Turf Grass vs. Native Plants

Lawn Maintenance, Sod Solutions

Turf Grass vs. Native Plants

Grass versus native plants. It’s an argument that comes up just about every spring/summer and I thought that I would write this post to put the position of Sod Solutions on the issue out there. While it’s true that whatever you put in your yard should make the best use of one of the world’s most precious commodities, when you look at the data it turns out that grass isn’t the water-sucking monster that some would lead you to believe. In fact, it can be one of the most eco-friendly choices in a landscape.

Those who advocate for going native over turf grass often argue from a water conservation perspective. While it is possible that native plants can survive on less irrigation water than grass, the notion that turf is a water hog because it has to be watered often is not true in most parts of the country. An established lawn should require no more than 1” of total water per week, including rainfall. It is best to water only once or twice per week to promote root growth and “train” the grass to handle drought better. Studies have shown that both Bermuda and Zoysia varieties (including our Celebration and Empire) can go over 60 days without water. They have a built in mechanism that triggers dormancy when the water is turned off. The grass turns brown, but does not die and when water is applied again it will recover. Unfortunately, St. Augustine does not have this ability and will die when in drought conditions. Because of this, Empire and Celebration both have the ability to earn green credits in many areas. Be sure to check out our research page for details of the study or to learn more.

Homeowners who provide more than 1” of total water per week to established lawns are simply wasting that water. A poor cultural practice by homeowners and landscapers is not a reason to attack a plant and advocate for its complete removal from the landscape. One of the things that I believe needs major attention from both our industry and the media is advocacy for rain fall detection and irrigation cut off systems through moisture sensors and available weather data. An irrigation system is not a set it and forget it device and nothing frustrates me more than seeing an irrigation system running during or after a heavy rainfall.

Beyond irrigation, remember that native plants need water too. Just like turf, they’re not going to look good unless they receive supplemental water during a drought. The difference between turf grass and native plants (really any tree or shrub for that matter) as far as water goes, is much more root system depth than water usage. Trees and shrubs in many cases actually use more water than grass, but have better access to water due to the depth of their roots.

It’s not so much where a plant comes from, but more the climate and adaptations the plant has had to make over time that determines its water usage and ability to survive drought. Grass has proven itself to be one of the most adaptable plants on the planet, appearing in nearly every climate and USDA zone. Grow a grass that is well adapted to your area and it will need less care than one that is not. On top of this, developers of turf grass cultivars breed with an eye toward creating new varieties that tolerate drought conditions and thrive on less water. Today’s turf grasses are some of the hardiest and beneficial plants out there.

It’s when you compare grass’s other benefits to those of native plants that it really shines. For example:

  • While all plants do good things for the air by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen, grass is far more efficient at it than native plants. The rate at which oxygen is converted is a function of leaf surface area and growth rates, and lawn grasses have many more leaves and grow much faster than native plants. Just 55 square feet of turf provides enough oxygen for one person for an entire day.
  • Grass naturally lowers temperatures through evapotranspiration, or exchanging moisture with the air. The average front lawn has the same cooling effect as an 8.5-ton air conditioner.
  • The turf grass areas in the United States alone are estimated to store and remove upwards of 37 billion tons of carbon. Grass also absorbs particulates and some of the nastiest atmospheric pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and ozone.
  • The roots of turf grass act as a natural environmental filter. Combined with the microbes and other things in soil, lawns actually play a key role in the biodegradation of contaminants found in runoff water.
  • Because they are more dense than native plants, turf grass lawns provide better fire protection and erosion control.

The bottom line is, there is a place in a landscape for both native plants and turf grass. We don’t encourage a landscape with nothing but grass any more than one with no grass. When designing an outdoor area, use moderation and common sense. A lawn is a place that can provide outdoor enjoyment, sports, beauty, and value for your home. Before you decide to remove your lawn, consider these points and do your own research. You’ll find that grass can be one of the most environmentally friendly plants you can grow.