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New ideas for lawns: Part 1 – Meadow-making with Red Fescue

Lawn replacements are hot!  We live in the West–a thirsty environment, so let’s adapt our plant material to our water and not the other way around.

 

An example of a natural bunch grass meadow--nature's perfection

An example of a natural bunch grass meadow--nature's perfection

 

Here is one recipe for making a meadow.  I no longer use Festuca rubra or Red Fescue as a lawn substitute in California.  I am now using, exclusively, a native Carex or sedge, which I’ll describe in Part 2, coming later.

 

High altitude meadow

Meadow at 9000 feet with wildflowers

 

As a side note, my native grass mix  that I put together here in Wyoming is coming up very nicely.  I ordered a mix of Blue Bunch wheatgrass (Agropyron spicatum), Koeleria cristata, and Festuca–all natives to this area.  In early June, after I graded my new dirt road, I scattered the seed, raked it in, then watered it heavily for several days.  It rained every afternoon for several weeks and the new seed came up.  It’s still green and establishing nicely, and I haven’t watered it at all (now mid-July).  When the afternoon thunderstorms slow down, the grass might go dormant, then be covered with snow, but it will come up again thickly in the spring, and hold my steep road together.

 

Meadow of bunchgrasses and sage

Meadow of bunchgrasses and sage

 

Making a native lawn or meadow requires ridding the area of non-native weeds and annual grasses.  The Wests’ native grasses are bunch grasses.  Bunch grasses give to the soil, while European annuals taketh away from the soil.  But since the annuals reseed profusely and our perennial bunch grasses take more time to establish, the annuals overwhelm the natives.  That is why this is the ONLY situation in which I use an herbicide.  Native grasses need a leg-up to establish.  I use Round-up because it breaks down fairly fast.  You may need to Round-up, water for 6 weeks, then Round-up again if you are overwhelmed with weeds.  If you don’t do this, then the natives can not get established and the ‘weeds’ will take over quickly.

Preparation of Seedbed

1. Remove weeds and non-native exotics.  This can be done by hand, preferably during winter months.  Well-established introduced exotics, e.g. broom can be cut at the base.  Apply Round-up to the woody stems.  Leaving the roots in the ground may prevent erosion until the new meadow is established.
2. If the meadow is on a steep slope (50% or more), lay down jute netting on the steepest slope sections prior to seeding.  Hold in place with irrigation pins.
3. Soil bed should be loose and friable.  If not, cultivate and add rich composted material to a depth of 2-3”, well mixed with existing soils, to a depth of 6” if possible.  If erosion control is an issue, or a leach field, you might not choose to cultivate as deep as 6”

Irrigation

1. The entire meadow area should be irrigated with pop-up spray heads that provide 100% coverage of the area to be seeded.  If this is not possible, the meadow must be seeded in the late fall/early winter and hand watered on a weekly basis for the first year.  Water regime can be adjusted based on weather, site conditions and seed germination rates.  Rely on winter rains when possible.

Seeding

1.  Festuca rubra, Red Fescue, is recommended for sun or shade.  This is a rhizomatous grass.  Allow at least 3 years to establish a thick, fully covered meadow.  Seed the first year with 5# per acre (43,00 sq. ft.  @t 400,000 seeds/lb.  Use 2 oz/1000 sq. ft. or use 3.7 oz/1000 sq. ft.)  Seed the following years as needed to fill in sparse areas.  If you want wild flowers, seed these heavily as well, 2 1/2 pounds per acre.  The grass will crowd the wildflower seeds out in subsequent years if not managed.  Grass and wildflower seeding should be done separately.  Seed grass first, taking care not to seed as heavily in areas where wildflowers are desired.  Go back and seed wildflowers, preferably by species in drifts for maximum aesthetic impact.
2. Another meadow grass seed to consider is Festuca idahoensis.  Rubra and idahoensis can be mixed.  Nasella pulchra and Melica californica can also be mixed in.  Mix Nasella at the rate of 20 lbs./acre (7.4oz. /1000sq.ft.) and Melica at 10-30lb./acre (7.4oz/1000sq.ft.) with the festuca at 3.7oz/1000sq.ft.
3. Bunch grasses can also be used such as festuca occidentalis, and festuca californica.  These can be mixed with the rhizomatous grasses to add more stabilization to a slope.
4. Seeds or seedlings of shrubby plants and/or perennials that are native can be also added.  For example, Baccharis is excellent for erosion control, as well as Toyon, Rhamnus, Artemesia, Mimulus, Lupine, Garrya, etc.  They should be seeded separately, by species, after grass and wildflowers are seeded.
5. For seeding over large areas, hydro seeding of grasses and wildflowers is recommended and hand seeding of woody shrubs and perennials.  Limit your wildflower selection to 2 or 3 species when hydro seeding.

Mulching
1. After seeding, apply 1-2” of fine mulch (forest mulch etc.).  Seed must make firm contact with the soil.  The best way to do this is either by using a roller, or laying plywood and walking over it to establish firm contact.  This can be done both before and after mulch is applied.

Maintenance

1. Irrigate immediately with a fine mist (15 minutes).  Water daily in the a.m. for 5 to 8 minutes until grass blades are visible or allow winter rains to force germination.  This must be monitored and additional water applied if rains are not forthcoming, and maximum germination is desired.  Fertilization is optional.
2. Observe closely for signs of germination.  Depending on time of year and weather, once germination is complete (6 to 8 months) reduce water to twice or three times a week for 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Pull any visible weeds, taking care not to remove wild flowers.  Don’t leave this job to a novice.  You will be sorry.
4. Continue to remove weeds, reseed in sparse areas and add more wildflower seeds in subsequent years.  Mark the areas where you newly seed.
5. This process should continue for the first 3 seasons.  Thereafter, your meadow will require little maintenance
6. Cut the meadow back 1 to 2 times per year.  If you want a green meadow 12 months a year, summer water is required.
7. Remember, meadow making is a process.  Be patient and enjoy the journey.

Part 2 will come soon.  Part two will describe using alternatives to fescues for meadow making.  I prefer these because they require very low water and do not need cutting at all.

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