No-Mow Grasses

I recently hiked Mount Tamalpais up in Marin County this spring for the first time. I’ll admit that I am a fairly fresh transplant to California, so this experience still caught me in that hazy honeymoon phase. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mount Tamalpais, it is a magical place during California’s green, flowery springtime – filled with rolling mountaintops of wildflower-strewn grassland and flecked with smatterings of trees. All of which overlooks the ocean. Oh, and there are ferny redwood canyons as well. Beautiful.

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Image Source: Adam Nugent

I noticed in my camera roll that I took a lot of pictures that look like the one above. I mean, a lot. Why? Well, because it is so beautiful! Yeah, yeah and puppies are cute. But why is this particular scene so particularly breathtaking? It appears we humans have a natural affinity for green, grass-coated landscapes (like springtime on Mount Tamalpais). In fact, I learned back in grad school that throughout the world people from different cultures prefer pictures of green savanna-like, or park-like, landscapes; even people that never experience them – say, Inuit who have never left the arctic. There is a great TED talk that beautifully illustrates this. And there are a number of hypotheses about why this phenomenon developed in us, but I won’t go into them here.

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Image Source: Ingfbruno (Wikimedia Commons)

Look around; just about every park or house outside of the city has some grass, and often the landscape is blissfully dominated by it. Now, a fresh-cut lawn makes sense on some practical measures. You can walk on it, play sports, and picnic on it. Children can fall on it without so much as a tear. Grass is also less expensive to install than most other (attractive) means of covering the ground. And, now, here I am telling you that humans are naturally programmed to love landscapes that capture that grassy aesthetic.

Wow, grass is great!

I know what you are thinking. Doesn’t this dude from the East Coast, with their summer rains and, well, water understand that green, manicured lawns are not the best thing to put everywhere, especially in California? Yes, I do. But there is a middle way: No-Mow grass. Maybe you’ve heard of it. While not truly xeric, it doesn’t need as much water as that trimmed lawn you see everywhere. Why? Because No-Mow lawn doesn’t have to keep growing back every time we trim it in that endless cycle of growth and lawnmowers. Plus the roots tend to go down much deeper than regular turf.

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Image Source: Terra Ferma Landscapes – Modern Farmhouse

No-Mow grasses are naturally short-growing grasses that can create an even (non-clumpy) groundcover. They have a laid-back wavy, or natural, look to them. They will be taller than typical mowed-turf; up to around 12 inches, so no sports – unless you’re really into live-action slow-mo. Because they are not constantly re-growing, they don’t take quite as much foot traffic as regular turf either.

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Image Source: Terra Ferma Landscapes – Modern Farmhouse

Here in California there are a few different species that are used, depending on the local climate. Species of fineleaf fescue are the most common in our area and are generally what people think of when talking about no-mow. Fineleaf fescue grown to its natural height does not need much in terms of fertilizer and pesticides, especially compared to turfgrass. The University of California found varieties of Strong Creeping Red Fescue (Festuca rubra ssp. rubra) to be the best performers, but other species do very well too. While lab tests haven’t fully fleshed this out, they appear to get by perfectly well and stay green with about 85% of the water given to standard turf. For you landscape architects and irrigation designers out there, that’s roughly 70 percent of the reference evapotranspiration (ETo). It’s also important to use sprinkler heads that pop-up high enough to spray over the taller leaves. If you are replacing turfgrass with no-mow, be sure to check that the sprinkler heads will work. You may also need to adjust the irrigation on slopes, as water tends to run downhill off the leaves.

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Image Source: Terra Ferma Landscapes – Modern Farmhouse

If you aren’t that into irrigation, no-mow fineleaf fescue can go summer dormant and survive. It will get golden like the rest of California around here. However, extended, multi-year drought stress can lead to its demise, so expect to have some sort of irrigation system in California. Oh, and recycled water is just fine for them. Seedheads tend to be inconspicuous, depending on the variety, and are not prone to the weediness of regular turf. Some people mow fineleaf fescue once or twice a year in order to clean it up. It can look a bit like a shaved cat after this, so time it with the seasons (fall or early spring) so it will grow back with relative haste.

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Image source: Buildipedia.com 

Another thing to note is that no-mow grasses tend to grow slower than regular turf even when young. That means establishing it from seed is not quite as easy as regular turfgrass. Indeed, it can take up to two years to get a full carpet from seed. In areas with lots of weeds, that may not be practical. It is now offered as sod, due to its ever-increasing popularity, and that is our recommended way to install it.

So if you want to satisfy those natural human urges for, um, verdancy, no-mow might be the best way to go – especially if you don’t plan on walking on it all the time. And let’s face it; a lot of the lawns out there don’t get walked on much anyway. I recommend talking to local experts like landscape architects, master gardeners, university extension agencies or any of us here at Terra Ferma Landscapes to find out the best way to pick, install, and grow it in your area. The University of California put out a report, and Sunset also wrote a little blurb about no-mow.