What can I use as a turf substitute?

Lawns use a lot of water, generate green waste, require fertilizer and pesticides, and must be mowed and edged. But, there is nothing else quite like them. They create a tough, durable surface that takes foot traffic and can stand up to pets and children. My feeling about turf is that it is ok for limited areas. Decide exactly how much you need for play areas and for pets. Remember that kids can play in parks where the city is responsible for lawn care. Reduce your own lawn to the minimum to meet your needs, and landscape other parts of your yard with low-water use plants. Be sure that your irrigation system is set to provide the correct amount of water for each different area. You will not save water if everything gets the amount of water required by turf, and many low-water use plants will fail in these conditions.

A mix of gramma and buffalo grass is an interesting, partially native turf. It has fine blades that are not dark green. Weed control can be an issue since the grass may not be dense enough to crowd out the weeds. Gramma grass, Bouteloua gracilis, can be planted by seed during the summer (June/July). It grows when it is very hot. After seeding, water 2-3 x/day for about two weeks. You are just misting to keep the germinated seeds wet. Buffalo grass, Buchloe dactyloides (native to western prairies, not CA) can be used to fill in. This must be grown from plugs, not seeds. You can buy a flat of it and divide it into plugs.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium ‘Rosea’, can also be used as a turf substitute (see Lummis House in Los Angeles). Again, weeds can be a problem since the “lawn” is not dense. Yarrow can be mowed. It requires some irrigation. Be aware that yarrow causes resistant grass stains on clothes. Yarrow can take limited foot traffic but will not provide a durable walking or play surface.

Clustered field sedge, Carex praegracilus, is another native turf substitute. This looks more like a dense, dark lawn. It requires water, though probably less than traditional turf grasses. It can be mowed occasionally, or left unmowed to create a meadow garden.

Recycled concrete, flagstone, decomposed granite or other inorganic surfaces can also be used for a low maintenance garden area that will take foot traffic. These permeable surfaces reduce urban runoff that is responsible for much of our coastal pollution.

Links and Resources:

Buffalo Grass Lawn (how to establish)

Non-lawn Front Yard, Tree of Life, Sage Advice

Cal Poly- San Luis Obispo, Leaning Pine Arboretum puts in Carex praegracilis lawn (scroll to near bottom of page)

San Marcos Growers, Carex praegralicis

San Marcos Growers, Achillea millefolium

Curto, Michael and David Fross. “A Sedge by Another Name… Is Confusing.” in Pacific Horticulture, Jul/Aug/Sep 2006. pp. 42-46.