Native grasses can be used in a landscape either as specimen plants or for a bluegrass lawn alternative or to create a native prairie landscape. While a native grass lawn or prairie landscape is not for everyone, they work well on larger lot sizes and acreages.
Native grasses that are normally used for alternative lawns are blue grama, buffalograss and fescues. They have lower growth habits which makes them desirable for those who don’t like to mow often. Other grasses that can be used to create a prairie meadow area are green needlegrass, needle and thread, switchgrass, little and big bluestem and sideoats grama. These grasses are taller but provide winter interest with their seed head or color. Switchgrass, little and big bluestem provide a reddish color over winter. Most native grasses are clump or bunch grasses except for buffalograss which is a sod former. These grasses are warm season grasses which means they are brown most of the year except the fescues and needle grasses which are cool season grasses that are green most of the year.
Your first step is to manage weeds, so they won’t compete with the grass seedlings. Identify what weeds you have and the management methods you can use. Tilling the soil is optional unless you have very compacted soil. Tilling the soil exposes buried weed seed that then germinates. If you do decide to till, plan on at least one year of weed management using a cover crop prior to planting grass seed. Planting a cover crop provides competition for the weeds while protecting your soil and allowing you to continue to use other weed management techniques. Cover crops that work well are triticale, millet or oats.
Our native grass seeding window is November 1st to April 30th. You can plant any time in this window. Winter planting allows grass seed to vernalize and absorb moisture. Spring planting can be a challenge depending on precipitation. You can’t plant into frozen or muddy ground so you will need to make sure the top 1/2 inch of soil is not frozen or too wet.
Your grass mix choice depends on the property goals and location, the soil type and the irrigation availability. A grass mix is better than just a single grass species. Variations across your property may favor specific grasses so having a mix allows the grasses to adapt to the property’s growing conditions.
If you have a large area (acres), consider having both the cover crop and the grass seed drill seeded. Small areas can be broadcast seeded. Grass seed is much smaller than cover crop seed so it cannot be planted as deep. Drill seeding with a grass drill (not a grain drill which can be used for the cover crop) is more accurate seed placement than broadcast seeding, so you purchase less seed when you drill seed. For broadcast seeding, roughen up the soil with a rake or harrow, spread the seed over the area and then lightly rake or harrow the area. Don’t try to get all the seed incorporated into the soil or you will get the seed planted too deep. You want at least part of the grass seed in the 1/4 to 1/2 inch depth range.
Once the seed is planted, all it needs is time and precipitation. When the conditions are right the grass seed germinates in two to four weeks. The cool season grasses germinate in early spring while the warm season grasses do not germinate until early summer. Not all seeds may germinate the first year. Native grass seeds can take several years before they germinate so don’t give up.
By Sharon Bokan, Colorado State University Extension. Sharon is the Small Acreage Coordinator at Colorado State University Extension Boulder County. For more information call 303.678.6176, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.