Try a Native Lawn

by Karen Hollweg, Charlie Grant and Mark Phillips (Aquilegia, May 1977)

To greatly reduce or eliminate lawn watering and mowing, plant Buchloe dactyloides (Nutt.) Engelm. (buffalo grass). This fine-leaved grass is native to the semi-arid. short-grass prairie that extends from the Front Range east­ward. High quality buffalo grass seed is now commercially available, and cultivation tech­niques are printed below.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Since the grass is adapted to this area, you only need to water it once a month during dry spells. This not only saves you time and effort, but saves a tremendous amount of water! The Broomfield, Colo, Public Works Director estimates that more than 1/3 of that town’s water consump­tion in 1975 was used for lawn irrigation.

The maximum height of buffalo grass is about 6 inches. This makes a nice turf. but if you want a shorter lawn, you will need to mow it occasion­ally. A buffalo grass lawn obviously has many advan­tages over a lawn of Poa pratensis L. (Kentucky bluegrass). But, what about disadvantages? Buffalo grass is a warm season grass; thus it usually doesn’t turn completely green in the spring until several weeks after bluegrass, and it turns a light straw color after the first frost in the fall. During the winter, the two kinds of grass are indistinguishable. In the summer, buffalo grass may appear slightly more grey-green.

Bluegrass recovers more rapidly under intensive use, so is better for football fields and heavi­ly used play areas. But in areas where there is occasional traffic (like front lawns and picnic areas) buffalo grass stands up as well as blue­grass.

Cultivation Techniques

If the advantages of buffalo grass seem to you to outweigh the disadvantages, here’s how to proceed:

Soil Preparation — The soil should be prepared in the same manner that you would do it, if you were to plant bluegrass. Rototill organic matter (2-3 cu. yds. of peat moss, manure, etc./1,000 sq. ft.) about 4-6 inches into the soil. This will enhance the soil’s ability to absorb and hold moisture. Treat soil with a super phos­phate and nitrogen fertilizer as recommended on the label for new seedings.

Seeding — Because buffalo grass is a warm season grass, do not seed before mid-Mayor early June. It is best to wait until the air temperature has been 700 p or above for several days. If the temperature dips after you have seeded, germi­nation will be temporarily inhibited and will consequently take longer. (Because of these temperature considerations, it is best not to seed after mid-August.)

Sharp’s Improved Variety of buffalo grass seed is recommended. This hybrid from Kansas is 93% viable and 80% pure, and has been treated with potaSSium nitrate and chilled. This treatment is said to speed up germination.

How heavy should you seed: Opinions differ. Gary PoWell (landscape architect in Broomfield. Colo.) recommends using at least 7 lbs/100 sq. ft. because it produces a dense sod 6-8 weeks after seeding, withstands traffic better, and doesn’t leave bare spots that allow weeds to invade. (A buffalo grass seed is much larger than a bluegrass seed. There are about 56.000 buffalo grass seeds/lb. and approximately 20 times as many or 1.2 million bluegrass seeds/lb. So 7 lbs. of buffalo grass seed have about the same number of seeds as 1/3 lb. of bluegrass seed. )*

Because of the expense involved in such heavy seedings. two members of the Horticulture and Rehabilitation Committee recommend lighter seedings (4 Ib./1,000 sq. ft.) which require 1 to 2 growing seasons to fill in and form a solid turf.

Seed should be burried only 1/2 inch deep.

Keep the soil moist until seeds germinate (about 10-14 days). A light green color will signify emergence • .Care After Emergence–Water only one time (1 inch of water) per week for the next 2 weeks or until the buffalo grass is about 2 inches tall.

Then water only once each month or not at all, depending on natural precipitation. The biggest killer of buffalo grass is over-watering! You may get quite a good crop of weeds before emergence. Weeds at any time will shade out the buffalo grass. To prevent this competition. after the buffalo grass is 3″ tall, mow at about a 1 lIz – 2 inch height. After the grass sod has formed. weed competition should no longer be a problem. No fertilizer is needed after the initial soil preparation.

If you would like to see a buffalo grass lawn, look at these: 13175 Grove Way. Broomfield, Colo. (Gary Powell’s residence) 6805 So. Pontiac Court, Littleton, Colo. (a lawn that Powell will be seeding in May–so you could watch its progress.) The slopes around the tennis courts at Marston Meadows — located southwest of Denver and west of Littleton, 1 block east of the So. Sheridan and Bow Mar Dr. intersection.

(Editor’s note: remember, this article was written in 1977.  These places may not exist any more.)

a photo of a clump of buffalo grass

Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides)

a close-up photo of 2 buffalo grass flowers

Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides) Close-up