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Lawns for a Drying California

I was speaking with a friend the other day in the Bay Area.  She told me all the landscapers are busy pulling out lawns.  No doubt!  But then she said they are recommending artificial turf AKA fake grass.  Google ‘artificial turf and cancer‘ and you’ll come up with a lot of buzz on the internet.  Fake grass is made from tire products and many of those chemicals are considered carcinogenic.  I’d be especially worried about installing fake turf in my home if my kids played on it or my pets laid on it.  Sure it’s easy to maintain because you don’t have to do anything–it’s fake!  But I personally wouldn’t take the risk.

So, if you want a lawn and live in a parched California, where water is the new oil, what can you do?

My answer was written up in a post back in 2009.  Carex pansa lawns.  Because of the extreme drought situation, I wanted to repost and speak again about this fabulous native grass.

Dry Gardening lawn

Carex pansa front yard lawn

Here is some of what was written in that previous post years ago:

Once established, it requires watering only about every 3 weeks or more, depending on your site, and mowing no more than 4 times a year!  I do have clients that keep it very ‘lawn-like’ and mow it every two weeks, but since it only grows 6″ high, that isn’t necessary.

Carex pansa can tolerate traffic.  I have clients with kids who play ball on the lawn.  But it isn’t for intensive traffic.

The planting/preparation method is simple.  Prepare your bed as if you were going to plant a conventional lawn, in other words, good soil, lots of compost, rake out the clods, bed should be to finished height.  I always install a conventional irrigation system–better safe than sorry and its so much easier for the homeowner.  In the beginning you will need to water the plugs till established and the first summer while filling in, water a few times a week.  So a watering system on a timer is essential.  This means the irrigation system should be installed prior to planting.  The sprinkler heads can be installed and then adjusted to correct height once the Carex is in.

Carex pansa needs a good edging as it will spread beyond your beds without one.  Its not a weed nor really invasive, but, like grass, it will grow outside its borders if given water and good soil.  Depending on your design, you might even want to pour a concrete edging.

Dry gardening lawn

Carex pansa in a large backyard situation

I’ve put in a few dozen of these lawns and never had any problems.  For Californians, now is the best time to prepare your area and plant your plugs. Carex pansa grows during the warm weather, so your lawn will fill in quickly.  Plant 3″-5″ apart for a fast fill, although if you need to save money you can plant 6″-9″ and wait longer and weed more. For information as to where to obtain the plugs (this ‘grass’ must be planted from plugs), as well as further information including how to plant a natural meadow, please see my eBook Gardening for a Dry California Future.

Dry California lawns

Carex pansa lawn with kids and dogs in househole

Bluebunch wheatgrass and Junegrass

I have to do some reseeding where I put in a new septic last year.  The previous owners had a ‘septic’ that was a large hole in the ground in the middle of the front yard.  It was covered with dirt when I arrived with an upright stick marking the spot.  That way you wouldn’t drive a vehicle over it.  See the stick marking the box in the ground called a septic!

Before I purchased the house I had it inspected (trying to be good on my ‘due diligence’ and everything).  I hired a contractor who did a home inspection.  Besides his comment “Someone should never have had a hammer in his hands”, which fully described my place, he said he couldn’t find the entry point for the septic.  There was no record of it being cleaned nor installed.  Knowing full well someday I’d have to deal with that issue, I purchased the property regardless.

Last year when I came in April, I couldn’t help but notice a gigantic sinkhole at my front porch.  It was the cavernous entrance to my septic, now fully exposed.  We’d had plenty of water last spring and the ground finally just caved in around it.  Basically, it had been a big wooden box with a concrete pipe running into it.  The wood was gone but the pipe was still intact.  The hole was about 6 feet deep and wide.  I figured this was now an emergency before some kid fell into the hole. So I installed my new septic.

The new septic was a real one, with not just a tank but a leach field too, of course.  All that digging last May left a bare spot that evolved into a mud zone.  Of course I needed and wanted to reseed, but I wanted to do it ‘right’.  For me that meant native grasses–native to this ecozone.  New septic tank

Leach field.  This will be a muddy area soon.

Most people around here either seed for horses or cattle, or they put in a fescue lawn and water all summer.  I certainly wasn’t into watering.  Not only is it wasteful if it’s not necessary for horses or livestock (water is precious in the west, even if it does come out of my spring year round), but it’s just so much work (oh, the mowing!).  I’m not into that kind of work.  And being a designer from the West, lawn is just not compatible.  In fact, I could always tell where my clients came from by if they wanted a lawn on their property.

I’m not familiar with the native grasses in Wyoming, so I called up the forest service in Cody.  The Forest Service referred me to another department that deals with conservation.  They were very helpful, and gave me a list from a book of ‘low maintenance’ grasses used mostly on pasture land.  These weren’t necessarily natives, and if they were,not necessarily native to my site.

I happened upon the Dead Indian Archaeological botanical site evaluation.  It listed the plant communities nearby and the native plants associated with each one i.e. Sagebrush grassland or Open Grassland on shallow volcanic soil, etc.  There were 9 plant communities just around the Dead Indian site.  That site is fairly adjacent to my property, so I used that as a guide.  The community where my septic lies is Open Grassland on limestone soil. The dominant grasses here are Bluebunch wheatgrass (Agropyron spicatum)Agropyron spicatum--state grass of Montana

and Prairie Junegrass (Koeleria cristata)June Grass- Koeleria cristata Fescues (Festuca spp.) are found around as well.  So that’s what I’ve ordered.

Its a perfect time to seed.  Its raining and snowing and sunny, sometimes all in one day.  The ground is moist.  New grass is starting to show.  The seed needs about 40 degrees to germinate and I’ll seed twice the rate, then cover it with straw to foil the birds.Native grasses 'look'.

For all those who care, I highly recommend bunch grasses.  For the West, they are our native perennial grasses, here for ions before the Europeans brought their cattle and with them came their annuals.  These reseed rapidly and overtake the smaller bunch grasses.  Because of Wyoming’s higher elevation, invasive annuals have not been as much of a problem as in other parts of the West.  But one, Cheatgrass, has been seen to be evolving into places not seen before.