Native Grasses as an Alternative to Turfgrasses in Out-of-Play Areas on Golf Courses

By Gerald S. Burgner, MLA and Danesha Seth Carley, PhD, NC State University

In the past few years, turfgrass researchers have been interested in native grasses as a replacement for some managed turfgrass areas. Traditional turfgrasses generally require more resources, especially on home lawns and golf courses. Typically, native grasses require less fertilization, are more drought tolerant, and are more disease and insect resistant. Severe droughts over the past few years have increased the public’s awareness of and requests for low-input turf-type grasses. Fortunately, continued breeding and wider-spread use of native grasses have led to the production of high quality native grasses that can stand up to the expectations of golf course superintendents and homeowners.

A number of research studies published within the last ten years have focused on native grasses, either by themselves or in mixtures, which show promise as potential alternative grasses on golf courses. Table 1 lists typical characteristics of five native grasses, potential pest issues, and recommended uses on golf courses.

Table 1. Typical characteristics of five native grasses

Table 1

Wiregrass or Pineland Threeawn (Aristida stricta Michx.):

Wiregrass was planted extensively on Pinehurst No. 2’s course during the recent restoration. (photo by D. Seth Carley)

Wiregrass was planted extensively on Pinehurst No. 2’s course during the recent restoration. (photo by D. Seth Carley)

Three species of wiregrass, also known as threeawn, are native to the southeastern United States. Wiregrass prefers coarse, well-drained sandy soils and fine-textured subsoils, and does best in shade or part-sun settings. This bunchgrass is a relatively short-lived perennial in low-input landscapes, but it produces a flower and seed-heads, giving it value as an ornamental. The pineland threeawn is an important understory plant in the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris Mill.)-wiregrass savannah ecosystem found in the Sandhills region of North Carolina and parts of South Carolina. Pineland threeawn, native to North Carolina and South Carolina, was planted extensively throughout the naturalized areas on the historic Pinehurst No. 2 Golf Course during its recent restoration.

A three-year project conducted in Florida evaluated twenty-five native and nonnative grasses – fifteen native and eight nonnative – grown under low-input landscape conditions. Grasses were evaluated for vigor, flowering, long-term growth, survival, and overall quality. The goal of the study was to identify grasses that could be used in high stress sites, such as golf course roughs, public landscapes and other municipal sites, and roadside plantings. Wiregrass, one of the grasses evaluated, was short-lived, and its performance rated marginal over two years (Thetford et al. 2009). Research conducted in the Sandhills region of North Carolina demonstrated healthy wiregrass plantings over a number of years, when wiregrass plugs were planted in a low-input landscape. And, in fact, there are a number of golf courses in North Carolina that have successful and extensive wiregrass “native areas,” including Tobacco Road and, as previously mentioned, some of the Pinehurst courses (most notably, Pinehurst No. 2).

Wiregrass seems to do best in lightly managed landscapes. If fire management is not possible (which is likely), then other management techniques that will reduce the presence and competition from weedy species may be necessary.

Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides (Nutt.) J.T.Columbus):

Buffalograss is native to the Great Plains, the southeast, and the southwest United States. It is a warm-season grass that is naturally adapted to hot, dry environments, and is tolerant to extreme temperatures and drought conditions. During periods of drought, buffalograss will go dormant sooner and revive more rapidly than other turfgrasses, retaining its sod-forming ability and making it a good alternative for bermudagrass in some situations (Amundsen 2013, Shearman et al. 2006). While not widespread in the Carolinas, NC State’s Turffiles (http://www.turffiles.ncsu.edu/) suggests that buffalograss is an excellent option for a low-maintenance turf-type grass along roadsides, in parks, on school grounds, and in open lawn areas. It requires little fertilization but is not well-adapted to shade or areas of heavy traffic.

buffalograss

This buffalograss, installed in a lawn-type setting and managed with a low-input, low maintenance approach, was started as plugs, and mowed at 10 cm bi-monthly. This photo was taken twelve months after planting. (Photographs by G. Burgner).

In recent research plots at the Horticultural Field Laboratory in Raleigh, NC, this grass was established by vegetative plugs, and lightly-managed as a low-input lawn setting. The “turf” was mowed very two weeks at 10 cm, and fertilized only lightly and occasionally. Once the area grew in fully, the buffalograss “lawn” maintained both a nice verdant color, and good density.

If weeds can be managed (or tolerated to some degree), this grass might have the potential to be used as a native turfgrass in low-input lawns and lightly managed turf areas. It is important to note that this research did not look at the effect of traffic on the quality and establishment of this grass, and should be taken into account when choosing a location for planting.

buffalograss

Buffalograss used in a simulated lawn setting twelve months after installation. (Photograph by G. Burgner).

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis (Willd. ex Kunth) Lag. ex Griffiths):

The gramas, closely related to buffalograss, are a group of warm-season bunchgrasses native to much of the United States, including portions of the southeastern United States. These grasses are well-suited to the Carolinas, as they are tolerant of saline soils, moderate alkalinity, and sandy to clayey soils as well as drought conditions.

blue grama

Blue grama started as plugs one month after planting and mowed bi-monthly at 10 cm. (Photograph by G. Burgner)

In a study conducted at North Carolina State University, blue grama did not perform well as a ground cover at lower mowing heights, but exhibited good turf quality and color at mowing heights of at least 10 cm. Blue grama also performed better at a mowing frequency of every fourteen days when compared to the typical seven-day frequency (Burgner, Carley, and Fair, 2014). These characteristics make this grass well-suited to a low-input, low-maintenance open landscape setting, as this grass does best under full sun, and does not tolerate shady conditions.

Poverty Grass or Poverty Oatgrass (Danthonia spicata (L.) P. beauv. Ex Roem & Schult.):

An excellent cool-season grass that is beginning to catch the attention of researchers is poverty oatgrass. This extremely drought-tolerant, clump-forming grass is native to much of the United States and Canada, and does well on poor, acidic, and rocky soils. In fact, this grass seems to prefer sites with particularly low moisture and nutrition, such as roadsides and pastures. This grass does not tolerate competition from taller vegetation (weeds); otherwise, there are no known pest issues.

Recent research at North Carolina State University also evaluated the performance of poverty oatgrass as a potential alternative to traditional turfgrass in a low-input, “lightly managed” lawn-type setting. In our field trials, poverty oatgrass performed best under low- to no- irrigation. Under regular irrigation (one inch of water per week), poverty oatgrass displayed less desirable turf quality and eventual death, likely due to the excess moisture. With no irrigation, poverty oatgrass maintained good color and turf quality. We did see that after a few seasons, weed competition hampered overall quality, probably due to the grasses typical slow growth rate. One advantage of this slow rate of growth, though, is that this grass can tolerate infrequent mowing. The grass demonstrated the best turf quality when these plots went twenty-one days between cuttings, as compared to a weekly or bi-weekly mowing frequency (Burgner, Carley, and Fair 2014).

poverty oatgrass

Poverty oatgrass twelve months after planting. (Photograph by G. Burgner)

A greenhouse drought study, also conducted at North Carolina State University, demonstrated the durability and drought-tolerance of poverty oatgrass. In a comparison of five grasses – buffalograss, blue grama, bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon (L.) Pers.), poverty oatgrass, and tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea L.) – poverty oatgrass maintained its green color the longest over the thirty days of continuous drought, and responded with more rapid green-up after water was re-applied (Burgner, Carley, and Fair 2014).

Little Bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium (Michx.) Nash):

little bluestem

Little bluestem is used as an accent grass in the out-of-play areas on NC State’s Lonnie Poole Golf Course. (Photograph by D. Seth Carley)

Native to the United States and Canada, little bluestem thrives in uplands and ridges with limey, sandy to clay loam soils. A warm-season grass, it is often used in low maintenance areas and roughs of golf courses. This plant gets its name from the bluish color of the young growing stems in the spring, but of particular interest is the striking reddish-tan color displayed by the plants as they go dormant in fall While visually appealing, this particular native bunch grass also provides valuable nesting material for native bees, and food for granivourous (seed-eating) birds, making it a good choice for courses interested in enhancing wildlife habitat, as well as visual interest.

Mississippi State University conducted a study on ‘Cimarron’ little bluestem focusing on seeding rates for secondary roughs on golf courses. Higher rates of success were achieved with 25.4 pounds or more per acre, but there were still problems with weed competition. Full establishment of ‘Cimarron’ little bluestem can take at least two years and multiple seed plantings, but it is very low maintenance after establishment (Maddox et al. 2007).

It is important to note that, while attractive as an accent grass or a low maintenance alternative in out-of-play areas, this grass, when found in high populations, is very difficult to play out of.

Native Grass Mixtures:

One of the concerns with traditional turfgrass ecosystems is that they are generally monocultures – consisting of only one species of turfgrass – requiring more fertilizer and pesticide inputs to combat insect, disease, and weed pressures. It may be advantageous, in some settings, to establish a polyculture, or multi-species, of turfgrasses. The different grass species that make up the polyculture are able to adapt to varying complexities of the site enabling each species to thrive according to the available resources. As a result, resources are used more efficiently, and stands tend to be healthier and of higher quality. Once established, the sites tend to be more resistant to weed invasions (necessitating fewer herbicide applications), and, in many cases, fertilizer and water inputs can be reduced, resulting in greater cost savings and less waste. Lastly, the mixed plant community will also support greater biodiversity of both flora and fauna (Simmons et al. 2011).

The University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum conducted a study of low maintenance turfgrasses which included three fine fescue blends (Festuca spp. L.), one tall fescue blend (Festuca aundinacea Schreb., & Schedonorus arundinaceus (Schreb.) Dumort., nom. cons.), one Kentucky bluegrass blend (Poa pratensis L.), one tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass blend, and two native grass mixtures. One native grass mixture included little bluestem, sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula (Michx.) Torr.), blue grama, prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha (Ledeb.) Schult.), poverty oatgrass, and kalm’s brome (Bromus kalmia A. Gray). The other native grass mixture included sideoats grama, blue grama, buffalograss, and prairie junegrass (Miller et al. 2013).

Although initially weedy and slow to establish, the native grasses eventually outcompeted the weeds and maintained better color and density by the end of the three-year study. Even though the tall fescue blend maintained the highest quality when compared to the other treatments, this work demonstrated that native grass mixtures have potential as alternative turfgrasses that can tolerate less frequent mowing, are drought and disease resistant, can maintain high quality ratings, and can be used on golf courses, especially in out-of-play areas (Miller et al. 2013).

North Carolina State University’s Lonnie Poole Golf Course chose a combination of fine fescue and native warm-season grasses when seeding the “native” areas surrounding their bermudagrass fairways. While not native to the Carolinas, fine fescue grass varieties are well-adapted for use in the lower areas of the transition zone. Once established, they are drought tolerant and require less fertilizer than other more traditional turfgrasses. In the transition zone, fine fescue will usually become dormant in the areas too hot during the summer or too cold in winter, and will show a paler green color at these times. The dormant fine fescue provides an excellent backdrop for the native warm-season grasses, including little bluestem, broomsedge (Carex scoparia Schkuhr ex Willd.), and Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans (L.) Nash), also included in the native areas on the Lonnie Poole.

A number of the native grasses mentioned in this article are being used on golf courses across the Carolinas because they add color and visual interest and are a low-maintenance alternative to less-well adapted turf species. Since they are adaptable to a wide range of conditions within their native habitat, native grasses can contribute to increased biodiversity in wildlife (such as pollinators and birds), depending upon how they are used. Native grasses are well-suited for sustainable landscape designs that strive to incorporate water conservation, reduce fertilizer inputs, and contribute to a more biologically diverse landscape, whether it be on a golf course or a home lawn.

Durable, attractive, low-input, naturalized areas usually contain a combination of distinct grass types, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. As you contemplate choosing a grass mixture, consider which species or mixture will meet your needs and environmental conditions best. If you want to try a new approach in your out-of-play or low-traffic areas, consider using one or more of these native grasses. You may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

References

Amundsen, K. 2013. “Buffalograss Breeding and Genetics.” USGA Turfgrass and Environmental Research Online 12 (1): 6-7.

Burgner, G. S., Carley, D. S., and Fair, B. 2014. “Alternative Turfgrasses and their Management.” Unpublished manuscript. North Carolina State University. Raleigh, NC.

Miller, D. R., Mugaas, R. J., Meyer, M. H., and Watkins, E. 2013. “Performance of Low-maintenance Turfgrass Mixtures and Blends.” HortTechnology 23 (5): 610-612.

Shearman, R. C., Riordan, T. P., Abeyo, B. G., Heng-Moss, T. M., Lee, D. J., Gaussoin, R. E., Gulsen, O., Budak, H., and Serba, D. D. 2006. “Buffalograss: Tough Native Turfgrass.” USGA Turfgrass and Environmental Research Online 5 (21): 1-13.

Simmons, M., Bertelsen, M., Windhager, S., and Zafian, H. 2011. “The performance of native and non-native turfgrass monocultures and native turfgrass polycultures: An ecological approach to sustainable lawns.” Ecological Engineering 37: 1095-1103.

Thetford, M., Norcini, J. G., Ballard, B., and Aldrich, J. H. 2009. “Ornamental Landscape Performance of Native and Nonnative Grasses under Low-input Conditions.” HortTechnology 19 (2): 267-285.

One Response

  1. Fantastic research on native grasses as alternative to traditional lawn species. Thank you.

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