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Tired of Turf? Try Sedge Instead

By Suzanne Labry
Contributing Writer

While there are a few exceedingly tranquil souls out there who find mowing the grass to be a Zen-like experience, most of us would likely place lawn mowing in the chore category. If we add in edging, blowing/sweeping, watering, fertilizing and controlling weeds and pests, maintaining a conventional lawn can be a real time and money hog. And then there’s the dark underbelly of turf grass, which covers more than 75 percent of all residential land in the United States. It is said that the typical American lawn slurps up 10,000 gallons of water (not including rainwater) every year, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 90 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides are applied to our lawns annually.

Of course, it would be hard to deny that lawns add to the beauty of a landscape. Psychologists and designers attest that the color green makes people feel calm, balanced and less stressed. A stretch of green grass is restful to the eye and can serve as a perfect complement to a flowerbed or perennial border. No wonder the Pantone Color of the Year for 2017 is “Greenery.” The description of the color practically makes you want to fling off your shoes and stroll barefoot in some sod: “Greenery is a fresh and zesty yellow-green shade that evokes the first days of spring when nature’s greens revive, restore and renew. Greenery is nature’s neutral. The more submerged people are in modern life, the greater their innate craving to immerse themselves in the physical beauty and inherent unity of the natural world.”

So what can you do if you want the benefits of a swath of green grass but don’t want the downsides that come with it? An increasingly popular alternative is a lawn of sedge. Sedge resembles grass, but it isn’t; rather, it is a perennial in the genus Carex. There are more than 2,000 varieties of sedge and they can be found in practically every ecosystem. Some are tiny, while some can grow several feet tall. Some are creepers, some have a clumping growth habit and some have a bit of both. Many prefer shade, some like sun and some can handle either. Some can tolerate wet soils, while others need dry feet. Several sedge varieties display some good lawn-like attributes that make them suitable as substitutes for traditional turf-grass lawns.

Varieties fitting that description include those in the subgroup known as upland sedges and several of these are Texas natives, including Leavenworth’s sedge (Carex leavenworthii) and Texas Hill Country/Meadow sedge (C. perdentata). These are clumping varieties with compact growth (about 6–10 inches tall) and evergreen color. They are indigenous to mixed oak forests, dry sandy woods, forest clearings as well as woodland edges, dry grasslands, roadsides and road banks. They do well in dry, dappled shade and can handle competition from tree roots; so they are an excellent choice for growing under trees where few grasses will survive. They can stand light foot traffic. With a bit more water (although not nearly as much as some turf grasses), they can also survive in sun, but will take on a more yellow-green color (zesty, anyone?). These sedges have some additional characteristics that especially recommend them for a spot in the Texas landscape:

  • Drought-tolerant once established, native sedges require little supplemental water.
  • Deer and other herbivores don’t eat them.
  • They don’t need to be mowed, but if you prefer a more manicured look, they can be trimmed infrequently with the mower on a high setting.
  • They don’t need fertilizing (although they can benefit from a light feeding after they bloom).
  • They adapt to a variety of soil types, including sandy, clay or alkaline.
  • Once established, they are long-lived.
  • They provide color to the landscape in winter.
  • They don’t have pest problems.
  • Some bird species feed on native sedge seeds.
  • If left unmowed, sedge provides natural movement to the landscape.

Because of their low-growing, clumping habit, they can be combined with other low-growing plants or bulbs to create a natural, prairie-like look. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, recommended companion plants include cedar sage (Salvia roemeriana), Missouri violet (Viola missouriensis), violet ruellia (Ruellia nudiflora), Drummonds ruellia (Ruellia drummondiana), baby blue eyes (Nemophila phacelioides), white avens (Geum canadense) and straggler daisy (Calyptocarpus vialis). Companion bulbs include rain lilies (Cooperia pedunculata), oxblood lilies (Rhodophiala bifida), starflower (Ipheion uniflorum), and jonquils (Narcissus jonquilla).

Because sedge is not sod, it cannot be planted in large squares. It takes time to fill in, so it is not for those seeking a lawn in a hurry. And sedge cannot replace playground turf. So if you’re looking for a place for the kids to play soccer, then sedge is not what you want. The main problem, however, seems to be finding sources for these Texas-native sedges.

Seed for the Texas natives is not commercially available at this time, and while many nurseries that feature native plants carry 4-inch pots of sedge, that option would be expensive if you’re trying to cover anything large. Pam Penick, an Austin-based garden designer, award-winning blogger and the author of Lawn Gone! Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard (Penguin Random House), is a proponent of using sedge as a turf substitute. She has used four-inch pots to create a sedge lawn in a small space and flats of plugs for a bigger area. For larger areas, she recommends working with someone who has access to a wholesaler that grows Texas-native sedges, such as McNeal Growers (mcnealgrowers.com), and then buying larger quantities of plugs through them.

“You can’t really overcrowd sedges, so space them as tightly as you wish or can afford,” she said. “A tighter spacing will give you a more immediate result, obviously.” Because sedges readily seed, Pam also suggests mowing the plants after they bloom and leaving the cut material on the ground so that the seed will germinate and grow. She says that when she sees sedge springing up from seed in places she doesn’t want it, she simply pulls up the plugs and replants them to speed up the process of filling in. “The seedlings are easy to pull up after a rain, and sedge is not nearly as prolific a re-seeder as Mexican feather grass or inland sea oats.”

The problem of lack of places to buy sedge is further complicated by the fact that there are so many different sedges and those that are commercially available are commonly mislabeled. Patrick McNeal, who owns McNeal Growers, states, “It’s my experience that every sedge I have seen for sale is misidentified. You can’t just look at sedge and indentify it. The characteristics you have to compare are those of flowers, seeds and the structures surrounding them. When you do this you have to examine them under a microscope because they are too small to see with the naked eye.” An excellent description of the various sedges that McNeal recommends for turf substitutes can be found at his website, mcnealgrowers.com.

If you’re willing to make the upfront effort of seeking out a source for sedge and if you have the patience for it to fill out, you will be rewarded with an environmentally friendly, water-wise turf alternative that stays green year-round. A sedge lawn is a farsighted investment — one that pays off in the long run because it is said that although a conventional lawn is the least expensive thing in the landscape to plant, it becomes the most expensive to maintain. And there’s another plus: your yard will not be a pretender. Lady Bird Johnson famously said, “I want Texas to look like Texas, and Vermont to look like Vermont. I just hate to see the land homogenized.”

“Sedge has an interesting shaggy habit and because you don’t have to mow it, it has a wonderful, meadowy look. Sedge is great for those areas that get some shade without a lot of foot traffic,” Pam Penick said. “It handles drought far better than mondo grass or liriope. I wouldn’t recommend it for full sun in Texas if you want dark green color, but overall it is a really tough plant that is a great, low-maintenance alternative for a traditional lawn such as St. Augustine.” You can read Pam’s blog detailing her experience with planting a sedge lawn, including step-by-step instructions, at http://www.penick.net/digging/?p=23006.

Pam’s reference to a sedge lawn’s “meadowy” look is a trait echoed by others who decry the monoculture of conventional U.S. lawns consisting of grasses originating from Africa, Asia and Europe. One of these voices is that of John Greenlee, ornamental grass expert and author of The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn (Timber Press). “I get what lawn does from a design standpoint; it’s a cool place for your eye to rest. But if you don’t have to play golf on it, there are all these other great things you could consider,” Greenlee said. “I drive out to the suburbs and see hundred- to 800-hundred-foot square rugs of turf grass in various stages of looking crummy. You have to water, weed, plug, fertilize and spray them. Maybe your kids have moved out, the shade trees have grown up, the lawn’s not looking all that good. Why have a crappy lawn when you can have a fabulous meadow? There are so many of what I call these ‘groundcover grasses’ that can make a cool, green, ecologically sound panel for you to walk upon or just to look at.”

Converting a conventional lawn into a prairie-style meadow lawn requires a different mindset, and it may be something to attempt gradually. But if the thought of using regionally appropriate natives or adapted plants to create a more natural, chemical-free landscape that requires less water and effort sounds appealing, then it might just be time to give sedges a try.

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