There's a revolution brewing in the world of lawns. The bell has tolled for the well-manicured, herbicide- and pesticide-laden grasses of the last 50 years. Gardeners and researchers are looking for tough, no-nonsense lawns that will be nearly self-maintaining and without pesticides, to boot.
The main ingredient of most lawn mixtures in Canada is Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis). This fine-leafed grass is pretty but very high-maintenance, requiring frequent mowing, fertilizing and watering. It is also the only grass currently used in sod production in Canada. Although laying sod is the easiest way to get a lawn (seed-sown lawns take far greater effort to install), afterwards, bluegrass carpets demand all the intensive care we have come to expect from a lawn.
Gardeners looking for an easy way out can, however, turn to seed mixes that need less maintenance. While more labour-intensive to install than sod, mixes such as No Mow Lawn Mix from Prairie Nursery, Low Maintenance Lawn Mixture from Ontario Seed Company and Bio-Tourbe from Labon Inc. contain little or no bluegrass seed. They are blends of different fescues (hard, sheep and red creeping), often dwarf cultivars, with a fair amount of fast-growing but short-lived perennial ryegrass mixed in to act as filler while the slower fescues set up shop. These grasses require much less care.
Although their labels may suggest they need no mowing at all or only one mowing each fall, that's only true if you're looking for more of a meadow than a lawn, as most reach 45 centimetres or more. For lawns billed as no-mow, you'll still need to cut them to about 10 centimetres high when seed heads first appear in early summer, then again whenever they reach 15 centi-metres, which can be as often as once a month.
Fescues aren't as wear-resistant as bluegrass but are more shade tolerant. There aren't, however, any really good lawn grasses for deep shade; groundcovers are your best bet in such sites.
While you're shopping for low-maintenance lawn seed, make sure to purchase endophyte-enhanced varieties. Endophytes are beneficial fungi that live in certain grasses and help them absorb water and fertilizer more efficiently. Endophytes also produce a bitter alkaloid that insects don't like, making endophyte-enhanced grasses highly resistant to leaf-feeding insects, such as billbugs, chinch bugs, sod webworms and fall army worms, even deer and other mammals. Endophyte-enhanced grasses are also less prone to disease than regular grasses.
Endophytic fungi are found naturally in many strains of fescue and ryegrass, and already inhabit grass seed harvested from these strains. Seed mixes selected for their high levels of endophytes are widely available and only slightly more expensive than regular blends.
Since storage under hot, dry conditions destroys endophytes in grass seed, use only fresh seed from a reputable dealer and buy only as much as you need.
Stores are full of cheaper grass seed mixtures that will give a quick green-up, but their long-term results can be disappointing. Always look for endophyte-enhanced blends that list cultivar names for individual lawn grasses in the mixture (‘Silhouette' chewing fescue and ‘Repell II' perennial ryegrass, for example).
Of course, there is no rule that lawns can only be composed of grasses. White clover is an interesting lawn seed ingredient. Long a staple in any lawn mix (about 15 per cent of the mix), it increases nitrogen content in soil, remains green during severe drought and requires little mowing. Many lawn mixtures that are termed “ecological” contain mostly endophyte-enhanced grasses and clover, as well as low-growing perennial flowers such as dwarf yarrow (Achillea millefolium cvs.), double bird's foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus cvs.), sea pinks (Armeria maritima cvs.) and English daisies (Bellis perennis cvs.).
Even top-quality, low-maintenance grass seed will falter if the soil is not properly prepared. If you're starting a lawn from scratch, pour on at least 15 centimetres of weed-free, rich, water-retentive soil. If the original soil is mostly construction debris or hard clay, you could need up to 30 centimetres. Good drainage is also essential: tiles or a bit of a slope would be ideal. Always sprinkle on a light dusting of mycorrhizal fungi, according to the suppliers' instructions, before sowing or laying sod. Mycorrhizes are another beneficial fungi, living outside the plant, acting somewhat like root extensions and improving its ability to absorb fertilizer and water.
A PRAIRIE PERSPECTIVE
Prairie gardeners will find low-maintenance lawn mixes quite well adapted to their growing conditions-prolonged drought, mid- winter desiccation and extremely cold temperatures-as they're largely composed of fescues, which are resistant to drought and cold. Jim Ross, operations manager for Prairie Turfgrass Research Centre, recommends taking a look at the varietal trials on the PTRC Web site for information about grass cultivars particularly suited to specific Prairie conditions. For example, ‘Dawson' and ‘Seabreeze' creeping red fescues and the native blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) are good choices where high soil salinity is a problem.