Lawn Reform

Lawn Alternative Update from the Scott Arboretum

Years ago I visited the Scott Arboretum to learn about alternatives to lawn and see the ones they were growing there.  (Here’s my 2008 report.)  Last month I returned for another event but made time to revisit their lawn-alt plants, too.  (Wonder if we can get that term to stick.)

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First, the Prairie Dropseed shown above, which my friends at the U.Maryland asked me to inquire about.  They want to know if the Scott Arboretum burns it and horticulturist Chuck Hinkle answered, “We burn the sporobolis beds in late winter when the students are on break. The nice thing about it is that it can be done relatively quickly. The grass doesn’t create a huge conflagration (like miscanthus!) and can be controlled easier.”  I’ll pass that along, though a non-fire answer was hoped-for (U.Md. isn’t allowed to burn.)

But it’s Carexes I was most interested in checking on.  That’s the huge genus, commonly named sedge, that’s so promising as alternatives to lawn in spots that aren’t walked on.  At Scott they’ve been growing a wide assortment of them, many of them donated by New Moon Nursery, whose owner James Brown “has been very generous and is trying to promote the use of lawn alternatives,” quoting Chuck.

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Above, Carex pensylvanica looking horrible. Here’s Chuck’s explanation: “The Carex pensylvanica did very well for the first few years. However, as the site became shadier under the maple trees, the plants became thinner. I tried replanting the bare spots but there just wasn’t enough light for them to thrive. So even though they say C. pensylvanica takes shade, I would not recommend it for full shade. You can see areas in the same bed where it gets more light and is more vigorous.”

Below, looking much better.

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Above, C. laxiculumus ‘Bunny Blue’ also seems sparse.  Chuck wrote that it “also started out pretty well. It started to thin out when I interplanted it with Solidago caesia. Again, I think some of the plants got shaded out. I also heard that some goldenrods are alleopathic so I don’t know if that had anything to do with it.”

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Above, C. platyphylla. “The same thing happened with C.platyphylla. It was doing fine until I interplanted it with Allium cernuum.”

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Above, C. albicans.  “Carex albicans has been one of the best performers for doing well in a variety of sites – sun/shade,dry/moist,” says Chuck.

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Above, the C. texensis looked pretty sparce to me.  Chuck says it’s “done well in a drier,sunnier spot. The habit looks a little messy – it flops but has a flat look to it. It self-sows as well.”

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Above, C. appalachia.

Overall, Chuck reports that “The growth habits of different species vary greatly. Some of the small clumpers definitely take more time to fill in. C.appalachica,C.eburnea,and C.rosea are slower to fill in. C.sprengellii,C. brevior and C.amphibola filled in very quickly.  C. woodii has done well in part shade. It does not like extended dry periods, though.”

And, “Our infiltration beds using carex have generated some interest. We plan on expanding them.”

Two more of my favorites below.

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Above, C. leavenworthii.

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Above, C. morrowii ‘Silk Tassel.’

Thanks to Chuck and the Scott Arboretum for their work in trialing and publicizing this important group of plants as lawn alternatives.

UPDATE ON SHADE:  Carexes are a great group of plants to explore for shade situations, so after reading Laura’s comment below I decided to add photos of two of my favorites for full shade.   (Also, in the examples above, C. albicans and leavenworthii look terrific, and they’re in shade.)

SECOND UPDATE ON NATIVES AND SHADE:  “As far as native carexes for shade, I think there are some great woodland sedges. They tolerate part shade or dappled light. I’m not sure how many tolerate (or look great) in full shade. As you saw, C. pensylvanica was growing in shade but was very thin. Most do better in moist shade than dry.” That being said, here are some native woodland sedges I would recommend: C.albicans, C.amphibola, C.eburnea, C.grisea, C.laxiculmis, C.plantaginea, C.radiata, C.sprengelii.  Some other (non-native) garden sedges that do well in shade for us are C.morrowii and C.siderosticha cvs. for moist shade and C.oshimensis cvs. for drier shade.”   Chuck Hinkle

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Above, a taller evergreen Carex I’ve grown for 25+ years in full shade and taken many divisions from.  It’s about 3 feet tall.  Don’t know the name but assume it’s Asian.

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This is C. morrowii ‘Ice Dance,’ which I’ve also grown for decades in full shade OR full sun, and love.  Its variegated foliage brightens up shady spots, and it grows larger to produce divisions without spreading by aggressive runners (true of all Carexes, btw).  The Scott Arb also has good success with ‘Ice Dance,’ Chuck tells me.

Posted by on November 28, 2014 at 8:39 pm, in the category Lawn Reform.
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13 responses to “Lawn Alternative Update from the Scott Arboretum”

  1. Laura Palmer says:

    So glad to see this post Susan! With a foot of snow on the ground in NY, I’m planning next year’s garden additions and been thinking a lot about which grasses I will add–definitely that Prairie Dropseed. Too bad those carex won’t take shade–but good to know. Thanks for giving us what didn’t work too.

  2. Margaret Wilkie says:

    Thank you to Scott’s Arboretum for their lawn-alt work, but also for infiltration trials.
    Interesting post.

  3. Very interesting observations! I have been growing a 22′ diameter circle of Carex flacca in part shade for just over 4 years now in zone 7b-ish, Vancouver, WA. When I had my garden open this year, this circle inspired considerable interest and discussion because I had not fertilized, mown, or watered it all summer (this was at the end of August). In fact, ALL I had done was occasionally raked out any of the dead grass or fallen leaves and weeded. There is more information here a out planting: http://www.seasonsgardendesign.com/Eco-Lawn%20Practices.html

    Also, the 400 Allium caeruleum that I planted did not come back the second year, possibly due to an alleopathic reaction, but no sure evidence of it. However, the Camassia continues to return…it being a native plant.

  4. Thank you for the update, Susan. I believe your woodland sedge is C. pendula.

    I’ve seen excellent no-mow lawn plantings using C. flacca (blue sedge), C. eburnea (ivory sedge), and C. pensylvanica (oak sedge). Some sedges seem well adapted to this use, but others that are more striking as individual plants, like C. platyphylla, seem like they might be better used in ornamental groupings, perhaps surrounded by a low groundcover.

    You used that C. morrowii to such great effect in your previous yard, and on the hellstrip! I tried to grow it in Minnesota with no luck — it couldn’t quite bounce back after the winters.

    Here in Boise, I’d stick to fescues as a rule because the climate is so dry and most carexes seem better suited to wet sites. However, I may try some C. eburnea as it seemed fairly drought tolerant for a sedge.

    Good to know these plants are being tested and may become more available and better known in the future. I love their different looks. And wow, that ‘Silk Tassel’ has an enticing texture — I hope to run into it in person one day.

    • Chris - PEC says:

      I like the picture here – when I Google C. pendula one site calls it a “thug” that self seeds prodigeously and warns everyone not to buy or sell it. Another site says it’s native to Europe, North Africa and SW Asia, and, quite politely, says “Drooping sedge is common in the British Isles, and sometimes uninvited in English gardens.”
      So now I’m unsure if I should try it…

  5. David Feix says:

    Here in California, the Carex that works best in my opinion is C. tumilicola, Berkeley Sedge. Left unmown, it isn’t exactly low enough to walk upon, but can be mown at 3″ height once a month in summer and fills in nicely. Takes full sun, full shade, little water(1xmonthly for me in Berkeley), really idiot proof. Other Carex species such as C. pansa and C. praegacilis thinned out too much over winter without full sun, but stayed lower than C. tumilicola.

    Other go-to choices that thrive here are the very popular walk-on Dymondia margaratae from South Africa(zone 9/10 only), and Ophiopogon japonicus nana, which is my preferred choice for shady gardens. All of these take light foot traffic, and use less water than Tall Fescues, Hybrid Bermuda Grass or St Augustine Grass, and are evergreen.

    The only really drought tolerant subtropical grass locally is Kikuyu Grass, but most clients reject the coarse texture and creeping rhizome habit. I like it myself, because it needs no irrigation in summer here in Berkeley, and can go 3 weeks without mowing. Choices like Buffalo Grass aren’t really popular here because they go dormant in winter, not a desireable feature in a California lawn.

    Of course if a walk-on sod look alike isn’t the objective, any combination of drought tolerant plants that might include ornamental grasses, natives and succulents is a no brainer.

  6. The other common name of Penn Sedge (Carex pensylvanica) is Oak Sedge, which gives a clue as to where it it found in nature–in oak savannas, a partial shade situation. It also prefers dry or well-drained soil, even sandy Black Oak savannas adjacent to Lake Michigan. Maple trees provide not only deep shade, but shallow roots, which could interfere with Penn Sedge, as well. I’m not familiar with C. albicans, but it is called Blunt-scaled Oak Sedge, a clue as to where it likes to grow. It, too, is found in dry, sandy woods in dune country underneath Quercus alba and Quercus velutina.

  7. […] reading a comment on an identical post on GardenRant about Carexes and shade, I’ve added two more photos of great Carexes for shade, and will ask Chuck to weigh […]

  8. Pam/Digging says:

    Trials like this are so important in seeing what works in a particular climate and in giving people an idea of how to use it. Here in Austin, Texas sedge (C. texensis) and Berkeley sedge (C. divulsa) are our go-to choices for dry shade or part sun. I’m seeing sedges used more and more as grass substitutes, so long as foot traffic isn’t an issue. I’m trialing Berkeley sedge in a large swath in my own garden and have found it to be significantly slower to fill in than I expected. However, after a year and a half it’s finally forming that meadowy carpet that I was going for.

  9. Sarah says:

    Interesting and useful post, Susan. I have C. pensylvanica under Ash, planted as plugs probably 4 or 5 years ago, and it does well, puts up with roots of Ash, which suck up most of water, and has filled in well. Does get late afternoon sun. I’ve read it grows under Oaks “in nature” so I was going to try there (I have 2 huge White Oaks) as well. Interesting that deep shade is not its preferred situation.

    Carex Bunny Blue is another I’ve recently planted in client’s garden in quite a bit of shade. Second year still looking very good, so I hope that continues and it was the goldenrod that was the problem. I’ve planted as mass.

    I love the Silk Tassel planting at Scott, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen (or maybe I’ve just forgotten) C. leavenworthii, which also has a nice fine texture. Something to try.

    I love Sporobolus (Prairie Dropseed), but have never burned. My experience is it can be slow to establish, but once it gets going (and as long as plenty of sun and not too much water) it’s beautiful. I think there is a big planting at Chanticleer. I’ve also just planted some in my northern VA garden; I just hope I have enough sun. It’s quite drought tolerant.

  10. Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

    From Chuck Hinkle:
    As far as native carexes for shade, I think there are some great woodland sedges. They tolerate part shade or dappled light. I’m not sure how many tolerate (or look great) in full shade. As you saw, C. pensylvanica was growing in shade but was very thin. Most do better in moist shade than dry.

    That being said, here are some native woodland sedges I would recommend:

    C.albicans
    C.amphibola
    C.eburnea
    C.grisea
    C.laxiculmis
    C.plantaginea
    C.radiata
    C.sprengelii

    Some other (non-native) garden sedges that do well in shade for us are C.morrowii and C.siderosticha cvs. for moist shade and C.oshimensis cvs. for drier shade.

  11. It’s very gratifying to learn that lawn alternatives are being so actively tested and promoted. I’ve always thought that one of the strangest aberrations of our culture is the enslavement of human beings to grass. I object so strongly to the necessity of constant lawnmowing that my neighbors offered to buy me astro-turf. I also object to the ecologically bad practice of cultivating a monoculture for no better reason than to please one’s homeowners’ association.

    So many of the ground covers you’ve shown here are very lush and more than just attractive. Thanks so much for doing this research and providing such good photos and information.

    I thought if I supplied more of the “common” names for the plants you mentioned in the article they might be easier for your readers to find.

    miscanthus = Chinese silver grass, Eulalia grass, maiden grass, zebra grass, Susuki grass, porcupine grass
    Carex pensylvanica = Pennsylvania sedge, early sedge, Penn sedge, and yellow sedge
    Solidago caesia = wreath goldenrod
    Carex platyphylla = Carey broadleaf sedge
    Allium cernuum = nodding onion, New Mexican nodding onion
    Carex albicans = whitetinge sedge, stellate sedge, Emmons’ sedge
    Carex texensis = Texas sedge
    Carex appalachica = Appalachian Sedge
    Carex eburnea = bristleleaf sedge
    Carex rosea = rosy sedge
    Carex sprengelii = Sprengel’s sedge
    Carex brevior = shortbeak sedge
    Carex amphibola = eastern narrow-leaf sedge
    Carex woodii = pretty sedge
    Carex leavenworthii = Leavenworth’s sedge
    Carex grisea = inflated narrow-leaf sedge
    Carex laxiculmis = spreading sedge
    Carex plantaginea = plantainleaf sedge
    Carex radiata = eastern star sedge
    Carex siderosticha = banana boat sedge
    Carex oshimensis = gold strike sedge, evergold sedge

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