Why You Should Convert to a Buffalo Grass Lawn

June 11, 2010 at 7:08 PM | Posted in Environmentally Friendly Living | 2 Comments

Buffalo Grass is the lawn of the future. It is a dense, sod-forming grass native to the great plains.

Having been in the home improvement world for a significant portion of my life now (sometimes more so than others), I have always considered how traditional home ownership and maintenance can be “greened up” a little bit.

In an argument with some of the older people I know, I suggested that Kentucky bluegrass should be outlawed in most places.  Why?  Well, among other things, bluegrass is difficult to maintain, bad for most environments and non-native in most places.  I devised this post to show you a comprehensive, side-by-side comparison of Kentucky Bluegrass and buffalo grass, viewed as turf.  I hope to cover all aspects, such as management, soil health, hydrology, etc.

Aesthetics

Let’s start with the visual aspect of the grasses.  When it comes right down to it, if it doesn’t look good, people aren’t going to switch.  There’s this big thing where people think buffalo grass just looks like park grass, ugly and unrefined.  That’s simply not true.

Buffalo grass lawns can be made to have a manicured look by planting dense, all-female grass and mowing bi-weekly or monthly.

Or, buffalo grass lawns can be planted with both sexes for a varied look. The natural look is achieved by limited mowing - or no mowing at all. It lends a natural but still "clean" look to the space.

The biggest differences between bluegrass and buffalo grass lie in the characteristics of the blades.  The blades of buffalo grass are much thicker.  They are also lower to the ground.  This is because buffalo grass evolved in dry areas and areas with high elevations and lots of wind – they couldn’t really afford to get that tall.  Thicker blades means they stand up well to animal traffic, too.  Contrast this with bluegrass, whose blades are very thin and fragile.  Bluegrass also would like to be roughly 12 to 18 inches tall.

Another thing that you need to be aware of is that buffalo grass comes in both male and female varieties.  The main difference is that the female grass has seed shoots that are very close to the ground (they don’t show up past the blades, so you don’t see them).  Male shoots protrude several inches above the turf top, so you will see them.  If you don’t like the look, it is possible to get only female grass plugs or seed (though a little pricier).  Bluegrass doesn’t have this distinction.

Soil Health

I know it probably seems weird to start with this, but many people (especially homeowners) overlook the importance of soil health.  The characteristics of the soil determine what plants grow well, what plants struggle and how easily weeds invade.

In a normal (though not the most common, by any means), healthy ecosystem, the soil health is outstanding and there is no application of fertizers, insectides or herbicides.  Instead, the nutrients in the soil are kept in balance by a variety of plants and animals forming a small biological community.  The great plains as the pioneers found them were under such an equilibrium.

Good soil health comes from the plants themselves, animals that live there, and a variety of insects and microbes.

Bluegrass destroys soil health.  Period.  First of all, it requires a weekly mowing.  The grass had to grow those few inches in order to require being mowed, and that growth removed nutrients from the soil.  If you collect your clippings, you are effectively steadily removing (without replacing) nutrients from the ground the grass grows on.  If you mulch your clippings, this is only slightly better.  Here’s why.

We all know biomatter breaks down when it dies.  Worms, grubs, bacteria and a few other organisms are key to this process.  However, birds generally find these organisms particularly tasty and as such, they prefer not to come up above ground.  Your grass clippings just chilling where you left them on the top of the soil?  Yea, they’ll be staying there for a long time, not contributing at all to your soil health.

Another issue is that people apply so many high doses of nutrient fertilizer and insectides that the good guys like worms and beneficial bacteria and grubs can’t even live there.  So, your soil is effectively dead.  This means the health of your bluegrass depends on applications of surface fertilizer (terrible in many ways) and herbicides.  And even then, the bluegrass is in such bad health that it can’t prevent weeds from getting in and making the lawn look horrible.

This is your soil after years of abuse from a bluegrass lawn. This might be particularly bad management, don't you think?

Contrast this with buffalo grass.  Buffalo grass requires no application of fertilizer (though some owners put down a light dose once per year).  It also does not require much (or any) mowing, and it tends to bring the soil it grows in better to equilibrium as a result.  Worms and bacteria can live underneath the buffalo grass without destroying it, and they can therefore make the soil much healthier and contribute in a huge way to the health and sustainability of a buffalo grass lawn.

Water Management

Everyone knows that a huge difference between buffalo grass and bluegrass is the water consumption.  Bluegrass evolved in a very wet climate, getting over 30 inches of rain annually where it grew.  When people moved it to new locations, oftentimes the new location received significantly less than 30 inches of rain from storms.  Thus, sprinkler systems and daily watering came to be.  With modern human civilization straining the world’s freshwater resources already, and wars about to break out in Africa and Asia over water quality and water supply, I think it’s a pretty bonehead move to still plant bluegrass in places like Nebraska and Colorado.

Buffalo grass does not require nearly as much water.  In fact, in most places, you don’t even have to water it at all.  There are several reasons for this.  One is that buffalo grass is generally healthier because it is allowed to reach its full, mature, adult size (4-6 inches usually).  This is because you’re not constantly mowing it.  Think if someone kept cutting your fingers off as you attempted to grow to your full size.  No wonder bluegrass is always sick and requiring massive amounts of water.

Furthermore, even the healthiest of bluegrass root systems only go into the soil about 12 inches.  And since most people do not water appropriately and most bluegrass lives far outside of its native habitat, most lawns have roots as shallow as 4 inches.  This is bad news for water use.  That means the water that DOES infiltrate pretty much goes to the groundwater table.  Contrast this with buffalo grass, whose root system is usually upwards of 5 feet deep.  This allows buffalo grass to take full advantage of natural rain and reach water in dry times much more effectively.

A "healthy" Kentucky bluegrass root system at about 6 inches of depth.

This root system is a shortgrass prairie cross-section. Who wins?

Hydrology

This ties in nicely with water management.  A quick overview of the hydrologic cycle: it rains.  The water from the rain goes to three places: it either runs over the land to a creek or river or lake, goes into the ground and gets sucked up by plants or goes into the ground and escapes the plants, taking many months to reach a surface water feature by way of the underground water table.

The most salient features of the hydrologic cycle, for nerds like me.

Now, if you have a plot of land covered by unhealthy, struggling bluegrass that gets mowed weekly with no worms to break up the soil and heavily compacted city ground, where do you think that water goes when it rains?  Most of it runs off the lawn, down to the street and into a storm sewer drain, where it runs straight to the creek.  In doing so, it washes off soil, fertilizer and biomass.  This all translates to what we call Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD).  When BOD enters a stream, it sucks all the oxygen out of the water while it decomposes, killing fish, turtles, plants and bacteria.  This is why our country’s freshwater ecosystems exist only in the most backwater regions today.

Washing away huge amounts of BOD into lakes and streams in the US contributes to the massive anoxid (dead) zone on the coast in the gulf. Every year, fertlizier, nutrient overload and animal/human waste washes into the sea and takes away all the oxygen, killing everything that lives in the water. Sensitive reef systems once existed here but died quickly. Your bluegrass lawn is a contributor.

Any other water that DOES go into the ground usually escapes the shallow, unhealthy root system of the bluegrass lawn and is thus not utilized very efficiently.  That water escapes to the water table.

Now, let’s say it rains on an established, healthy plot of buffalo grass that gets mowed say, once per month.  This grass has a relatively MASSIVE root network, and there are happy worms and bugs living below the grass, breaking the soil up and making it more receptive to rain and infiltration.  Thus, water from the sky can infiltrate into the ground MUCH better before it has the chance to run off to the street.  Furthermore, the water that DOES make it to the street doesn’t wash away nearly as much BOD with it because you don’t have to fertilize the hell out of buffalo grass like you do bluegrass.  And the dense sod that buffalo grass forms prevents a lot of water from washing away.  A LOT.

When the water does manage to get underground, it has to travel 5 feet downwards before it gets sucked up.  In Nebraska soils, it would probably take a drop of water hours to get down 5 feet, so almost no water that infiltrates escapes the plants.  If you don’t believe me, I can show you historical data from west Nebraska that proves it.  Of the 19 annual inches of rain that fall in west Nebraska, 17.7 inches were captured by the shortgrass prairie.

So, you’re losing less water to runoff, contributing signficantly less to the pollution of our streams and lakes and making extremely efficient use of stormwater.  All the while, you’re not spending nearly as much time mowing or maintaining your lawn.  I fail to see the loss here.

Maintenance

Buffalo grass is absolutely supreme when it comes to erosion control on slopes.  It is healthy, happy, dense and stellar at capturing water.  Bluegrass on the same slope is much less effective at preventing water from washing away dirt.  Near problematic basement walls, buffalo grass is superior at capturing and evapotranspiring water.  Bluegrass allows the water to infiltrate and flood basements much quicker (although admittedly if your basement is flooding you’re probably a victim of other problems as well).

Bluegrass requires two to three fertilizer applications per year to really maintain a deep, jade-green look.  It requires at least weekly watering and mowing.  If you mulch, you probably have to de-thatch it in the spring or power rake it.  Your lawn is also susceptible to the slightest invasion by problematic insects.  And oftentimes, the maintenance of a bluegrass lawn is so intensive that it damages the health of nearby plants like trees, shrubs or gardens.

Buffalo grass lawns offer many more options in terms of maintenance.  If you absolutely MUST have the neat, manicured look of a baseball stadium, you can mow the grass bi-weekly or monthly.  It can also be mowed to much lower heights, but it damages the health of the grass to an extent.  Buffalo grass requires no water, but you might water it once during the worst of droughts.  When you do water, it is advised to water very deeply for a long time instead of shallow watering daily.  This encourages the development of deep roots.  Buffalo grass requires no fertilizer application if you don’t mow it, and only once every year or two if you mow it very lightly.

Buffalo grass is extremely dense when well-established, and it establishes itself and spreads very quickly.  This means that weeds have a very tough time getting into the turf, and you do not need to manage intensively for weed control.  This will spare the health of many of your other plants, especially large trees that are damaged by herbicides (like maples, oaks and cottonwoods).  Buffalo grass also is a native grass, and it is a champion plant for establishing a healthy biocommunity and having good soil health.

Planning for the Future

While most Americans do not yet know it, hydrologists and other parts of the world already know that water is becoming increasingly scarce.  Water rights battles happen every year between farmers, irrigation districts, states and countries.  Freshwater is a resource everyone must use, and by maintaining a bluegrass lawn very inefficiently you are effectively saying you really don’t care about the world your children or grandchildren live in.  Keep in mind that while a buffalo grass lawn conversion is an up-front expense and a bit of a pain (as establishing any lawn is), you’ll thank yourself in a year when you’re not spending a few hours every weekend mowing your grass, watering and applying fertilizer.  And the dollars you save by not buying gas for your lawnmower is also a benefit.  You’re reducing your oil and water consumption, two of the world’s most precious and scarce resources.  And you’re saving yourself a bit of time and work, too.

Lastly, if you are interested in converting, here are a few resources to help you get started:

http://elkhorn.unl.edu/epublic/live/g1946/build/g1946.pdf
http://www.stockseed.com/buffalograsses_est_mg_guide.asp
http://www.american-lawns.com/grasses/buffalo.html

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2 Comments »

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  1. THANK YOU for the links on how to get started! I have been thinking about this for a while and had no idea how to start.

  2. I just bought a house in Central Florida and discovered than more than half my lawn is actually weed (creeping signal grass). So I plan to reseed and I’m looking for a grass requiring less maintenance (right now I’m breaking my back two days a week pulling out weed, because I am reluctant to use pesticides). When I read your article I was totally excited. I went further and visited the recommended links. One small problem: Buffalo grass cannot tolerate shade. That might be a problem. It’s always sunny here, but I do have a few trees casting shade in some areas of my lawn. Any thoughts?


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