Native Grasses for Lawns

By Craig Huegel, reprinted from The Understory, 1998–1999
Photos from the Atlas of Florida Plants

I recently was given the task of writing a brief article on using native grasses as an alternative to a standard lawn in Florida. This assignment has made me even more aware of how far away we are from the native lawn movements that are occuring in other states. Battles are being fought elsewhere to permit the use of native lawns and prairies and many of these have forced governments to alter ordinances. In Texas, for example, it is not unusual to find lawns of Buffalo Grass. In Iowa or Wisconsin, native prairies are returning to small patches of suburbia where once it was illegal.

Florida, however, seems far from this. In many of our subdivisions we have ordinances that actually require a certain percentage of lawn to be installed. In the cases I am aware of, these lawns must be composed of nonnative turf grass and the lawn must be about 50% of the total yard. All lawn ordinances that I have seen reqire that grass be maintained at a height no greater than 18 inches. Therefore I am writing an article for a nationally distributed publisher on a topic that has little chance of success at present. Waste of time?

I believe that there are native grasses that could be used as an alternative to the traditional lawn. To use them in suburbia is not impossible if done with care. But, the bottom line is that we have a tough row to hoe if we wish to see this movement succeed in Florida and it will take ingenuity and persistence.

Native sandhills, prairies and flatwoods give us a model of grasslands that are not too different from the Midwest and western prairie systems that are being with success in their respective areas. Wiregrass and pinewoods dropseed are bunch grasses that rarely exceed 18 inches in when not in flower or seed. They are adaptable to a wide range of conditions typically found in developed landscapes. Another choice would be some of the lower-growing lovegrasses. Shadier areas could support creeping grasses such as the low panicums (Dicanthelium spp.) or basket grass. Bunch grass lawns do not look normal to those of us who are used to creeping grasses such as Bahia and St. Augustine, but we could make them smoother by planting the spaces between bunches with low-growing wildflowers such as ruellia or twinflower.

Bunch grass lawns also could be me made more palatable to those more conservative by careful mowing. Wiregrass, for example, is a cool-season grass that basically quits growing in late spring. It sends up its flower/seed stalk in May/June. Mowing this stalk off would maintain the plant at an acceptable height and keep the plant looking "tidier."

I believe that the next great battle of native plants is for us to tackle the lawn problem. Up to now, we seem to have concentrated mostly on reducing its size, either by planting non-grass natives or by using mulches, etc. I believe it's time to look at using grasses, too.

Aristida stricta, Wiregrass. Prior to developoment, wiregrass covered more than fifty percent of Florida's surface. it is the dominant understory grass in many of Florida's native plant communities and isnearly universal in areas that receive adequate sunlight. Wiregrass thrives in both the droughty soils of upland pinelands and the poorly drained soils of prairies. Because of its adaptability, wiregrass can be used in a wide variety of landscape settings, except for coastal areas that receive direct salt spray or in areas of excessively high pH.

Wiregrass is a cool-season grass that begins growth in mid-January. Its thin, wiry leaves grow rapidly during the winter and spring, but rarely exceed 15 inches in height. Growth ceases after the seed heads form in May or June. These seed heads reach a height of one to three feet.

Wiregrass can be established either by direct seeding or by the planting of individual plants. Although seed was largely unavailable, it can now be obtained from a number of sources. Sow the seed no deeper than one inch in bare soil and mulch lightly with grass clippings for best results. Wiregrass germinates in about three weeks if adequate watering occurs. The seedlings are relatively slow to establish themselves. Quicker results will be obtained by using container-grown plants or by transplanting pieces of mature clumps. If plants are used, space them no closer than two feet apart.

Wiregrass is easy to maintain once established. it is esceptionally tolerant of drought and periods of inundation, and it thrives in Florida's extremes of temperature and sunlight. Ifmowing is desired, it should be done in early summer to remove the seedheads. Mowing heights must not be set lower than 12 inches.

Bottlebrush threeawnAristida spiciformis, Bottlebrush threeawn. Bottlebrush threeawn is another species of wiregrass that differs in several key characteristics. Unlike wiregrass, this species is a warm-season grass that produces most of its growth in the late spring and summer months. Its multiple seed heads reach their mature height of 10-30 inches sometime between august and September. These are bristly and brushlike. If allowed to mature, the bristly awns will catch in clothing. For this reason and for the sake of "tidiness," this grass should be mowed lightly in midsummer.

Except for these differences, bottlebrush threeawn is very similar to wiregrass. It remains green throughout the year and it maintains its relatively low growth form when not in seed. In nature, this grass i found throughout Florida in a wide variety of open habitats that range from sandy well-drained sites to poorly drained sloughs. Establishment and management of this grass should be similar to that recommended for wiregrass, except that there are few commercial sources for seed or seedlings at present.

Pinewoods dropseedSporobolus junceus, Pinewoods dropseed. Pinewoods dropseed is found in the same plant communities as wiregrass. In fact, these two grasses are relatively difficult for the casual observer to distinguish from each other when they are not in flower. Pinewoods dropseed has densely tufted needlelike leaves, but these leaves have a somewhat softer texture to the touch. Height of themature blades is about 18 inches above ground and they are evergreen.

Unlike the wiregrass species described above, pinewoods dropseed does nothave a well-defined flowering season. It often responds to environmental changes such as fire or unusual rains by flowering. Routine mowing may also stimulate this response, so mowing should be kept to aminimum. Seedheads are an attractive reddish color and on stalks about two feet in height.

Pinewoods dropseed mixes well in nature with either of the wiregrasses described above, but mixing them in a lawn will complicatemaintenance because they produce seed heads at different times of the year and this would require additional mowing. Maintenance practices for this grass are identical to those described above. This species is commercially available on a small scale, primarily as seedlings.

Eragrostis spp., Lovegrass. Within this rather large genus of grasses are several that could be effectively used in the lawn due to their size and their perennial habit. All of these, however, are a bit coarser in nature than the grasses described above. Leaf blades are flat (not needlelike) and a bit stiff to the touch. The plants themselves also are more rigid. Nevertheless, the lovegrasses described below are extremely adaptable and durable.

Coastal lovegrass (E. refracta) and Elliot's lovegrass (E. elliottii) are very similar except that the latter has leaves that are somewhat silvery in color. Both species are 18-24 inches at mature leaf height and their blooming season is between midsummer and early winter. Purple lovegrass (E. spectabilis) is several inches shorter in all regards and flowers between August and November. As the name implies this species also has very attractive purple-colored flower/seed heads. Although lovegrasses are perennial, they decline after flowering and do not maintain a lush appearance during the winter months. They also differ from the grasses described above by forming rhizomes from the base of each clump that allow the grass to rapidly expand outward. Lovegrasses are rather quick to fill an open spot in the lawn. This can be both positive ornegative depending on your point ov view. A lawn of lovegrass will require some maintenance to keep it within the 18-inch standard, but this is relatively easy to do because these grasses are tough and resilient to mistakes in mowing height. Establishment is simple from either seed or direct planting, but there currently is little commercial availability. A few nurseries arenow offering both Elliott's and purple lovegrass as seedlings and as containerized plants. If plants are used, plant them no closer than 30 inches apart.

The mission of the Florida Native Plant Society is to promote the preservation, conservation, and restoration of the native plants and native plant communities of Florida.