During our geologic past about 20,000,000 years ago, the weather became more arid and the North American grasslands originated as forest vegetation retreated to the north and south. In the Great Plains, the grasslands in the Midwest were comprised of tall grasses, while the Southwest had short grass prairies also comprised of shrubs and forbs. The vegetation that developed during and after the Ice Age of the Pleistocene was much the same as what the American Indians observed and later by European immigrants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The book New Mexico Vegetation, Past, Present and Future by William Dick-Peddie describes the dominant grasses in the short grass prairies as:
Bouteloua Gracilis, Blonde Ambition Grass growing at our High Country Garden facilities
Given the tenacity and durability of native grasses, coupled with an attractive growth habit, it makes sense to use a native grass for a lawn. They are often more resistant to diseases, bug infestations, and because they are living in their natural environment are more drought tolerant. Once established, native lawns require little supplemental water. Kentucky Blue Grass lawns, on the other hand, get stressed when water is in short supply and they are more susceptible to disease.
Chief Horticulturist David Salman with a tray of our Buffalo Grass Plugs
Various kinds of Grama grasses continue to be dominant grasses throughout the Southwest. Of these, Blue Grama is the best variety for use as a lawn. Another good grass lawn is Buffalo grass. It makes a dense turf type lawn and has a thicker growth habit than Grama grass, which is a bunch type grass that tends to have small spaces between each plant.
Both Blue Grama and Buffalo grasses are warm season grasses, which means they will be green during the hot months. In the spring they'll remain dormant until the weather gets reliably warm then they'll go dormant again in the cool fall weather.
One of the advantages of native grass lawns is they don't have to be mowed, but can be if a more manicured look is preferred. Even if mowing is desired, the frequency might be once a month. If you choose to leave the grass uncut, it's a good idea to mow it once in the early spring to remove the old growth and allow the new growth to be visible. This is much the same effect as grazing, which would have occurred naturally.
Buffalo grass plugs once established.
Also, if left uncut, the grasses will have a soft appearance and look nice if accented with some drought tolerant perennials to create the appearance of a short grass prairie.
Several nice varieties of perennials include:
Grama grass grows equally well in all soils from sandy to clay.
Buffalo grass does well in loam and clay soils but is not recommended for very sandy soils.
Grama grass can tolerate high elevations.
Buffalo grass is not suitable for high mountain areas (over 6500 feet) with short cool summers
Grama is easily established from seed.
Buffalo grass is most successfully established by using plugs. Seeding buffalo grass can be a hit or miss proposition. It germinates very unevenly and will require a lot of work to repeatedly re-seed bare areas where the seeds didn't germinate.
Native grass lawns, whether planted from plugs or seed, do require supplemental water to get established. Frequency of watering will depend on the type of soil, amount of rainfall and daytime weather conditions. However, once established, native grass lawns are remarkably drought tolerant. During times of natural drought and watering restrictions, native grasses will be much more likely to survive and look good than lawns of cool season grasses such as Kentucky Blue grass.
Detailed instructions on planting native grasses
Going native is water thrifty, requires lower maintenance, and is more environmentally appropriate for climates with limited rainfall. Beautiful examples of native grass lawns are all over. Visit a botanical garden in your area, go on a garden tour, or ask an experienced gardener where you can see examples. You'll be pleased with the appearance and hopefully you'll consider going native for your lawn.
Text by Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman.