What kind of grasses should i choose?
Non-native turf grasses such as Kentucky Bluegrass, fescues and even Bermuda Grass require tremendous amounts of water to thrive—as much as 40 inches of water per growing season, in the case of Bluegrass.
The Water Authority’s Desert Friendly landscapes rebate is based on the square footage of turf removed. Albuquerque’s annual rainfall is eight inches or less; clearly, Kentucky Bluegrass is not well-suited to our environment.
In fact, homes built since 1995 in Albuquerque are allowed no more than 20% turf. Lower-water alternatives include Buffalo Grass (Bouteloua dactyloides) and Blue Grama Grass (Bouteloua gracilis). These can be augmented with ornamental grasses, but regardless of the types of grasses you plant, remember to maximize watering efficiency.
Many homeowners would like a turf grass lawn, but might feel irresponsible watering a lawn in the arid Southwest. The key to choosing a turf grass is to determine the one most suited to the specific needs of your landscape.
There are two different categories of turf grasses: cool season and warm season. Cool season grasses are Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and tall fescue. These are cold tolerant, green most of the year, and hold up to extensive amounts of foot traffic. But they use a lot of water. Warm season grasses are Bermuda grass, blue grama, and buffalo grass. Warm season grasses have a shorter growing season. This means they green up in mid Spring, are low maintenance, and require less water than cool season grasses. But blue grama and buffalo grass can’t take extensive foot traffic.
Grasses should not be selected solely on perceived water use. Depending on the purpose and function of the turf area, traffic tolerance, recuperative ability, maintenance and aesthetic appearance should also be considered.
Four Turf Grasses for Albuquerque
PARK BLEND: The most popular turf grass lawn here, used by the City of Albuquerque and homeowners alike, is Park Blend. Park Blend combines all the cool season grasses into a blend of Kentucky bluegrass, ryegrass and tall fescue, taking advantage of the positive attributes of all three grasses in one turf. Park Blend performs beautifully through warm summers and is especially well-suited to New Mexico’s growing conditions. While it does need about 37″- 41″ inches of water a year, this is a great choice for a lawn that will receive a lot of traffic. It does require regular mowing and weed control.
BUFFALO GRASS: Choose warm season buffalo grass for a beautiful low growing, low water and low maintenance grass. It will handle light traffic, rarely requires mowing and uses around 24″ – 28″ inches of water a year.
BERMUDA GRASS: Bermuda grass is a great choice for a low water, low maintenance grass with medium foot traffic. The downside is that it does spread prolifically via runners. It is best to surround this grass with an 8-inch-wide and deep edger to keep it in check. Bermuda grass uses about 22 – 26 inches of water a year and requires a few mowings a year.
BLUE GRAMA GRASS: Choose blue grama grass for a stunning native meadow look. It can be seeded with wildflowers for a beautiful spring and summer appearance. Keep the eyelash like seed heads on the grass through the fall and winter for both aesthetics and wildlife appeal. This grass uses about 18 – 20 inches of water a year. Trim and dethatch once in late winter for best appearance.
PRO TIPS: prepare the soil well before planting turf grasses, water early in the morning or late evening, keep grasses to a mow height of 3-4″ so the soil stays cooler, service the irrigation system regularly to check for efficiency.
Author: Jill Brown, ASLA Landscape Architect and owner of My Landscape Coach in Albuquerque, NM. Resources: Turfgrass irrigation Circular 660 Bernd Leinauer, Professor and Extension Turfgrass Specialist NM State University, Growing the Southwest Garden by Judith Phillips, High Country Gardens, Plants of the Southwest. Even more resources about turfgrasses can be found over at NMSU.
Mature Size: 3- 8”
This native prairie grass is an excellent replacement for water thirsty Kentucky Bluegrass. Buffalo Grass doesn’t tolerate a lot of shade, but when grown in a sunny location it forms a durable turf able to withstand moderate foot traffic, pests and diseases. It is a robust, sod forming species that spreads quickly with vigorous runners, creating an inviting soft blue green lawn. When dormant in late fall through spring it turns a soft beige color. Buffalo Grass requires minimal mowing and fertilizing once in spring. It’s a warm season grower perfectly adapted to central New Mexico. To stay green in the hot summer months, this grass needs only two inches of water per month! Buffalo Grass grows quickly. It can be planted using seed or “plugs” of starter plants. Seed should be sown in the spring or early summer; plugs can be planted in spring or in the fall, four to eight weeks before the first expected frost date. Once established, you’ll enjoy a beautiful, low-maintenance lawn with drastically lower water bills for years to come. Buffalo Grass grows best on heavier soils. Use Blue Grama on sandy soils or mix Buffalo Grass and Blue Grama.
Mature Size: 4-12”
Blue Grama is another warm season grass that thrives in New Mexico. Its thin pale green blades give a Blue Grama lawn a pleasing, fine texture. Its distinctive seed heads, which appear in mid to late summer, resemble tiny purplish eyelashes. Blue Grama thrives in hot microclimates, and it’s tough enough to survive subzero winter weather. It establishes most quickly in well drained soil. A dense lawn of Blue Grama will need watering only about once a week during the hottest summer months. Blue Grama establishes itself faster than Buffalo Grass, so the two species are often combined to quickly form a thick, drought-tolerant lawn.
Ornamental grasses, unlike lawns, serve as horticultural exclamation points and can add interest in areas that need a bit of sprucing up.
Summer through early winter is the prime time for the soft textures and colors of ornamental grasses. They should be cut down as close to the ground as possible each spring so the new blades can emerge unencumbered by the previous year’s dead leaves. Because this leaves gaps in the planting for several weeks, place the larger grasses as you would shrubs of the same size, mixing in some evergreens or grassy succulents such as Yucca or Beargrass to create interest while the grasses regrow.
Exposure: Full Sun
Height and Spread: 5’ x 5’
Blooming Season: August to October
Region: All Areas
This deciduous warm season bunchgrass is a delight in fall gardens. In the late summer, seed stalks appear, providing beautiful visual interest when backlit by the sun and gently blowing in the wind. This grass occurs naturally in floodplains and does well if deeply watered twice a month in summer. Water monthly the rest of the year. Giant Sacaton looks lovely when mass planted but can also stand alone when planted among late blooming summer perennials. In late February, trim this grass to about a foot from the ground so it will be ready for spring.
Exposure: Sun, Partial Shade
Water: Low Water
Height and Spread: 30” x 24”
Blooming Season: Late Summer – Fall
Region: All Areas
This long, wispy, coarse, medium blue-green grass looks lovely in late summer when it sends out tall seed heads. These are little seeds that dangle side-by-side on a stiff stalk. This plant is perfect to mix in and among a meadow area, for use on slopes to control erosion or as accents in a perennial bed. It is very heat tolerant, needing only a soaking twice a month in the heat of the summer. This grass should be mowed 6 inches high or higher once a year in the late winter.
Mature Size: 24”X 24”
This evergreen plant adds texture and color over the entire growing season. The stiff grayblue leaves are very striking and provide the foundation for the ornamental 4-foot-tall flower spikes that shoot up and ripen to a soft brown by mid-summer. Cut back in April to encourage vigorous new growth.
Mature Size: 30”X 2’
Blooming Season: Spring
Seed Head Color: Pale tan
Surprisingly heat and drought tolerant for a cool season grass, the dark green color of ‘Karl Foerster’ leaves topped with its pale straw colored seed heads is a large part of the appeal of this cool season bunchgrass. Its vertical form adds exclamation points in the midst of cool, low slung flowers such as Catmint and Winecups, or amplifies the upright lines of Penstemons and Salvias.
Mature Size: 2’X 2’
Blooming Season: Fall
Color: Pink to red
Little bluestem is a key component of much of the prairie grassland throughout the West, where it goes unnoticed until late in the year when its strong color contrast of scarlet or pink leaves among the blond seed heads of other native grasses gives it the impact of a wash of wildflowers long after the growing season has ended. Easily grown from seed or plants, the slender upright clumps sway in the breeze.
Mature Size: 4’X 3’
Blooming Season: Summer
Flower Color: Hazy pink-purple
There are many named cultivars of Switchgrass, all variations on the theme of tall upright leaf blades crowned in late summer with a haze of lacy seed heads. The leaves may be green or blue green in summer, changing to a range of pinks and reds as temperatures cool and the days get shorter at the end of the growing season. Switchgrass can be grouped between evergreens or stand alone as an accent. Songbirds will love you for adding it to your garden.
Mature Size: 24”X 24”
Plant this ornamental grass where a gentle breeze will sway it as the late afternoon sun shines through from behind. Stipa grows well in all kinds of soils and is very water thrifty once established. Good in wildflower gardens, this plant will readily reseed itself among its neighbors.