The Grass is Always Greener For Gardeners on the Cutting Edge

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

I was talking with a talented young garden designer the other day about how far gardening had come in Austin over the course of the past few decades. We shook our heads remembering the bland old days. Not too long ago Austinites really didn't have gardens, just yards. A lush green spread of grass was the fabulous fifties (and sixties, and seventies…) badge of honor, and most of our "gardening" efforts and resources were poured onto our lawns, those relentless shag carpets of plastic looking San Augustine blades.

Now, when I walk through just about any neighborhood in Austin I see honest to goodness gardens with a wonderful mix of native trees, shrubs, and perennials, not to mention all of the cool tropicals, roses, wooly ornamental grasses, and funky cactii. Let's face it, lawns have fallen from favor among the gardening hipoisie.

Our plant palette has definitely changed, and we are even beginning to catch on to the fact that gardens should be more than just a collection of plants. Gardens should have a design- plants, hardscapes, ponds, structures, and art work should all blend together to create memorable spaces. As we rush off into this brave new world of gardening, I hope that rather than banishing lawns and turf grass, we will instead learn to use them in new ways. Grass can be cool, even San Augustine. Just like rarest form of agave, or the most hyper pruned English boxwood, a little turf can provide just the right touch for your garden.

Austinites seem to love tongue in cheek kitch. And, what could be more kitchy than a little patch of San Augustine and a pair of poodle ligustrums flanking an Elvis shrine? Now, you'd have to be pretty daring to work this cliché into your garden, but why not? I certainly wouldn't turn my whole yard over to this design, uh, concept, but what the heck, I kinda like the idea of a little political incorrectness when gardening. Dogma be bad.

One design idea that I really like is creating little islands of turf. Since we live on the edge of the desert, it doesn't make sense to fill our yards with water sucking grass. But, if we use a hardscape material like decomposed granite, and then dot in geometric patches of turf, the effect can be very striking. Imagine a yard with rust colored granite, and a checker board arrangement of turf edged with steel painted a brilliant blue. Cool? Very.

One idea that I am actually considering for part of my new garden is a circle of turf set in the middle of an expanse of decomposed granite that we have already added to our side yard. I am thinking about using buffalo grass because I love its fine wavy texture. I'd border the circle with alternating bands of cut limestone and smooth river stones. Inside the circle, a few Zen like boulders would become islands in the sea of grass.

Of course, you don't have to scare the neighbors to have fun with grass. You can simply choose one of the newer varieties. One of the main reasons that grass is considered boring is that for so long we really had only two rather unattractive choices for our lawns, San Augustine and Bermuda.

San Augustine is actually tougher than its reputation- I actually tried to kill some I my backyard during last summer's heat wave, I didn't water it for months, assuming that it would die. It turned the color of straw and all of the top growth appeared to have given up the ghost, but, as soon as the first fall rains came along it sprang back to life. San Augustine performs best in full sun and does pretty well in the shade, though it has decided problems with fungal diseases. Its biggest drawback is that if you want that lush green look, you'd better be prepared to pay the price with a high water bill. Frankly, I have always been turned off by the look of San Augustine, but many people like its waxy crispness.

Bermuda is an invasive weed, fine for somebody who wants a lawn that can survive being blow torched, but a disaster for anyone who ever dreams of a weed free garden. There are some pretty "putting green" varieties of Bermuda, but 99% of what you see around town is the old-fashioned land grabbing type. Its one redeeming feature is that it is cheap, you can seed it out as opposed to buying sod.

Buffalo grass came along about ten years ago and now has many fans. There are several cultivars to choose from, and aside from its legendary drought tolerance, the best thing about buffalo grass is that it looks great unmowed. Can't beat that on a Saturday morning. The down side to buffalo is that it doesn't tolerate much shade, and is kind of wimpy when it comes to competing with weeds. Buffalo grass has a different look that some folks just don't get used to, many people are disappointed by its winter dormancy and pale coloration, others, however, love it.

Zoysia is the new kid in town and many landscapers consider it the grass of choice. I like the look much more than San Augustine, it has a deeper green color and a nicer texture. According to Debby Cole of Greater Texas Landscapes Inc., a company with years of experience installing and maintaining turf, zoysia outperfoms all other grasses in locations ranging from sun to shade. She says that it too can look great unmowed. Because the new cultivars of zoysia have been on the market for a relatively short time, it remains a little pricey, though that will probably change in the coming years.

Buffalo and zoysia have given us more choices, but, it is up to us to use grass in more interesting ways. A perfect lawn in no longer the be all and end all of Central Texas Gardening, but there is no reason why we can't make a little patch of green the centerpiece on our side of the gardening fence.

Return to Soul of the Garden Library