Low-Maintenance Turfgrass Alternatives

There are several options for creating a lawn using turf-like alternatives to the traditional grasses grown in lawns.

In Iowa, the most commonly grown turfgrasses are Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, and fine fescues.  These cool-season grasses require many inputs to keep them healthy and attractive.  Additionally, they typically go dormant for part of the summer, leaving the lawn brown in July and August unless regularly irrigated.  Several plants that look much like the turfgrasses we are familiar with but require fewer inputs are available.  Most of these turfgrass alternatives can be minimally mowed or, in some cases, not mowed at all. 

Picture of unmown turf alternative
This unmown prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) lawn is beautiful and low maintenance compared to a traditional lawn.

Sedges are great options for a turf-like species that are much better adapted to shade than traditional turfgrass.  Native grasses are great options to create lawns that require less watering, mowing, and fertilizing than a traditional lawn.


Sedges

Several species of sedge can be used to create a turf-like appearance in the lawn with minimal mowing. They may look like grass, but they are not in the grass family (Poaceae).  Instead, they are classified in the closely related Cyperaceae family.  The primary difference between grass and sedge is the shape of their stems.  Sedges have triangular stems, whereas grass stems are round. 

In general, sedges tolerate shade better than traditional turfgrasses and often thrive in wet conditions, although there are hundreds of species of sedges that grow well in many different soil and light conditions. 

Below are a few options for sedges that could be considered as lawn alternatives in Iowa.

Pennsylvania Sedge

Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica) is one of the best sedges to use in a lawn setting.  This species grows 6 to 12 inches tall in partial to full shade (unlike most traditional lawn grasses).  It spreads by rhizomes and performs well in dry and moist soil conditions.  When unmown, this native species will create a soft, fine-textured mop of leaves.  It can be maintained more like turf by mowing it 2 to 3 times per year.

Sedge Lawn under tree
Pennsylvania sedge is a great alternative to traditional turf grass in this shady, dry location.

Rosy Sedge & Eastern Star Sedge

Rosy sedge (Carex rosea) and eastern star sedge (Carex radiata) grow 12 inches tall and form compact clumps of fine, linear, arching, semi-evergreen leaves.  These native species grow in a wide range of conditions, although rosy sedge performs better in dry areas and easter star sedge prefers wetter locations.   

Appalachian Sedge

Appalachian sedge (Carex appalachica) grows long arching grass-like leaves that drape down, leaving plants about 6 inches tall.  This species is particularly good for dry shady locations and the clump-forming plants eventually colonize an area.

Other Potential Species

Other sedge species to consider as lawn alternatives include creeping sedge (Carex laxiculmis), seersucker sedge (Carex plantaginea), and creek sedge (Carex amphibola).  In the southern part of the state, Texas sedge (Carex tesensis) is also an option. 


Native Grasses

Photo comparing traditional cool season lawn vs native warm season lawn
Native grasses used as turf, such as buffalograss (lower left corner in the photo above), are warm-season grasses and are not green early in the season when traditional lawns with cool-season grasses are green (upper right corner).

Several species of North American native prairie grasses can be adapted to use as a lawn grass.  These species tolerate occasional mowing or are naturally short in height. 

The primary difference between these grasses and the more traditional turfgrasses like Kentucky bluegrass is these native grasses are warm-season grasses.  Warm-season grasses don't begin to green up until mid-to-late May in Iowa. They perform well during the heat of summer when cool-season grasses struggle. In early fall, when temperatures begin to drop and the health of cool season grasses begins to improve warm season grasses start their way into dormancy. 

Because of this difference in growth pattern, warm-season native grass lawns will be brown when traditional lawns are green.  These native species are more drought tolerant and require fewer inputs.
They often require less mowing, water, and fertilizer to stay healthy and attractive.

Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) is the most common and popular native turfgrass alternative in Iowa.  Blue grama (Boutelous gracilis) is another popular option and looks particularly good when paired with buffalo grass.  Other native grass options to consider as part of a lawn seed mix include sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis).


More Information on Low Maintenance Turfgrass Alternatives

Authors:
Last reviewed:
April 2023