I’m dubbing 2021 the year of the lawn, and not because of the lush, emerald green growth. Besides cropland, one of the most visible signs of this year’s drought and heat was the parched brown turf in cities and on farmsteads. Could this summer’s drought spur alternatives to the traditional mowed lawn?

Luckily rains and cooler temperature arrived in late August across much of the region to bring grass out of its drought-induced dormancy, so lawns could recover before facing winter. Had rains not arrived, grass could have been pushed beyond the point of no return. In fact, many of us experienced parts of our lawn that were pushed beyond dormancy into death, leaving dead or badly thinned areas.

Is there something better than mowed turf that would reduce the level of concern? To be clear, there are definite benefits of lawngrass. It produces oxygen, cools the surroundings, absorbs impurities and provides a great playground for children. But there are also alternatives to the current way of doing things.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, lawns looked much different. Before herbicide use became commonplace, it was considered desirable to have other species, such as white clover, intermingled with the grass. Most families didn’t water the lawn much, if at all. Many homeowners are rethinking lawn care in favor of returning to these simpler ways.

The following are alternatives to a traditionally high-maintenance lawn.

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Make current lawns more self-sustaining

Lawngrass, as it currently exists, needn’t be a total resource drain, and there are ways to create a grass environment that sustains itself more readily. Mow high at 3 inches which shades the soil, conserves moisture and diminishes weeds.

Allow clippings to filter back into the lawn instead of bagging, which self-fertilizes the lawn as the clippings decompose. Water less frequently, but deeper, to encourage a deeper root system that withstands dry conditions.

Create a bee-friendly lawn

A low-growing mix can help make your lawn bee-friendly. iStock / Special to The Forum
A low-growing mix can help make your lawn bee-friendly. iStock / Special to The Forum

The University of Minnesota partnered with the Pollinator Friendly Alliance to create a lawn mix recipe that is low-growing and provides nectar for honeybees, and can be incorporated into the existing lawn. Mow the lawn to 1 inch, rake, power rake or aerate, and then overseed with a mixture containing 4 pounds fine fescue, 7 tablespoons white Dutch clover, 2 tablespoons creeping thyme and 7 tablespoons Prunella vulgaris, commonly called self-heal. The recipe covers 1000 square feet of lawn area.

Water daily for the first two weeks, and recommendations suggest no watering after that. Once established, the bee-friendly lawn is mowed only occasionally at a height of 3 to 4 inches.

Explore alternative grass types

Kentucky bluegrass, which is currently the predominant grass type in most Upper Midwest lawns, grows lush in cool temperatures and adequate moisture, and enters self-preservation dormancy when weather turns hot and dry. Some grass types remain active longer than Kentucky bluegrass when moisture isn’t plentiful. The fescue grass group is often recommended for its ability to weather variations in precipitation and still remain actively growing, plus it’s slower growing, requires less frequent mowing, and tolerates shade.

North Dakota State University Turf Specialist Alan Zuk recommends caution with fescues, though.

“The turf-type fescues do just fine in our region. However, they are a bunch-type grass that will not spread and fill damaged areas the way Kentucky bluegrass does. Fescues are very drought resistant but if they are pushed to the point of drought dormancy, they will not recover because of their poor recuperative ability and the lawn will have to be reseeded.”

So fescues also have a point of no return, if moisture stress becomes dire.

The fescue grass group is often recommended for its ability to weather variations in precipitation and still remain actively growing, plus it’s slower growing, requires less frequent mowing, and tolerates shade. iStock / Special to The Forum
The fescue grass group is often recommended for its ability to weather variations in precipitation and still remain actively growing, plus it’s slower growing, requires less frequent mowing, and tolerates shade. iStock / Special to The Forum

No-mow lawns

“No-mow” is a loose term used to describe low input grasses that grow out higher than a typical mowed lawn. In our region, fine fescue grass or grasslike sedges can create a no-mow lawn. No-mow grasses are sometimes termed low-mow, because they usually require at least a fall mowing to prevent a tangled accumulation of dead grass. Before going no-mow, check local ordinances for any height restrictions or guidelines.

Coming next week

To continue our exploration of lawn alternatives, next week we’ll feature an area resident who transitioned his traditional lawn into a beautiful, colorful natural prairie that thrived even in this summer’s drought.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.