Native Sedges as Grass Lawn Alternatives

This season, it seems that sedge lawns are finally catching on and we are replacing a number of traditional grass lawns with the lower maintenance sedge.  We have been planting Pennsylvania Sedge and Catlin Sedge so check back for pictures once they have established themselves.  All this alternative-to-turf talk makes me want to write a little bit about how turf lawns are actually good for the environment, just to stir the pot a little bit, so check back soon for that blog. In the meantime, here is some information about native sedge lawns from an article by the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.  

Sedge Lawns for Every Landscape

By John Greenlee on December 31, 2001 | Short URL

Few breakthroughs in the history of turf have been as significant as the arrival of an entirely new kind of lawn—the sedge lawn. Sedges are close botanical cousins of the grasses and look a lot like them. Properly selected and planted, sedges can function as a traditional lawn, yet they require little or no mowing, fertilizing, or chemicals. Some require less water than many conventional turfgrasses. Others tolerate wet, moist areas, and many thrive in shade. What's more, sedge lawns restore something of the character of the native sods that existed before agriculture and development transformed the American landscape.

Conventional lawns consist of grasses from Africa, Asia, Europe, and other places. These foreign, high-maintenance species have largely replaced the native sods composed of sedges and grasses. Today very little remains of the native sods. Perhaps the new American lawn is the original sod just waiting to be rediscovered.

Part of the attraction of the genus Carex, into which sedges fall, is its tremendous variety and adaptability. There are more than 2,000 species of Carex, and they are found in a wide range of habitats in nature. They vary from miniatures with foliage only 1 to 2 inches high, to specimens growing to 3 or 4 feet. Some creep, some clump, some do a little of both. They can be found in sun or shade, in wet soils or heavy clay, from coastal dunes to alpine scree. In almost every ecosystem, there is at least one sedge with good, lawnlike qualities.

California meadow sedge is evergreen in all but the coldest climates, and grows 4 to 6 inches unmowed. This informal lawn planting with spring bulbs is in Pomona, California.

California meadow sedge is evergreen in all but the coldest climates, and grows 4 to 6 inches unmowed. This informal lawn planting with spring bulbs is in Pomona, California. (Photo: John Greenlee)

Five sedges that have shown excellent promise as substitutes for traditional lawngrasses are catlin sedge(Carex texensis), Texas Hill Country sedge (C. perdentata),Baltimore sedge (C. senta), Pennsylvania sedge (C. pensylvanica), and California meadow sedge (C. pansa).These species are described below.

These native sedges have been selected for their compact growth and good, green color; most are evergreen as well. Many will tolerate varying degrees of shade and competition from tree roots. They are best grown in the regions where they are native, although most have shown amazing adaptability and grow well in regions outside their native range. As more horticulturists become aware of the sedges' potential in gardens, many more species are being collected from remnant populations in nature. Hybridization is still untapped and offers enormous possibilities for lawns of the future.

This wide-ranging sedge is found in nature from Texas through Ohio and has naturalized in parts of southern California. In nature, it hybridizes and mingles with closely related, similar species throughout the Southeast. Catlin sedge is adapted to a wide variety of climates, from the hot, muggy Southeast to the hot, dry Southwest. It is hardy to USDA Zone 6, and perhaps Zone 5 in sheltered locations. It forms a matlike clump 3 to 4 inches high and 6 inches wide. To maintain as a lawn, catlin sedge will require two to three mowings per year. This dark green sedge is at its best in partial to full shade. Planted in full sun, it will tend to be lighter green and require ample water to look its best. Catlin sedge makes a fine lawn mowed or unmowed, planted either from seed or from plugs 6 inches on center.

Sedge lawns are usually planted from plugs, as the seeds of many sedges are short lived and have low germination rates. The most important step in establishing a new sedge lawn is to start with weed-free soil.

When converting an existing lawn, make absolutely sure the old lawn is dead (see "Planting a Native Grass Lawn Step by Step"). Top-dressing newly planted plugs is far more beneficial than incorporating mulch into the soil. Fertilize as you would a lawn to speed establishment. Mowings every month in the growing season will speed tillering and help the newly planted plugs to fill in.

This Texas native is another excellent lawnlike sedge. It is drought tolerant and moisture tolerant with surprisingly soft, medium-green foliage. Its slowly creeping, almost clump-forming foliage is a light green color growing 4 to 6 inches high. A very versatile sedge, C. perdentata grows equally well in sun or shade, heavy or sandy soils. Its evergreen foliage is dependably hardy to Zone 6 and possibly lower. It looks best when watered regularly, but like most sedges it will tolerate periods of summer drought. Plant from plugs 6 to 12 inches on center in fall or spring.

Pennsylvania sedge has a wide distribution throughout the eastern and central U.S., with one form, C. pensylvanica var. pacificum, reaching all the way to Puget Sound in Washington state. With such a wide distribution in nature, this sedge and its hybrids hold much promise for natural lawns of the future. Many distinct and varied clones are being evaluated by nurseries throughout the country. Typically found on sandy soils in dappled shade or as a constituent of low prairies, Pennsylvania sedge can tolerate less than ideal conditions in the garden. Its noninvasive, creeping foliage forms dense mats of medium green, fine-textured foliage growing 6 to 8 inches unmowed. As a mowed lawn, this sedge looks best cut two to three times per year at 3 to 4 inches high. Plant Pennsylvania sedge from plugs 6 to 12 inches on center in fall or spring.

This native Pacific Coast sedge is hands-down one of the finest native sedges for making natural lawns. Largely untested in the East, it has proven durable in Texas and Colorado. Slowly creeping, dark green foliage grows 4 to 6 inches unmowed. California meadow sedge will tolerate varied types of soil conditions and temperatures, from sandy, exposed seacoasts to heavy clays and hot, inland valleys. It is also exceptionally traffic tolerant. Thriving in full sun to partial shade, it will thin out in deep shade. Mowing two to three times per year keeps the foliage low, tight, and lawnlike. Unmowed, it makes an attractive meadow and remains evergreen in all but the coldest climates. California meadow sedge is fast to establish from plugs planted 6 to 12 inches on center.

This native eastern sedge is essentially a refined version of catlin sedge—identical except for shorter flower spikes, which lend a neater, more lawnlike appearance when unmowed. Discovered originally by Briar Hoffman growing in the lawn of a church in Towson, Maryland, Baltimore sedge is one of the best low-growing, lawn-forming sedges for deep shade. Treat this sedge as you would C. texensis. Plant plugs 6 to 8 inches on center. Like all sedges, plugs of Baltimore sedge planted in spring or fall will establish quickly.