If you plan to install or reinvigorate a lawn, which type of grass is best suited to your needs, and should you choose seed or turf?
Despite advertising claims to the contrary, it is almost impossible in coastal New South Wales to establish a good quality, hard wearing, long term lawn from the seed of exotic grasses.
Native grasses are different. It's relatively easy to establish a good quality, hard wearing, long term lawn from the seed of selected native grasses. I discovered this in 2010, when Australian Native Grasses: a manual for sowing, growing & using them, crossed my desk. (Read the review on the Books page.)
A cultivated variety of Weeping Grass, Microlaena stipoides 'Griffin', has a fine textured, pale green leaf that keeps its colour in winter and grows in full sun, although it prefers semi-shade to full shade, and moist, moderately fertile soil. Unlike most other Australian grasses, Weeping Grass responds well to feeding and mows at 37 - 50 mm. It is described as "ideal for a high quality lawn and for passive recreation. Once established it has low maintenance needs and requires minimal watering."
Other native lawn grasses include Wallaby Grasses, Austrodanthonia richardsonii var. Hume and Austrodanthonia geniculata var. Oxley.
Bothriochloa macra Red Grass makes an excellent summer lawn on hard cracking clay. It is claimed to develop deep roots down to 2 metres.
The Native Seeds Company suggests a mix of summer- and winter-growing grasses, that creates a more natural appearance, promotes biodiversity and remains green throughout the year.
During the twelve month establishment period, to stop weeds from taking over, it may be necessary to apply a pre-emergent herbicide.
The Sydney turf company Ozbreed, recently introduced another contender: a native turf in roll out lawn, Zoysia macrantha 'MAC03', common name Nara. Nara is described as "the first and only all purpose Australian native lawn grass", said to be fast establishing, low maintenance, fine textured, with greater drought tolerance than Buffalo or Couch, faster establishing and with better winter colour than exotic Zoysia types. More information: www.ozbreed.com.au/nara-turf
If you still prefer a conventional home lawn of exotic grass, turf is much the better choice. The best all rounder is probably an Australian-bred soft-leaf variety of Stenotaphrum secundatum Buffalo Grass, marketed as 'Sir Walter'.
'Sir Walter' has a low silica content, making it softer underfoot and less likely to cause skin irritation than other Buffalo varieties. It is hard wearing and quick to recover from wear.
It is also tolerant of shade and overhanging trees, retains its winter colour well, requires less water and fertiliser, is less susceptible to fungal and insect attack and produces a dense, weed-resistant sward with very little thatch.
'Sir Walter' is best at heights between 25 mm and 75 mm, maintained with a standard petrol-driven rotary mower or mulcher mower convertible to a rotary mower. Cylinder mowers, hover mowers, some electric mowers and most cordless and hand mowers are not recommended. More information: www.sirwalter.com.au.
For the lawn enthusiast wanting a fine textured, 'bowling green' lawn in full sun, and prepared to accept a high level of maintenance, 'Windsor Green' is a selected form of Cynodon dactylon Common Couch, a semi-dwarf, light green to mid-green grass, with relatively good winter colour retention. It prefers sandy soil, tolerates poor saline soils, wears well and has excellent recovery from wear, excellent drought resistance and good disease resistance. With a cylinder mower, it allows close mowing to 6 mm.
'Greenlees Park' is another good Couch variety, while the CT2 variety is said to be even better. Couch grasses do not grow well in shade.
Be aware that patented, cultivated grass varieties should be provided with a certificate of authenticity from a licensed grower.
Pennisetum clandestinum Kikuyu, is probably the cheapest turf available. It is highly invasive and has little other than price to recommend it.
If they are to retain their colour, Fescues and other cool season grasses need copious amounts of water during summer. Festuca arundinacea Tall Fescue, survives on less water than most.
As Fescue produces no runners, it does not recover well from wear. It is also subject to lawn grub infestation, requiring frequent applications of lawn grub killer, that is highly toxic to birds that feed on affected grubs.
Fescue is popular in some cool climate gardens where retention of a bright green colour throughout the year takes precedence over ecological considerations.
Whichever type of lawn you choose, remember to include in your calculations the real costs involved, including the environmental costs (particularly of exotic grasses). These costs are substantially more than a well designed garden of trees, shrubs and native lawn or lawn alternative. Lawn alternatives such as Dichondra repens (Kidney Creeper) and Polymeria calycina (Pink Bindweed, Slender Bindweed), are ideal for low-traffic garden areas in most regions of New South Wales.
If the lawn is to remain attractive and free from weeds, it will need regular maintenance. This means regular mowing with its attendant noise pollution and depletion of water resources. Moreover, exotic grasses may need chemical fertilisers and treatment with chemical herbicides, fungicides and pesticides, all of which adversely affect Australia’s fragile environment.
A lawn also needs spiking, edging, repairing and occasional rolling, on top of the initial cost and regular maintenance of a petrol-driven lawn mower.
Australian lawns occupy more space than any single food crop, consume vastly more fertiliser, herbicide, fungicide and insecticide per hectare than farmland. They account for 25 percent upwards of household water use.
According to eco-architect and stormwater drainage expert Humberto Urriola, bushland vegetation is supported by an active soil layer aerated by by micro-organisms and deep-rooted plants. This layer is largely absent from urban parks and gardens dominated by shallow-rooted grass. These have relatively inert soil; in wet weather they tend to become waterlogged and shed surface water as run-off.
USA gardening columnist Michael Pollan describes these manicured lawns as "nature under totalitarian rule."
A Colorado University team has discovered that cut grass reacts to mowing by releasing into the atmosphere large quantities of acetaldehyde, acetone (that may account for the characteristic sweet smell of cut grass), butanone and methanol, all contributors to air pollution. For these and other reasons, enlightened designers, horticulturists and gardeners are changing to low-maintenance native grasses, wildflowers and lawn alternatives that feed and shelter native wildlife, and require little in the way of pesticides and supplementary water.
Despite their disadvantages, however, lawns are of course pleasant to walk and sit on, and in some respects the best groundcover for children to play on.
If the property is sold though, a well designed low-maintenance garden will add value as it matures and should be more attractive to prospective buyers than an expanse of exotic, high-maintenance lawn.