September 2, 2022
Every now and then, I’m challenged to recommend a native alternative to tall fescue turfgrass for lawns.
Buffalograss is the go-to alternative, but it usually comes and goes with the tides — looking good for a while, and then becoming inundated with weeds. I’ve seen one or two buffalograss lawns survive long term, for the grace of turf experts who prescribe regular doses of fertilizer and broad-leaf herbicide.
I wish for a fescue turf alternative, but I’m not aware of anything that works as well. Mowed tall fescue withstands running, jumping and walking better than any other known plant. So, I propose a different way of growing turfgrass. Let’s warm up to the native plants.
Forage for food
Dandelions are fresh flowers and are pretty good to eat. The spring leaves, bitter like radicchio, are great in salads and soups, especially miso.
Common violet is also edible and showy. Its leaves are tender and edible, especially in the spring, and the fresh flowers add a splash of blue or purple color to a salad. A half-cup of chopped violet leaves has the vitamin C content of five oranges. You might also try eating broad- or lance-leaf plantains. Their fresh or steamed leaves are nutty in flavor.
Clover leaves are edible and a great addition to salads as long as your lawn is pesticide free. Clover flowers are full of nectar that sustain native bees. If you mow the grass high and less frequently, the weeds in your fescue lawn will bloom more profusely and provide more of what bees need.
Also be mindful if you have dogs, as you might need to sort and wash your greens before consuming them.
Need for natives
If we are to reduce our carbon footprint, we should encourage more plants, native or non-native, in our lawns. We should supplement the grocery list by foraging greens from the lawn and garden. We should switch to manual or electric garden equipment, and while we’re at it, why not convert some lawn into garden?
The path to a perfect, emerald weed-free lawn is fraught with deception. Weeds are somehow considered “unhealthy,” when in fact many pesticide-free “weeds” are edible and packed with nutrients and minerals that promote good health.
I’ll keep wishing for and tinkering with better turf alternatives, but in the meanwhile, I’ll follow the yellow brick road, not to the Emerald City, but to a more sustainable lawn where a few good weeds are tolerated.
Woodbury was the horticulturist at Shaw Nature Reserve for 30 years. He continues to work on contract for the reserve to carry out native landscaping education and operates Cacalia: Native Garden Design and Wilding.
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