'Low Care, No Care Grasses' A Water-Wise Alternative

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Editor's note: This is the sixth in a seven-part series on water-wise gardening techniques for the Rim country. Each installment, written by local author and garden expert Barbara Borscheidt, wraps up in next Friday's issue of the Roundup.

by Barb Bourscheidt

special to the roundup

Grasses are at the base of the land food chain. They offer us food and erosion control, and even have served as status symbols at various times in history.

Grasses cover the earth, are among some of the oldest plants we know, and have provided the opportunity for mankind to progress to the 21st century.

Unfortunately, lush, green lawns, grown for no purpose other than to surround a home, do not fulfill any of the above conditions. They are labor, water and chemical intensive, and tend to pollute the environment more than protect or restore it. An average lawn-centered landscape uses 40 to 60 percent of the total water flowing through a residential water meter, and in our dry climate, roughly 70 percent of that water is evaporated into the air. Lawns often require fertilization and pesticides to keep them green, both of which can have a negative impact on our water table and water treatment process. A mower is necessary to keep the lawn manicured. It typically uses electricity or gasoline and human energy, and causes noise pollution. A lawn can become a very expensive luxury, not only for the individual homeowner, but also the community. Small plots of grass do have their place, offering a soft surface for children to play or pets to frolic. Large, manicured turf areas are best managed by parks, where, in many cases, grassy areas are watered with re-used effluent, and large numbers of people have access to the areas.

If grass is a necessity in the high country home garden, there are a few varieties that love our clay, alkaline soils, do well on very little water, require no fertilization, and mowing only once or twice a season to keep them tidy.

Blue Grama Grass (Bouteloua gracilis), is a high plains native, warm season, very drought tolerant lawn grass. It is fine-textured, forms sod, is easy to establish, cold hardy and disease free. It can be sown anytime up to two months before the first fall frost, and will fill out well in the first season.

Left unmowed, Blue Grama will form bunches that will be 1 to 1 1/2 feet high with seed heads. About 3-4 pounds of seed is sufficient for 1000 square feet.

Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides) is a very low growing grass that only reaches 4-6 inches in height. It's durable sage-green color, drought hardiness, resistance to diseases and pests make it an excellent choice for necessary lawn areas and meadows. Buffalograss is now available as sod, in flats as plugs and by the pound as seed. A warm- season grass, it colors to beige over the winter but greens up in the late spring. It also will go dormant in the summer if extremely hot and dry, but bounces back beautifully when the monsoons come.

Other alternative lawn grasses are available through nurseries and catalogs. Based on the average amount of annual rainfall, requirements for cool or warm season grasses, or location needs, a single grass or combination of alternative unthirsty grasses can be chosen to meet almost any need. The table above is used by permission: Plants of the Southwest, Sante Fe, N.M.

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