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Alternatives to the Traditional Lawn

by Dan Eskelson

With recurring drought in many parts of the country, it may be wise to consider alternatives to resource-hogging manicured turfgrass areas. Unless you need your lawn for tuning up your golf game, replace at least part of it with native plants.

Drought tolerant grasses and wildflowers, once established, will make your life much easier and reduce your landscape maintenance costs greatly. Mowing is reduced to one cutting per year (fall in most regions), and watering can often be eliminated completely.

You can customize the native plantings with a wide variety of grasses and wildflowers to suit your specific region, soil and personal preferences - see the lists below.

There's one misconception regarding these native plantings - it's sometimes assumed that soil preparation can be less thorough. You will not need as much soil amendment, if any, but your grading and seedbed preparation should be as complete as if you're installing a traditional seeded lawn.

In dry, light soils, the addition of two inches of organic matter, tilled into the top four or five inches, will help germination and early establishment. When seeding during warm weather, a seed mulch of straw or other coarse material will be beneficial.

Though regular fertilization should not be necessary, a starter fertilizer certainly will be beneficial - use a good phosphorus source like bone meal or phosphate rock.

Newly seeded areas should be kept evenly moist during and after germination. Pamper your new planting for the first season, and then enjoy many years of beauty with extremely low maintenance.

The following lists specify just a few of the regional alternatives - contact your local county extension agent, nursery or landscape professional for more information.


Little Bluestem
Sideoats Grama
Wild Geranium
Butterfly Weed


Little Bluestem
Big Bluestem
Indian Grass
Purple Coneflower
Prairie Clover


Blue Grama
Sideoats Grama
Desert Marigold
Pastel Poppy
Showy Primrose

California/Pacific Northwest:

Purple Needlegrass
Idaho Fescue
Meadow Barley
California Fuchsia
Pacific Coast Iris


Silver Bluestem
Tickle Grass
Blanket Flower
Plains Coreopsis
Southern Ragwort


Bottlebrush Three-awn
Pinewoods Dropseed
Wild Petunia
Sunshine Mimosa

About the author: Dan Eskelson has had his hands dirty since the late '60's, learning his craft as a freelance gardener, orchard worker, golf course superintendent, commercial landscaper and landscape designer.

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