“Which turf substitute – beside gravel or other paving – provides a green ground cover that people can sit upon, tolerates moderate foot traffic, and requires less water?”
As a practicing landscape architect, this is the inquiry I’m most frequently asked by friends, clients, and other design colleagues. I tell them one alternative is a California native turf grass species known as Buffalo Grass (Bouteloua dactyloides), a species of native grass bred by UC researchers at Davis and Riverside in 2003, the very same that can be seen planted in a fire lane at the AHBE project Monrovia Gold Line Station [shown above].
According to one vendor’s website, one of the varieties of this plant developed for the precipitation scarce and hot temperatures of Southern California and Arizona, UC Verde, can use up to 75% less water than a traditional fescue lawn, grows to a maximum height of 6”, and can be mowed approximately every month for a more manicured look (or not at all for more of a meadow appearance).
Buffalo Grass is a perennial grass that spreads by stolons, or running roots. One notable physical trait characterizing UC Verde grass is that it goes dormant in the winter months with less sunlight and cooler temperatures. This process slows both vertical and horizontal growth, and the grass changes from green to tan or straw during this dormant phase. Specific recommendations for addressing this color change on the website state:
The duration of this color change may be reduced by combining a late fall fertilization with mowing UC Verde to about 1 inch height when you begin to see the change in color. This will allow the sun to keep the soil warmer reducing these changes. In the late winter, repeat the fertilization to encourage the grass to begin growing again. If you want to have your lawn totally green during the winter months, an organic based turf colorant can be applied.
But is the constant green color so important from an aesthetic perspective? Brown turf grass can certainly indicate a dead or dying traditional lawn, but what if it’s a natural part of the life cycle of the Buffalo Grass, a plant that will return to its green and growing cycle once again when more hours of light become available? Straw, cream, golden, decomposed granite, and blue-grays of agaves and cactus are all colors too. I believe as concerned occupants of this region acclimating to the new norm – drought – we need to embrace these colors as part of our long-term landscape palette.