There are few lawn weeds that are more frustrating to gardeners than the yellow nutsedge, or Cyperus esculentus. Herbicides do knock it down, and hand weeding is a temporary fix, but turn your back and it seems 20 more plants erupt to replace each one killed.
But maybe that’s one of the reasons why the nutsedge’s cousins are becoming stars as lawn replacements or as margins between flower beds and walkways. Put in the right place, sedges can be as indestructible as they are pleasing to the eye. Even better, many varieties exist nicely on little irrigation and no fertilizer. Not flashy enough? They come variegated!
Manicured, water- and nitrogen-hungry lawns have been the centerpiece of most American home landscapes for decades, and Yakima homeowners have been noticeably slow to evolve to more earth-friendly plantings. At the height of this past scorching summer, one could drive along many of our residential streets and see acres of solid-green grass, dewy from irrigation, punctuated with brown, withered grass where a neighboring home owner had decided to let things go until the weather would become more hospitable. Most of us likely frown when we see the untended lawns, but we should instead think, “Good start! Now plant sedge.”
We’re a desert on this side of the Cascades, yet we cling to irrigation as our right, and highly fertilized, green lawns as our civic responsibility. We need to change.
In the near future, water availability and prices likely are going to force most of us to become water wise. This might be the right time to finally get our landscapes to a more sustainable level.
First, you need a plan. You can still have your favorite plants, but group them so only small areas require frequent watering. Decide where you must have your prize Ruby Slipper Hydrangea and your other water-loving beauties, but be sure to have them located where there is adequate shade, and utilize mulch to conserve the water.
If you don’t have an irrigation system, install a timed drip water cycle to keep those plants happy and gorgeous. (It’s easy, cheap and will save money.) Do your transplanting in early spring, or even better in the fall.
Next, make any major changes you want to the other beds and have them watered on separate drip systems. You’ll want to plant natives or other plants that require little water or fertilizers and are hardy in our planting zone 6 if you live in Yakima. If your yard is large, consider starting with your most inaccessible corner, finish it, and then decide what portion of your landscape that you want to tackle next. Gardening should always be enjoyable. Stop when it isn’t.
Once you’re satisfied with your flower and shrubbery beds, the fun starts.
Kill the lawn — which means every blade of grass, weed and nutsedge baby. You must be ruthless or you’ll be fighting weeds forever. You should do this without herbicides by smothering your old lawn with a thick mulch spread over a barrier like cardboard or several layers of newspaper. The barrier will break down, but it can slow water penetration to desirable trees, and it takes time.
The question you must ask yourself is, can you accept the visual impact for at least two months while the plants die to the roots? If not, you might consider using a professional garden service company that can kill the lawn with chemicals not available without a commercial applicator’s license. They are trained to do the application safely. Master Gardeners won’t recommend chemical herbicides, but we realize the decision is the homeowner’s.
While your old lawn grass is in the throes of death, study the sedges that best suit your tastes and the conditions of your lawn area. Some sedges can survive in our climate with little additional water applied. Others are happy in wetland conditions, though few of us have that environment. Mowing them once a year in spring is usually desirable, and is adequate to remove dead leaves. Avoid mowing in July and August.
Three especially interesting sedges (and a bonus fescue) adaptable to our planting zone and weather are:
• Catlin sedge (Carex texensis). From the center part of the United States, this sedge is only 4 inches high and, like most sedges, forms in clumps. It is best in shade, but can be planted in full sun. However, it would be impractical in our area to do so, because it would require excessive water.
Any of these sedges look fantastic paired with wildflowers, but you may want to wait until the second year to add them.
• Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica). This sedge is also a mounding plant that is particularly beautiful in spring, but remains green through summer if it has some irrigation. It is considerably taller than the Catlin. Pennsylvania works well in full shade but thrives in partial shade as well. It should be planted by plug like most sedges, but grows quickly, and in one season will achieve a graceful patch of light- to darker-green spikes that flow in the breeze.
• California meadow sedge (Carex pansa). This sedge is native to the Pacific Coast. It thrives in full sun, though it will need some water during our hottest days and during establishment. This species is also better at taking a trampling than others, so if your landscape is likely to be walked on regularly, you may look more closely at California meadow sedge.
If none of the sedges are to your liking, consider a hard fescue, such as Sword Hard Fescue. There are many named varieties of this grass, and since fescues are often a part of the grass mixes we currently use, you may be inclined to take this more modest step. The hard fescues also do well with little watering and are less dependent upon nitrogen applications. They do especially well in shaded areas.
You can mow them like any lawn, but they look fantastic as a no-mow lawn with their drooping leaves, so let it grow to test your acceptance. You can always decide to cut it later.
This is a tiny sampling of the many sedges (and other lawn alternatives) that may work for your aesthetic and site needs. Take the time to search for them on your web browser or in your library. Just be sure they fit your site requirements for sunlight, planting zone and rainfall.
Sedges are most successful when planted by plug, rather than seed, but even that can be unsuccessful if the plugs aren’t fresh. Buy where the nursery guarantees success if you can. Cheap is often not a bargain with plants.
Before you plant your sedge plugs, mark off where people naturally walk. You can install flagstones, gravel or even wood chips as a path base. Then order and immediately plant the plugs as directed by the nursery. It’s easy, but if you are uncomfortable bending or working on your knees, it might be worth hiring someone to do the labor.
You can do the infrequent watering of your new low-impact lawn with a hose and sprinkler, but an automated system will save you water and money in the long run by only applying the water when you need it to get the new plants started in the first year, then through July and August once established.