Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Lawns, Ground Cover, & Wildflowers

Cutting Down on Lawn Care

by Warren Schultz


For years our lawns have been on a binge-and-purge program. At the first sign of spring, we rush to the garden center, load up on fertilizer, and blanket the lawn with it. Sure, the lawn greens up, but the more we feed, the more we mow.

For decades, experts recommended fertilizing four, five, or six times per year with up to 10 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet total over the course of the year. But lawns can get by — and even look great — with much, much less fertilizer. You don't believe it? Well, ask Glenn Smickley, superintendent of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club at Lake Manassas, Virginia. This showcase private course hosts major professional tournaments, so it must need lots of fertilizer to keep it looking good, right? Wrong. Smickley applies just 1 pound of actual nitrogen per year (per 1,000 square feet) over most of the course.

Or ask Eugene Roberts, owner of Fairwood Turf Farm in Glenn Dale, Maryland, one of the East Coast's best-looking sod farms. For him, grass is a cash crop. It has to grow quickly and look good. So he must pump it up, right? Wrong again. He too applies 1 pound of actual nitrogen per year per 1,000 square feet.

Both lawn-care professionals know that the secret is finding a turf grass that's well adapted to your particular climate. So here's a list, by region, of some new varieties — and some old species that were once disparaged as weeds — on the cutting edge of low-maintenance lawn care.

Rocky Mountain and Plains States

Dr. Reed Funk, turf breeder at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says that Kentucky bluegrass has gotten a bad rap as a high-maintenance turf grass. "I grew up in the intermountain West," he says, "and I remember lots of Kentucky bluegrass and clover lawns that were never fertilized, and they looked fine." Clover was a key component. Now scorned as a turf weed, that legume was once considered an important part of a low-maintenance turf mix because of its ability to add nitrogen to the soil. Some turf experts are recommending that clover be added to low-maintenance seed mixes again.

Today's Kentucky bluegrass varieties get by with even less help. Some of the best varieties for minimum maintenance are 'Bartitia', 'Belmont', 'Caliber', 'Colbalt', 'Challenger', 'Midnight', 'Monopoly', 'Ram-1', and 'Unique'.

For nonirrigated lawns in the high plains of Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and the Dakotas, Funk recommends two natives, buffalo grass and blue grama grass. Buffalo grass, reaching only 4 inches high, thrives with little or no mowing and no fertilizer or supplemental water, although it goes dormant in late fall.

You can make an instant lawn of buffalo grass using sod, or for a fraction of the cost and a couple months of establishment time, use seed. Both 'Prairie' and '609' have been available for a few years, but they're still the best sod varieties you can buy. The best seed varieties include 'Top Gun', 'Tatanka', and 'Plains'. The first two make lower, denser lawns; the latter is taller but has deeper roots. It's best suited to highway slopes and similar sites.

Blue grama grass has a fine texture but a grayish color. It withstands heat and drought and requires only infrequent mowings at a 3-inch height. Only common blue grama is available; no improved varieties have been released.

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