Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming

Buffalograss: less water, fertilizer and work

Brent Lathrop, buffalo grass

Brent Lathrop’s buffalograss lawn is the perfect low water, low fertilizer, low work alternative for the High Plains. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published March 22, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Rethinking your lawn? For less fertilizing, watering and mowing, try going native with buffalograss.”

By Barb Gorges

By the end of our long winter, our thoughts may turn to excuses to get outside, even working in the yard. But it doesn’t take very long before we remember the actual drudgery of lawn chores.

If you’d rather be fishing or biking or hiking or camping this summer instead of mowing, get a tip from Cheyenne resident Brent Lathrop: buffalograss.

Kentucky bluegrass is the default lawn in Cheyenne. However, I know half a dozen homeowners like Brent who have switched to a grass species native to our High Plains.

Last fall, I went to see Brent’s backyard, a swath of buffalograss. It was heading into dormancy, turning from green to the pale straw color of the winter prairie.

Because of the covenants in his neighborhood, his front lawn must be the conventional Kentucky bluegrass.

This is the fourth native lawn Brent has established, and the most difficult because of three droughty years at the beginning.

The backyard of his new house was raw dirt when Brent seeded it in 2006 with a mix of 90 percent buffalograss and 10 percent blue grama, another native grass. By 2011, the lawn was finally looking the way Brent wanted.

Choosing to go native is a natural choice for Brent. “It’s in my DNA because of what I do,” he said. He works for The Nature Conservancy as the program director for southeastern Wyoming. A low maintenance lawn, requiring less water, fertilizer and work, is a step towards more sustainable landscapes.

Once buffalograss is established, technically speaking, it doesn’t need irrigation, but Brent waters it a couple times in the spring to help it green up sooner, to cater to his neighbor’s lawn expectations.

Last year, Brent spent only $194 on lawn watering for the entire growing season, including back and front yards, while his neighbors reported spending more than that each month.

Buffalograss closeup

Because Brent used seed to establish his buffalograss lawn, seed heads develop. Buffalograss established by using plugs or sod is reproduced vegetatively with all female plants and no pollen is produced–a side benefit for people with allergies. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Only 3-4 inches tall, buffalograss could be left unmown, but once again, Brent considers his neighbors’ sensibilities and mowed six times last year, to keep it a little less ragged.

What he would really like to do is burn the grass. It evolved with fire and can get “decadent” without it, but figuring out how to do that in a residential neighborhood with yards bounded by plastic fences is problematic.

Buffalograss appreciates a little fertilizer. Brent fertilizes once a year, mid-June, at half the recommended amount. Not bagging his clippings when he mows also adds nutrients.

Weeds are not much of an issue. Brent digs any by hand. Besides that, in my research I discovered buffalograss is susceptible to some of the common weed killers.

He will need to deal with some Kentucky bluegrass invading from other yards. But he also encourages native wildflowers to grow, just as they would on the prairie.

One of Brent’s fringe benefits during the first years of his new lawn was horned larks hanging out—and nesting.

Now that the neighbors have all fenced in their backyards, the horned larks have moved on to the still open spaces under construction in the development. But other birds still visit—and more of them are seen on his grass, his jealous neighbors complain, than on their conventional lawns.

Pros and cons of buffalograss

Buffalograss is not a perfect substitute for Kentucky bluegrass.

Buffalograss greens up later than bluegrass and goes dormant in the fall earlier.

Buffalograss does not thrive in shade lasting more than half a day. But bluegrass will.

Buffalograss does not stand up to heavy, constant traffic because it spreads by stolons, connections from plant to plant growing above ground. Bluegrass spreads by rhizomes underground.

In its favor, buffalograss has excellent heat, drought and cold tolerance and few insect and disease problems compared to bluegrass. Though if given too much water and fertilizer, buffalograss will become prone to weeds.

Buffalograss, like some of the other native alternatives, can be a little more work to establish, compared to rolling out a carpet of bluegrass sod.

Buffalograss detail

No need to remove native wildflowers invading your buffalograss lawn–they are perfectly natural. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Pick the right cultivar

Buffalograss comes in several varieties that have been developed for different areas of the country. The newer cultivars grow more densely and greener. Brent is growing one of those new ones, “Cody,” developed in Nebraska. Avoid Texoka, which is more suited to growing conditions in Texas.

Seed is available at local garden centers, but you may have to shop online some place like Stock Seed Farms in Murdock, Nebraska, http://www.stockseed.com, to find exactly what you want, Brent said.

Buffalograss is also offered as plugs and sod. These options aren’t easy to find locally. One place Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Extension horticulturist, mentioned is Turf Master Sod in Fort Collins, Colorado, http://turfmastersod.com.

Buffalograss plugs or sod would be worth finding if you have allergies because they are all female plants, propagated vegetatively, so they don’t produce pollen. Look for these cultivars: Legacy and Prestige.

How to plant buffalograss

The 4900-square foot buffalograss lawn cost Brent less than $500 to install by seeding, the cheapest alternative.

The best time of year to start a buffalograss lawn is mid-April to early May, according to one source, or mid-May to mid-June. But it will actually depend on when we are clear of snow. Another possibility is mid-August to mid-September.

Replacing a bluegrass lawn with buffalograss, though, means removing the old lawn. Killing it with an herbicide is not the preferred method. It can be smothered with plastic or just dug up, stacking chunks upside down in your compost area where they will decay. You may opt for replacing a section of lawn each year.

Everything you know about preparing a site for bluegrass works for buffalograss. Get a soil test to see what fertilizer and organic matter might need to be incorporated before seeding.

Remove debris, but don’t go overboard on tilling the soil—it shouldn’t be “fluffy.”

Spraying for weeds before seeding is mentioned in the handbooks, but Brent doesn’t recommend it. Instead, when the weeds emerged, he knocked them down with the mower before they went to seed. The weeds provided a kind of cover crop while the grass got established. And, remember, buffalograss is susceptible to weed killers when it is green.

How much seed do you need? For a small area with seed broadcast using a hand-operated seeder, figure 3-5 pounds per 1,000 square feet. For larger areas where a tractor can pull a drill, figure 20-30 pounds per acre.

If broadcasting rather than drilling, take half of your seed and distribute it while traveling back and forth, and then distribute the other half while traveling back and forth at a right angle. Lightly rake seed in.

To get your seeds to germinate, you’ll need to water lightly and frequently. Once they are established, you can gradually reduce watering.

If you were lucky enough to find plugs or sod, you need to water often enough that they stay moist—not flooded—especially under the sod.

Advice

There is plenty of advice about growing buffalograss—it was first used for lawns in the 1930s.

One publication that can be requested or downloaded is by University of Wyoming Extension staff, “Low-Maintenance Grasses for Revegetating Disturbed Areas and Lawns,”

http://www.wyoextension.org/agpubs/pubs/B1070.pdf. Another is “Landscaping: Turf in Wyoming,” http://www.wyoextension.org/agpubs/pubs/B1129.pdf.

For detailed information about growing buffalograss, consult the Colorado Master Gardeners Garden Notes #565, “Buffalograss Lawns,” at the Colorado State University Extension website,

http://www.ext.colostate.edu/mg/Gardennotes/565.html.

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