Grass may be our favorite ‘pet’

Americans love their lawns, but few probably appreciate the diversity and history of grasses.

Pets perform a variety of functions. A good pet keeps its owner company, attracts (or demands) attention, gives us something to care for, and provides a window into the beauties and quirks of nature in an easy to control package.

While dogs, cats and birds are some of the most common household pets, I dare say that the most common American pet by far is grass.

Since around the 1920s, lawns have been slowly creeping across American landscapes, and today almost every homeowner also takes care of their own piece of grass.

Americans love grass for good reason – grasses don’t only look interesting, they are some of the most tenacious and successful plants in the world. Grasses can be found pretty much everywhere, with scraggly clumps able to survive extremely dry environments and even the harsh conditions of Antarctica.

Grasses provide an invaluable food source to both humans and wildlife, exhale a large amount of oxygen, and can even be turned into biofuels or alcohol. But just like any pet, care must be taken to ensure that the keeping of pet grass patches around our houses doesn’t also cause harm to the surrounding environment.

In areas too dry or inhospitable for trees to grow, grass dominates the landscape. One of the secrets to the success of grasses is their tough, spreading roots. Grasses are able to do some incredible things because of their roots. Many can divine water from even parched soils, and regenerate from grievous wounds that would prove fatal to most other plants. Many of these wounds come from grazers. It seems that grasses throughout history have been eaten so frequently that they have evolved ways to ward off fatal damage. Some grasses actually incorporate tiny bits of quartz in their cells, which can make their blades as sharp as they sound. Grasses also grow from the base of the plant instead of the stem tip, which is contrary to most other greenery and ensures that the plant survives even after being eaten to the ground.

This unique resilience has helped early humans and modern farmers feed their livestock, and it has also fed the shepherds as well. Corn, barley, wheat, rice and oats are among the many foods made from grasses.

Humans not only live off of grasses, but inside them as well. Bamboo, the largest and strongest type of grass, has been used for millennia to build all manner of houses. Grasses are believed to be relatively new to the plant scene, and are thought to have evolved around the time that flowering plants did. They do not rely on pollinators as much as their blooming cousins, however, and instead largely depend on wind in order to fill their pollination needs.

European royalty in the 17th century began cultivating specific grasses that looked and felt nice underfoot, and the practice has led to many unique and beautiful varieties that can add a unique look to a landscape.

This can come at a price, however, as a lush yard of grass is in reality a great group of green guzzlers. Most lawn grass is around 75 percent water by weight, and in dry seasons and climates can require a large amount of water just to stay healthy.

Many homeowners are lured into the promise of a quick fix by using applications of fertilizers and pesticides. Many times this is unnecessary, and a healthy lawn usually only requires the right amount of watering.

Water infrequently but deeply, allowing deep roots to establish that allow your grass to resist dry spells. Around an inch a week of water is needed when it’s dry out. A good trick is to water when the grass stops springing back up after being stepped on.

Native plants and tall grasses are a good alternative, since they require less maintenance than “traditional” lawns while providing habitat for native wildlife.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. Contact him at brannen.basham@gmail.com.