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Omaha Magazine

Go Native: Prairie grasses, native flowers taking root at home

Aug 31, 2020 08:47AM ● By Patrick McGee
Indian grass seed head, early spring

Although dwarfed by trees, flowers, and other spectacles of landscaping, turf grass is the unsung hero of many landscapes. Quality turf not only makes for a good-looking yard; it serves many functions, such as preventing soil erosion, providing weed control, and creating a velvety carpet underfoot for those carefree summer days.

Dr. Roch Gaussoin, a turf grass specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the key to a great lawn and landscape is diversity in plant material. An ideal landscape contains an expanse of grass paired with plants and shrubs of unique colors, heights, and textures. Turf grass is an integral component of any landscape. It creates transitionary spaces, or “voids,” between trees, gardens, and other features. 

As a practical consideration, homeowners choosing a turf grass variety and accompanying landscaping should consider the type and frequency of maintenance they want. Gaussoin said that prairie grasses, such as buffalo grass, are adapted for Nebraska’s climate. Buffalo grass is drought-resistant, needing less water than standard alternatives such as Kentucky blue grass, and requires less fertilizer and mowing. “It works well in parkways...and large expanses,” Gaussoin said. The University of Nebraska, with Gaussoin, is responsible for a premier breeding program that has generated many unique varieties of buffalo grass.

Buffalo grass is not without its own specific needs. “It doesn’t have great shade tolerance,” Gaussoin said. However, many turf grasses have similar difficulty. Where buffalo grass doesn’t thrive, other native plants may do just fine. Gaussoin promotes planting the “right plant in the right place,” whether it’s shade-seeking hostas under a tree or turf grass in an open space.

Mike Fritz, general manager of Stock Seed Farms, is also keen on buffalo grass for managed portions of turf. Stock and Fritz work with the University of Nebraska to develop varieties of buffalo grass. He has been recommending seed for specific applications for 20 years and noted the growing popularity of natural landscapes by homeowners. “There is a steadily increasing interest in native grasses,” he said. For acreages where it is impractical to manage the entire lawn, or where property owners prefer a natural prairie look, he recommends ‘Schizachyrium Blaze,’ a little bluestem variety which earns its name every fall with its vibrant red-orange display of color. Other viable options include other bluestem varieties, grama varieties, Indian grass, or other warm-season prairie grasses.

Homeowners who want to incorporate low-maintenance plants aside from grasses into their landscapes should consider native plants such as goldenrods and milkweed. Both are highly beneficial to pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, Gaussoin said. Both also present highly attractive blooms and are adapted to Nebraska’s climate.

All plants require fertility to some extent. Gaussoin recommends knowing one’s turf grass’ specific fertilization requirements. He also said that incorporating clover into a turf grass mixture provides additional nitrogen to the soil. Clover flowers are beneficial to pollinators as well (as are dandelions), but the aesthetic is not for everyone. Because eastern Nebraska soil contains heavy clay, homeowners should prepare the soil with a compost mix before planting. Any plant, turf or otherwise, will require additional watering until established.

For homeowners intent on lowering the maintenance of their yards, conserving water, promoting pollinators, or utilizing less harsh chemicals to produce a lush lawn, native turf grasses and accents will do wonders. Just remember that low maintenance does not mean no maintenance.

So get busy. Early fall is the perfect time to lay down seed and watch your lawn take off.

For more information on turf options, visit Stock Seeds’ website at stockseed.com or the UNL Agronomy Department website at agronomy.unl.edu

This article was printed in the September 2020 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.