintenance: Mow once a year in early spring before new growth begins.
Sources: 5, 6, 8

Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides), purple three-awn (Aristida purpurea), sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), sand verbena (Abronia fragrans), desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata), wine cup (Callirhoe involucrata), pastel poppy (Eschscholzia caespitosa), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), showy primrose (Oenothera speciosa), prairie zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora), perky Sue (Hymenoxys argentea), sand penstemon (Penstemon ambiguus), pagoda penstemon (Penstemon angustifolius).
Height: 2 feet.
Maintenance: Cut in late winter no lower than 6 inches.
Sources: 4, 7

California/Pacific Northwest
Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), purple needlegrass (Nassella [formerly Stipa] pulchra), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), meadow barley (Hordeum brachyantherum), Pacific coast iris (Iris munzii, I. Fernaldii, I. Purdyi, I. Innominata, and others), California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica), tidytips (Layia platyglossa), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum).
Height: 12-18 inches.
Maintenance: Cut once a year in late winter/early spring; no lower than 5 inches.
Sources: 9, 10

Plan and create your dream landscape by following this guide!
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1. Central Florida Native Flora, P.O. Box 1045, San Antonio, FL 33576-1045; (352) 588-3687
2. The Natives, 2929 JB Carter Road, Davenport, FL 33837; (941) 422-6664
3. Ernst Conservation Seeds, 9006 Mercer Pike, Meadville, PA 16335; (814) 336-2404; this is a wholesale supplier but will sell to customers who order $25 or more
4. Bluestem Nursery, 4104 Curry Road, Arlington, TX 76001; (817) 478-6202
5. Shooting Star, 444 Bates Road, Frankfort, KY 40601; (502) 223-1679
6. Prairie Nursery, P.O. Box 306, Westfield, WI 53964; (608) 296-3679
7. Plants of the Southwest, Aqua Fria, Rt. 6, Box 11-A, Santa Fe, NM 87501; (505) 471-2212
8. Prairie Moon Nursery, RR #3, Box 163, Winona, MN 55987-9515; (507) 452-1362
9. Central Coast Wilds, 114 Liberty St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060; (408) 459-0656
10. Elkhorn Native, P.O. Box 270, Moss Landing, CA 95039; (831) 763-1207
11. Greenlee Nursery, 301 Franklin Ave., Pomona, CA 91766; (714) 629-9045
12. Heaths & Heathers, E. 502 Haskell Hill Road, Shelton, WA 98584-8429; (360) 427- 5318
13. Rock Spray Nursery, Box 693, Truro, MA 02666; (508) 349-6769
14. Well Sweep Herb Farm, 205 Mt. Bethel Road, Port Murray, NJ 07865; (908) 852- 5390.
15. Bluestone Perennials, 7211 Middle Ridge Road, Madison, OH 44057-3096; (800) 852-5243.
16. Appalachian Gardens, P.O. Box 87, Waynesboro, PA 17268-0087; (717) 762-4733
17. Park Seed Co., 1 Parkton Ave., Greenwood, SC 29647-0001; (800) 845-3369.