Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Endorsement: Buffalo Grass

Lots of folks here in Utah wish they could keep their lawns green without using so much water. My approach, since I became a homeowner, has been mostly to avoid lawn grass completely. I’ve covered a lot of my yard with native shrubs and water-wise perennials.

But it’s nice to have at least a little lawn grass, where you can sit and enjoy Utah’s marvelous summer mornings and evenings. So last year I took the plunge and planted a patch of drought-tolerant buffalo grass in my back yard.

I got the idea from the High Country Gardens catalog, and from one of my colleagues who had also tried buffalo grass. You order it in little plugs, an inch in diameter by two inches deep. The plugs come in flats of 72 for about $40 per flat. I ordered ten flats, which arrived in mid-May 2008. By then I had roto-tilled the ground, raked out the weeds, and mixed in some fertilizer.

The part I hadn’t thought through was this: You have to plant the plugs one at a time. An industrious person could have done it all in a couple of days, but I took two weeks, working about an hour each day. I planted the plugs a foot apart, covering a roundish area of about 600 square feet which my friends call the putting green. Then I carefully watered and weeded and waited. Much to my amazement, the plugs grew and filled in by the end of the summer.

Buffalo grass has two aesthetic disadvantages. First, it spreads by shooting out “runners” that try to find bare ground where they can put down roots. Once the grass has filled in, some of the runners start shooting upward where they look a little messy and make the grass feel stiffer. Second, buffalo grass turns completely brown in the fall and doesn’t turn green again until late spring (around mid-May this year in my case). So a lot of people won’t want it in their front yards, where the neighbors might disapprove.

Meanwhile, the advantages are as advertised: Buffalo grass needs only half as much water as “regular” grass (once it’s established); it needs much less mowing (never growing higher than about 8 inches); it can easily handle moderate foot traffic; and it grows thick enough to keep out most weeds.

It was definitely a worthwhile investment.


  1. Most weeds? My yard is being assaulted by Bermuda grass. It spreads by rhizomes, above ground runners, and/or seeds, It is drought tolerant, and very aggressive, invading all my lawn and the gardens. It is resistant to herbicide, even glyphosphate. SO, do you think buffalo grass would over-grow it?

    1. I don't have any experience with Bermuda grass, so I don't know for sure, but I doubt that merely planting some buffalo grass would get rid of your Bermuda grass. I would suggest digging or roto-tilling an area to get rid of all the grass and weeds already there, then planting buffalo grass and tending it carefully until it gets established. The buffalo grass in my back yard still needs some weeding, but not very much. In one area there's some older lawn grass that still comes up, thinly, every year, because it gets a head start on the late-greening buffalo grass. In other areas I have an annual weed grass (cheatgrass, I think) that also gets going in the early spring. Most annoyingly, I have some morning glory that's trying to invade the buffalo grass from one edge. But the buffalo grass seems to keep out most of the other weeds that are problems in the rest of my yard. I get just a few weak dandelions and prickly lettuces each year, and none of some of the others whose names I don't know.

    2. On a call-in gardening show a while back, someone asked about how to handle Bermuda grass. The hosts responded, "Move."


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