Creating Practical Turf Areas

Not every landscape will have turf grass, but if you are a homeowner, most likely you have some turf areas. Even a high water-use turf grass can be grown and managed in a lower maintenance and lower water-use manner. Unless a person has severe water restrictions, areas of our traditional turf grasses are useful and can enhance one’s landscape. A true xeric landscape would incorporate our native turf grass, buffalograss.

Turf grass areas are pleasant to our senses (sight, touch, smell) and beneficial to a landscape in several ways:

  • Green turf grass areas are visually appealing in themselves.
  • Green turf grass areas are an effective way to separate beds and borders.
  • It feels good to walk and play on turf grass and it is durable for this activity.
  • Turf areas cut down on blowing dust and dirt.
  • Turf areas lessens soil erosion.
  • Fresh cut turf grass smells good. It’s a pleasant fragrance, nostalgic of playful, youthful, carefree moments.

There are three main aspects to creating practical turf areas:

  1. Creating the lawnscape; determining how much of your landscape will be dedicated to a turf grass.
  2. Choosing your turf grass.
  3. Proper turf maintenance for your turf grass type.

Why Lawns Anyway?

The condition of our lawn is the standard we are often judged, not only as gardeners, but as being socially acceptable. It’s the sign of respectability: a good homeowner, solid community citizen, attentive parent; keeps his lawn neat and tidy. It’s our tradition. Grow up, get married, buy a house, take care of the lawn. Saturday morning is for lawn care: get up, mow, trim, fertilize, weed and water. Over and over the weekly ritual repeats itself endlessly. There are ordinances promoting and demanding it. Who thought of this tradition anyway?

But before we launch into these 3 main aspects of lawns, let’s ponder the question of lawns themselves. Where did this concept come from? Why do we cherish this ideal, and is it suited to our climate and conditions? Is there a better way?

It is interesting to learn of the roots of the American Lawn. As with most American gardening, the concept of the Lawn was transplanted from England and Northern Europe and harkens back to the greensward – great expanses of what was called the lawn on English estates. The old, or archaic, definition of lawn is “an open space between woods; a glade” (Webster’s Third International Dictionary, Unabridged, 1976). Initially, a lawn was more like a clearing, or meadow surrounded by woods. As gardening evolved, lawn was created by making clearings around estates, a separation between the castle or manor’s grounds and agricultural fields. It was part of the private grounds of the lord of the manor, who employed many servants to care for it. Often sheep grazed the lawns, lawnmowers being a rather recent invention. The flora of the lawns was native forbs and grasses. There was naturalness incorporated in early estate lawns. The landed gentry had lawns, the average person worked on them. The average person still works on them.

The concept of Lawns came to American with the settlement of English and other Europeans, who were keen on proving they were just as sophisticated as their betters across the ocean. Initially, it was not the owner of American estates who tended American Lawns, but hired help, indentured servants and slaves. Through time and invention and the prevalence of home ownership, the concept of lawns further evolved as how we know it today. Webster’s definition continues for today’s use: “ground covered with fine grass kept closely mowed especially in front of house or about the house, or as part of a garden or park.” Lost in translation is the naturalness and diversity of the first lawns. Lost is the transition area between nature and cities. But there is another kink in this transplanted tradition – our climate is different.

Climate Differences

The continental climate of most of the United States, even the original Thirteen Colonies, with cold winters and warm or hot summers, shorter springs and autumns, is much different from England’s mild, well-tempered, overcast and rainy climate. Similar to the Texas Panhandle, New England’s winter snow melts quickly, just before the arrival of the summer heat (our spring/summer just starts earlier). Planting seasons are limited to a narrow window in time. The western coast and mainland of Britain experience a growing season of between 200 and 250 days due to the warm Gulf Stream. Great Britain lies at a latitude comparable to Newfoundland at 48.15° N. Parts of New Hampshire, considerably south of Newfoundland (and Britain), make due with a growing season that averages a mere 90 days a year (Jane Taylor, Weather in the Garden, John Murray Publishers, 1996).

The eastern coast of the United States can be subject to weeks of prolonged hot temperatures with periods of low, sporadic rainfall. Their climate is subject to harsher conditions that the British Isles. Even New England experiences high maintenance in sustaining pristine green lawns in the English model.

The Traditional Lawn works even less so for us in the Texas Panhandle than it does for the east coast of the United States. Amarillo lies at the latitude 35.14°N. Other cities comparable with Amarillo’s latitude would be Algiers, Algeria, 36.51°N; Tangiers, Morocco, 35.52°N; Tunis, Tunisia, 36.59°N, Beirut, Lebanon, 33.53°N, Damascus, Syria, 33.31°N; Baghdad, Iraq, 33.14°N; Tehran, Iran, 35.45°N; Kabul, Afghanistan, 34.39°N; Islamabad, Pakistan, 33.55°N; and Xian, China, 34.20°. The inland cities of Baghdad, Tehran, Kabul, Islamabad and Xian more closely mirror our climate, situated within a large land mass, rather than the Mediterranean climate of Algiers, Tangiers and Tunis. Of late, world events directed our attention to these similarly arid and semi-arid regions, bringing with it a familiarity of sorts of the terrain. Dry, hot and with sparse natural vegetation.

Contrast this with the look we prefer for home landscaping – a thick, evergreen, lush, area planted in one plant type, a monoculture, no exceptions, please. The Industrial Lawn, as it has been named. It is little wonder we have to work so hard to achieve this tradition.