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The Positive Impact of Native Grasses

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Contributing blogger -

Anne Casey - Virtual Education Coordinator

I came across an interesting book recently, but it was the title of the book that really got me thinking. Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainier and Claudia West presents a plan to invite nature back into our built spaces. Great! But “Post-Wild World”? - what a depressing phrase. Have we really come to such a state? Maybe. A 2005 NASA study found that American lawns are our country’s biggest irrigated crop – larger than corn, wheat, and fruit orchards combined – covering a combined area of 63,000 square miles, almost 2% of the land area of the continental United States. All those lawns require massive amounts of resources - water, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, fuel for mowers - and offer almost nothing to wildlife.

Native grasses not only make great lawns, but they also support native species, like Green Skipper Butterflies. They use fewer resources and require less work to maintain. Two species in particular – buffalograss and blue grama – are well adapted to grow in Pueblo’s semiarid climate. These two grasses were the foundation for the shortgrass prairie ecosystem which once occupied most of Colorado east of the Rockies. Now half of that land has been converted to agricultural and lawns. Maybe we can bring a little bit of wild back to our yards.

Buffalograss is a warm-season, perennial, sod-forming grass that spreads by overground stolons. If left unmown, it grows to a height of 8-10 inches. Maintaining it at 3-5 inches requires mowing only once every 3 weeks. It is heat and drought tolerant, requiring only ½ inch of water per week once established. Blue grama has similar needs to buffalograss and the two are often grown together. Blue grama is a bunch grass that spreads by underground rhizomes and it grows up to 15 inches unmown. Fun fact: it is the state grass of Colorado! Growing a combination of these two grasses allows each one to find its own best microcosm, optimizing your chances of having a thick, healthy lawn.

Establishing your native lawn will require some work. These native grasses grow more slowly than the traditional Kentucky bluegrass. Seed will take at least 2 weeks to germinate, and growth will be slow for the first year. Watering during this growth phase is essential. A minimum of 1 inch per week should be enough, depending on the weather. Other options for establishing a native grass lawn are plugs and sod. Seed is the most economical choice, but also the most work intensive. Buffalograss seed costs about $50/pound and covers about 350 sq.ft. Plugs cost about a dollar each and can be spaced one foot apart. That same 350 sq.ft. will cost $300 if you choose plugs, but the lawn will be established more quickly. The easiest method is sod. A pallet of sod covers 450 sq.ft. and costs about $300. After the first year, maintenance costs go down considerably.

I planted a buffalograss lawn in Pueblo West several years ago from seed. It’s dense and very rarely admits a weed into its tight-knit community. I have never fertilized it, yet it is green and lush. It is spreading on its own to continue its march across my once kochia-choked Pueblo West backyard and I only water it once a week in the summer for about half an hour. I have dogs and it stands up to their running, peeing and the other things dogs do. Having said that, be prepared for native grasses to go brown after the first frost and to take their time greening up in spring. My buffalograss lawn greens up about 3 weeks later than my neighbor’s fescue lawn.

As native grasses mature, their roots grow deeper and deeper into the soil, typically reaching down a foot or so. Over time, they can grow up to 3 feet deep. This underground biomass absorbs carbon dioxide at similar rates as trees, earning it the moniker, “upside-down rainforest”.

So, consider growing a native grass lawn and better yet, bring in some native wildflowers as well. You can see a sample of mixed grasses and wildflowers at the Bison Exhibit, here at the Pueblo Zoo. Let’s support our native wildlife and maybe together we can stave off a “post-wild” world.


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