Traditional turfgrass lawns are a pain. Most patches require a significant investment in time, money, water and sometimes even repeated chemical applications every growing season to keep them in top shape. This can be a drain on both the property owner, their wallet and the environment.
If you find yourself yearning for a yard that can more readily survive on its own, might I suggest some North American native plants that can easily fill the turfgrass niche? Although turfgrass is somewhat unique in its dense low form, North American sedges, rushes and switchgrasses are excellent alternatives. These plants are tough, attractive, and extremely beneficial to birds, butterflies, moths and other wildlife.
While they don’t form complete “oceans” of foliage like a traditional turfgrass, many of our native sedges will eventually form dense collections of plants that accomplish very similar effects. Some can also tolerate being mowed to around three inches as well. Rushes tend to be slower growing, and are more suited to a wetland environment.
Standing tall above our rushes and sedges are switchgrasses, which form dense attractive tufts that turn into brilliant flashes of burgundy throughout the landscape come fall.
The general forms of all these plants are similar enough that they can easily be confused with one another. The easiest way to identify them is usually by looking at and touching the foliage. Broadly, the leaves of sedges are very angular, sometimes even triangular, similar to the square stems of mint.
Rushes, on the other hand, have smooth, circular leaves. Grass leaves tend to be hollow, whereas the others are not. Grasses also have joints or elbows somewhere along the foliage. The saying I learned as a rookie gardener was sedges have edges, rushes are round, and grasses have joints even when cops are around.
Sedges work well in almost any area of a lawn or garden, as there are varieties that thrive in most soils and light conditions. Most are important host plants for skipper butterflies, and also food sources for a wide variety of seed-eating birds. Cherokee sedge works well as a garden groundcover in most soils and light. Tussock sedge is more suited to wet environments, and is a butterfly and moth magnet as well as being a good turfgrass alternative in wet areas.
In most other spots, Appalachian sedge can be an attractive alternative to traditional lawns. Sedges also grow very well alongside other plants, and are solid ground covers in garden beds.
Rushes are typically found along the edges of rivers, lakes and streams. Their dense, vigorous roots help them stay put in these flood-prone areas, and rushes are excellent at preventing slopes and other wet areas from eroding away through stormwater runoff. Plant rushes in any wet area you can, especially those that would benefit from some additional runoff reinforcement.
North American switchgrasses have seen a recent resurgence in the horticultural industry due to their hardy and attractive nature. Species such as little bluestem maintain attractive colors throughout the growing season, turning shades of red as they decline in the fall.
Switchgrasses are excellent shelter and food sources for wildlife, especially birds, and when planted in masses are breathtaking as the wind flows through their foliage. Most are taller than sedges and rushes, maxing out at three to five feet, and are best planted towards the back of garden beds.
This allows them to be serviceable backdrops for your other plantings during the growing season, with their towering nature letting them put on their late-season show as the rest of your garden fades.
Brannen Basham is a writer and horticulturalist. Together with his wife, Jill Jacobs, he owns Spriggly’s Beescaping. He recently published his first book, “A Guide to the Wonderful World Around Us: Notes on Nature.” For more information visit www.sprigglys.com.