June 11th, 2006
Tale of Two Lawns

St Augustine and buffalograss2006-06-11. Austin Texas. 9:30AM 80 degrees. Lawns and politics: patchy buffalograss in the foreground; St Augustine in the background.

Garden blogs have been all abuzz this week over lawns. In Austin we’re encouraged to replace our lawns with beds of native or xeriscape plants in order to cut down on our water usage especially if we want to enjoy our yards without being enslaved to a high-maintenance landscape. I don’t think the issue is so cut and dry. Typical homeowners, at least in South “Keep Austin Weird” Austin, don’t spend a lot of time watering or mowing their grass. Replace what passes for lawns in a lot of Austin with other plants and I think a lot more people will be spending a lot more time using a lot more water.

Those people unfortunate enough to live in places like Circle C where they’re required by neighborhood covenant to keep the grass greener on their side of the fence, even in periods of extended drought when we are under rationing, I’m guessing are rich enough to pay other people to do the maintenance. (How will this dynamic change with the current crackdown on illegal immigration?) Are they even allowed to replace their lawns? Ah, I digress.

When I acquired this house in April 1993, the entire front and back yards were covered in St Augustine grass. I was happy to have inherited an automatic sprinkling system until we got our first water bill. After I recovered from the shock and swore never to use the system again, I bought a sprinkler to fit on the end of the hose and watered only the healthiest parts of the lawn. In June of 1993, one of the cedar elms snapped in half during a storm. Suddenly the north quadrant of the backyard was baking in full sun. I let the marginal grass die, covered it with mulch, and began planning a wildflower meadow.

Over the next few years, I planted buffalograss, bluebonnets, larkspur and various small bulbs like rainlilies, species tulips, and fall crocuses. The meadow looked great in the spring, but very patchy and weedy the other 9 months of the year. Although buffalograss spreads by runners, it forms clumps rather than a smooth lawn. Therefore I don’t think it looks particularly nice mown. And the same characteristics that make it a haven for small bulbs and flowers, provide the same haven for weeds. I’m constantly battling horse herb (which grows up over buffalograss, shading and killing it) and other undersirables.

The blades of buffalograss are narrow and sharp. It is not a grass to wiggle your toes in or lie back in and watch the clouds. Over the years, various trees on the border have made the once sunny meadow area quite shady. Buffalograss does not like the shade at all. I like its color of dry hay (of green tatami), but in the worst heat of summer, it is not a color which is restful to our parched eyes.

In contrast, the deep green coarse blades of the St Augustine grass makes me want to fling off my shoes and throw myself back on it in delight. I do not spend a great of water on the St Augustine lawn. Unlike some other grasses, St Augustine likes mulch. I learned this from watching how it took over any path I made around the yard. So every time I see a bare spot or thin grass, I mulch it with a combination of Dillo Dirt and Texas native bark mulch. I don’t feed it any lawn food and it rewards me by not growing too fast.

I think of St Augustine as a southern grass. It evokes summer days under shady live oak tree with the whine of cicadas filling the air. Buffalograss creates a praire mood with its tall, wispy blades and loosely filled clumps undulating in billowing waves under a withering wind. Austin sits on Balcones Fault and shares characteristics of both the old South and the desert West. I pleased to have a little of both in my backyard.

I’ve gotten rid of all the lawn I’m getting rid of. Compared to the rest of the yard, it is low maintenace especially in ratio to the pleasure it provides.

by M Sinclair Stevens

7 Responses to post “Tale of Two Lawns”

  1. From Rantor:

    We just leave our St. Augustine alone. It’s probably the original, from the late ‘Twenties or early ‘Thirties. It gets a bit of encouragement from a hose-end sprinkler, but only on the “official” watering day. We put our spring bulbs into it and then just let the bulb leaves die back, not mowing or raking in certain spots until they’re gone. Once in a while there’s a brown-patch spot that takes a couple of years to regrow. We leave lantana and Turk’s cap and other things that mysteriously appear in the midst of the St. Augustine just where they are. If they could get a foothold, the grass was weak there. With a hand reel mower it’s easy to mow around anything like that and then do any desired tidying up with hand edging shears. We’ve seen people tear out St. Augustine as old as ours and replace it with “xeriscapes” that seem to require much, much more attention, including (horrors!) watering and don’t keep the ground as cool.

    I don’t think St Augustine grass can be killed. I covered an area with six inches of bark mulch because I was going to put a gravel path there. More than a year later when I removed the bark, the St Augustine was still alive…the roots and runners, not the blades of grass. I’m still enjoying my push mower although since the blades of St Augustine jut out in all directions it takes a couple of passes to get the lawn mowed. — mss

  2. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    OK, now I’m rethinking my quest for a small buffalo-grass lawn. My in-laws have buffalo grass and have voiced the same complaints about its weediness as you do.

    Have you tried zoysia? I believe it is the new recommended lawn grass for Austin (according to the city of Austin). It’s less weed-prone than buffalo, but less thirsty than St. Augustine, or so I hear.

    Pam, it was your comment at Takoma Gardener that got me thinking about grass. Your yard has a lot more sun than mine, so buffalograss might flourish. Also I tend to be a much more neglectful gardener than you. If something isn’t going to grow, I don’t spend a lot of time fussing over it. (Looking at your garden photos this week, I notice that none of your plants look stressed from the heat. Your garden looks as fresh as ever; my plants are all droopy.) If you grew buffalograss, it would probably be all dense and bushy. But if you’re planting it for your kids to play in…well, I guess it depends on how they play. I haven’t tried zoysia. I don’t know anything about it. — mss

  3. From bill:

    I agree. Lawngrass can be the most maintenance-free landscaping you can have as long as you don’t go overboard and water it constantly. All you have to do is mindlessly mow it all to the same height.

    Bill, last year I tried an experiement in the heat of summer and didn’t mow the front yard at all (or water it). I just let it wither and fall over. It was probably a foot tall, but since it was lying on the side, not weedy, and all the same height, it didn’t look that tall. This year the front lawn is much healthier looking than the back lawn. I think it’s because of the extra organic matter from last year’s long lawn. I think I’ll take some pictures of around the neighborhood illustrative of South Austin’s laid back lawn care. Down here the point is to sit back and watch the grass grow, not spend all weekend feeding and mowing it. — mss

  4. From Annie in Austin:

    We’ve been in this 1970’s house less than 2 years, and the yard was already St. Augustine. Large pecans and ashes make dappled shade, the weeding is done by hand, we use organic soil activators, a mulching mower, and I don’t water the lawn very often.

    We’ve turned some grass into beds for trees, shrubs, flowers & vegetables, which do need watering since they’re not established yet. We are gradually adding more areas of decomposed granite.

    When we first came to Texas, I thought St Augustine was the weirdest grass, but I’ve grown to like it, and appreciate its non-allergenic quality. We recently took our vintage croquet set out of storage and have had fun with that – gotta have some lawn for croquet!

    * Annie, as much as I rave about my reel mower, there are times I miss my defunct mulching mower. I agree with y’all. There is something cool and inviting about a lawn. When our kids were younger we played badminton and had water ballon fights. Lawns are great for summer games. — mss

  5. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    I don’t consider myself a fussy waterer. Like you, I plant a lot of xeric plants so that I don’t have to be. I watered the garden on Thursday, but the last time I watered was May 25. About two weeks is the average in the summer, except for new plants.

    I am fussy about trimming overgrown or droopy plants though. I like to get repeat blooms, plus I like to keep the structure of the garden visible.

    It’s interesting to know that one can use a reel mower on St. Augustine. I thought it would be too tall a grass for a push mower.

    Sorry, Pam. “Fussy” was probably the wrong word. I admire the way you keep your garden. My habits, by comparison are a bit slovenly. I’d love my garden to look like yours, but they are very different kinds of gardens even though they are only about five miles apart. I don’t have as many xeric plants as I should: too many roses and cannas and crinium, for the years Austin is acting like a city of the Deep South. This year, my yucca and aloe are already sunburned, so I wonder how you manage. As for the reel mower, it is true that I can’t set it as high as the mulching mower, as high as I’d like for the summer mowing. However, my primary complaint is that the blades of St Augustine lie flat or grow out at angles. They don’t stand straight up neatly ready for the mower. So there’s a lot of going back and forth in various directions to get it all cut. — mss

  6. From Roxanne (Austin):

    My front lawn is St. Augustine grass, and I rarely water it. It’s somewhat shaded by large pecan and magnolia trees. It stays green. The back yard, however, has both St. Augustine and some ugly, weedy-looking grass that I think is buffalograss. There isn’t much shade back there, and the whole lawn is sort of yellow. It’s really ugly and not soft at all. The buffalograss is growing up around my back porch’s foundation and is VERY difficult to remove. I hate it. My husband claims that he’s going to put pathways and beds all over the back yard, so I don’t put much effort into maintaining the lawn. If it all dies on its own, it will make the rest of the landscaping easier.

    Welcome, Roxanne. Always great to meet another Austin garden/blogger. Sounds like you live in a neighborhood pretty close to where Pam digs.

  7. From Mara (west of Austin):

    Grass…hmm…..what I have is what I have. When I was in Austin, I had wanderingjew and oxalis in the front yard and unwatered bermuda in the back yard. My boy was int. building forts and toy soldiers. That entaile. extensive damming structures, flooding and fires. I called him my Uncivil Engineering Corps. The fact that St. Augustine dared not to cross the border with my neighbor never bothered anyone in my South Austin in spirit , north of the river neighborhood. Very few ever watered and grass grew tall on more than one yard. One neighbor seeded native grasses on his empty lot and a newbie called him into the garden fascists downtown for not mowing. Times have changed in Central Austin. The relaxed neighborhood is now filled with DINKS from out of state so I moved to Dripping . Grass….. hmmm… What I have is what I have. Things haven’t changed . My son has moved off and now. Deer rut in my trees and chomp at their form of distruction. Armadillos nose their way through anything looking for grubs. I have native tall grass that I never mow. It is a rough scape, but that is what I want: curly mesquite grass, pine muhly and cedar sedge under the oaks. It is patchy but I water it not and I like it that way..Hell, I couldn’t water it even if I wanted to. I am on a cistern and there is a drought going on. I have been experimenting with diversifying my natives by throwing out seedballs, but the Spring rains didn’t come when I needed them to come. I will try again in the fall. I guess I have traded in gardening for restoration with my move into these dry hills.

    Mara, have you ever been to Selah, the Bamberger Ranch. It is an impressive habitat restoration project out your way. — mss