Despite water usage concerns, grass remains a mainstay in both commercial and residential landscapes. Working with grass, explains Mike Logsdon, usually requires some level of moderation and a knack for knowing how to ply the multitudinous types of grasses for the greatest effect, based on client expectations and anticipated grassy needs.
By Michael Logsdon
It seems like grass is always getting a bad rap. Whether it’s concerns about water usage, especially in times of drought, or the time, energy and expense required to make sure the green stays green, grass has taken a PR beating in recent years.
Yet, many if not most homeowners I work with do want some grass in their landscape. Sure, the days when you carpet all open space in turf grass may be a thing of the past, but almost every landscape I design includes some turf, as well as a broad palette of ornamental and native grasses.
Whether it’s the smell of fresh-cut grass that brings back childhood memories, or just having a place for the dog and kids to play, grass still has a universal appeal.
Like so many things, it’s how you choose to use it that determines whether or not it’s worthwhile.
As a boy from Oklahoma or what I call “transplanted” native of the Texas hill country, grasslands have always been part of my life. It’s where I played as a kid and to this day I’m inspired by the beauty and vastness of grass-covered open spaces.
Fact is, we all grew up with yards and playing on grass in parks, schools and sports facilities, so it’s what we know and what we expect.
When I’m discussing grass with my clients, I always try to nudge them toward using less, which of course is relative. For the most part, unless someone wants to practice golf or hold soccer practice on a multi-acre property, the amount of grass the vast majority of homeowners really need is surprisingly small.
I keep it simple. For most people I try to limit them to one truckload of sod, which contains 18 palettes with 450 square feet per. That’s 8,100 square feet, which is a sizable yard and usually more than enough.
Of course, it all depends on the client, and possibly local restrictions and/or homeowner association rules, but there’s no question the trend has been moving steadily toward less and less. I’ve worked on estates with 20,000 square foot home that might only have a few thousand square feet of grass on their property, and I do still occasionally run into people who want to build a golf course on their property.
These days, a majority of my clients come to realize that keeping the size of the grass-covered area to minimum is one way you can have grass and still at least minimize water use. The other way is to forgo irrigation all together and accept the fact that for part of the year the grass will likely turn brown.
I personally fall into that category of people that more or less want it both ways, so at home I’ve done exactly that. I’ve reduced the amount of lawn area, and we don’t water it ever. Frankly, I’m not even sure our sprinkler system works, it’s been so long since we’ve used it.
Many people don’t realize that with most types of turf grass, it’s not necessarily dead when it turns brown. Once the rain starts in fall, it turns green again, and often very quickly.
But size of grass-covered area isn’t the only relevant factor. You can dramatically reduce the amount of water grass needs to stay healthy by using water-wise soil amendments.
Some clients are surprised by the amount, and cost, of soil I suggest we install, but I explain that if you want grass to look good and be somewhat drought tolerant, it needs deep roots and that requires suitable soil at a certain depth.
In most places, that means you should add up to a foot or more of topsoil if you are able. I’ll use mostly topsoil, but on the top right before we lay down the grass, I’ll add a couple inches of amended soil, just to entice the root system.
I’ve seen some builders who simply “paint” the ground with three inches of soil, which is not enough for the roots to firmly take hold. Sometime they’ll coat solid rock with soil, which is a formula for dead grass.
By contrast, when you do lay down an ample amount of soil, most common types of turf grass will do well even in dry conditions.
Of course, irrigation is part of the equation in most projects. When I design irrigation systems, it’s always in a water wise way. We only use drip irrigation in planting beds, no sprayed beds ever. I love putting the water right on the roots where there’s none wasted to evaportion -- and the plants always look great.
For turf, we do still use spray heads. There are different types of heads that are more water conscious. They don’t atomize water, which increases evaporation, but work more with streams, such as stream rotors. We always recommend watering only when needed and we go to great lengths to set up the heads so that they are adequately covering the turf without it spraying onto nearby hardscape or other unwanted areas where the water goes to waste.
You can use drip irrigation on grass, and it does work ok, but it is very expensive and labor intensive and does have some downsides as it relates to any fertilization for the need of water supplied to the surface. You have to place the network of drip tubes at least every 12 inches.
Because it’s so cost prohibitive, we typically only use on grass over relatively small areas where there’s a high priority on perfectly green grass or where it would easy to hand water fertilizers or lawns dressing that are applied to the lawn.
One big advantage of drip irrigation: most municipalities and homeowners’ associations we’ve encountered will allow homeowners to water using drip irrigation even in times of drought because it is so efficient.
The number of grasses in all categories is amazing. In fact, most people don’t realize just how pervasive grasses are in the plant kingdom. Corn, wheat and bamboo are types of grasses with Dragon Bamboo the worlds’ tallest grass reaching heights of 100 feet or more. The varieties of grasses number in the thousands and exist in all climate zones.
In terms of what we use in the landscape, grasses fall into one of three basic categories: turf grass, which you typically lay down as sod; ornamental grasses, which you buy in one- or five-gallon buckets and plant in decorative planting beds; and, native grasses that you find growing wild in the natural countryside, and are always planted by broadcasting seed mixtures.
Turf grass is the most familiar and what people typically think of when you talk about grass. Zoysia is the most popular in this area (and my personal favorite, especially a variety called Zeon), and, of course, Bermuda is always popular and extremely drought resistant. We see some St. Augustine but not really favored around here because it is not as drought-resistant as other varieties.
It also helps to know which grasses to avoid; Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue don’t do well in this area.
Of all grass types, turf grasses use the most water, by far.
BEYOND THE LAWN
In many areas, we’ll revegetate areas with blends of native grasses – buffalo grass, little blue stem, blue grama, Indian grass, switchgrass, among many others – which require zero additional water and virtually no maintenance.
From a design standpoint, transitioning into native grass areas is a great way to blend a built landscape with more natural surroundings.
You just throw out some seed, put down erosion control mats if it’s on a slope, and usually get it started with some form of temporary irrigation system, and voila, in a very short time you have a prairie look.
The world of ornamental grasses is seemingly limitless, and it is easy to get hooked, like I am, on these spectacular flowering plant species. There are seemingly countless ornamental species, with surprising diversity of size, color, shape and texture. Many are strikingly beautiful.
Ornamental grasses are found in all styles of gardening and have become particularly popular with contemporary architecture, but also in traditional landscapes and Asian gardens.
I have many favorites and always delight in discovering new ones. Topping the list is a category called Muhlenbergia, “muhlys” for short.
Many of these varieties put out lavish flowering shoots, some that turn vivid reds, violets, whites and golds. Some varieties and hybrids have entertaining names like Regal Mist, White Cloud, El Toro, Autumn Glow, Pink Flamingo and Dear Grass, to name just a few.
Suffice it to say these and many other types of ornamental grasses play staring roles in my planting plans. They aren’t exactly zero maintenance, but close to it in most cases. Once established, decorative grasses require very little water. Some thrive in cold weather, while others in warmer temperatures, so it is important to select the species best suited to the climate zone.
From a design standpoint, grass, in all its categories, is one of the most versatile elements we have, especially when you combine it with other features within the landscape. It’s a natural companion to almost everything.
It can be used to unify and also separate stone work, architectural elements, planting beds and bodies water. It has a palette with a variety of colors, some other than green, textures, shapes and character. I’ll use grasses to “paint” the landscape and create negative space and seamless transitions.
A common example: you’ll oftentimes have an area of turf that you mow and keep green. Maybe it’s where your kids play with the dog or you lay out a blanket or beach towel and enjoy the sunshine.
Perhaps that area is adjacent to planting beds, decks or the pool. I’ll create an undulating shape where the turf might be cuddling the rockwork and contrasting a deck. In other areas, I’ll obscure the border between the surf and the surrounding landscape.
Instead of a distinct border around the edges, I might create a space where you let the grass grow and then transition into ornamental grasses in a planting bed and then into tall native grasses further out into the landscape.
Using native and ornamental varieties is a great way to transition on sloped areas where you don’t want to mow or spend a lot of time maintaining it.
I like to add interest to turf and planting beds by with gentle grade contours, little knolls, ridges and ravines. We often use the spoils from excavating the pools to balance cut and fill, contour the land, sculpting it to create layered views and creative vertical transitions.
I do realize that to many people grass will always be just grass. But like so many things in our world, if you look just a little more closely you might find a bit of magic – sometimes it’s right beneath your feet.
Michael Logsdon is founder and president of Land Design in Boerne, Tex., a landscape/pool design/build firm serving the greater San Antonio area. He graduated from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, with a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture degree in 1983. Since graduating Logsdon has been involved in the landscape design/build industry, creating and implementing award winning swimming pool and landscape projects.