Native Grass Sod

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Caltrans landscape architects partnered with academia and local business to develop native grass sod that is now available across California. Doug Brown was the landscape architect and project manager for the state-funded research project that led to the development of this brand new product. Before the study there wasn’t such a thing as native grass sod.

Golden grass-covered hills dotted with majestic oaks conjure images of iconic California landscapes. Preserving and establishing these kinds of native grasslands is a priority in creating and managing sustainable landscapes. Native grasses are especially sustainable, tolerating drought; requiring little irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides; and demanding less mowing. Though they may be golden brown in the warm seasons, native grasses are truly the most ‘green’.

California’s harsh climate, lack of rain and invasive weeds make it difficult to establish native grasses using traditional seeding practices, whereas sod provides instant cover that can be established quickly.   Though deep-rooted native grasses seem like an unlikely candidate for sod harvesting, university laboratory studies and field-testing ultimately produced viable native grass sod mixes that were further refined and made commercially available by sod growers.

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14 thoughts on “Native Grass Sod

  1. It was nice to see the result of the collaboration of public and private sectors to create a product. Would have been nice to see some more specific numbers in terms of initial costs, maintenance costs, etc.
    Interested in what happens to the native grasses in the future. Will it eventually become pushed out again by the invasive grass and weeds? I wonder if they had looked in GMO grasses; something that was not as easily pushed out by invasive weeds, required less water and had less biomass.
    It is good that the sod is available to be bought by clients/general public at no additional cost. Hopefully it will spur more planting of native grasses.

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    • Hi Hannah,
      Thanks for your questions. The initial costs vary depending on many factors. The initial costs would be slightly higher than traditional turf grass sod but long term costs savings would be realized due to the reduced maintenance requirements. We don’t have any good data on long term costs.

      The initial results show that the native grass sods resist weeds, and again, we don’t have any long-term data on the effectiveness of weed prevention.

      To my knowledge, there has not been research on GMO grasses for landscape use.

      Regards,
      Doug

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Steven,
      Thanks for attending the talk last week. The sod does require supplemental irrigation for the first couple of dry seasons. The maintenance crews need to be educated on the maintenance and watering requirements of the native sod grasses.
      Regards,
      Doug

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Doug’s presentation was particularly insightful into the process of researching and bringing to scale potentially more advantageous landscaping systems in the public realm.

    The one aspect I thought quite interesting was how public communication was a significant–though perhaps initially overlooked–aspect of the native grass sod project. After research and experimentation, there was the key moment when the product was introduced into various public sites. Doug explained how some people reacted negatively to seeing the new sod, thinking that the very green, full, and healthy appearance was due to utilizing scarce water resources. Only after some of these comments started to come through was the Caltrans team able to clarify to the public that little water was used with the sod. It reminds me of similar experiments that were sometimes run in New Orleans: tall-growing native grasses were let to grow on vacant properties. However, the grasses started to attract trash and many neighbors started to complain that it looked overgrown and could possibly be a crime concern. Both the Caltrans and New Orleans examples are important reminders that introducing new landscaping ideas does not simply involve running planting experiments and testing new designs, but may also necessitate a public education campaign. Though, I can’t help but wondering: not everyone will get the message about the new idea, and, ultimately, if it is not something familiar or understandable, do you always run the risk that your experiment become beholden to the court of public opinion?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Alison,
      You are correct. Experimental landscapes, especially in the civic realm, that are visible to the public are under greater scrutiny and often misunderstood. It is possible in public landscape installation contracts for the designer to include details for signs to be installed to promote public awareness about the project. Caltrans also has a public media person who can also help with public outreach.

      The aesthetics of ecology is a rich research topic. Joan Iverson Nassauer wrote one of my favorite papers, “Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames”; http://www.ncrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/jrnl/1995/nc_1995_nassauer_001.pdf

      Regards,
      Doug

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  3. I discovered Delta bluegrass native sod this past summer at my last internship and became excited about its potential. I invited the sales representative in for a lunch and learn and it is now being implemented at a major campus for Apple in Sunnyvale. I had no idea of the process it took to develop but it is an encouraging story of public and private sectors working together to develop what can become a very powerful product. Doug described the myriad of other projects that could have been funded but this shows, the seriousness of the drought in California. I hope to see more investment in these kinds of projects that can curtail our water use, add to native habitat, and raise awareness of water issues in California. Although I chose to implement native sod into the Sunnyvale project, I realize the product is still in its infancy and in my opinion, has still no proven it can be reliable and a regular substitute for a lawn. I am eager to see the success or failure of native sod projects down the road. It will not only take time for the public to become acclimated to seeing native sod but it will also take time for the native sod to be seen as reliable. Many of the projects I have seen with native sod were small scale and only a few years old. I am hoping these native sod projects will continue to appear in all scales and prove successful, which may lend a change in the perception of the water thirsty lawn.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jason,
      That’s great that you chose native grass sod for the Apple project. It would be valuable to do some post occupancy investigations on how the native sod performs over the long run. Landscape architects can provide clients with much needed post occupancy input. Our designs are not fool-proof and often need to be modified due to unforeseen site conditions.
      Regards,
      Doug

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It is very interesting to see the potential to bring back the green “lawns” to California with less water-consuming native sods. At the beginning of the presentation Doug explained the advantages and disadvantages of maintaining a “presentable” green lawn. Despite all the unsustainable factors, a green lawn is still very desirable in the American society. Other than water, in order to keep a lawn healthy, Doug mentioned pesticides and fertilizers were often required. Does replacing grass lawn with native sods decrease or even eliminate the use of chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers? Is the native sods easier to maintain than the ordinary grass? Moreover, Doug mentioned that in order to create the seeds for the sods, a lot of researches and technical things need to be done in the lab to come up with the right recipes. It would be very helpful to make the researches and processes available to the public so we could gain more knowledge on how this new technology could bring us more sustainable landscaping option in an actually sustainable way.

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  5. Hello Yan Huang,
    Replacing traditional turf grass with native grass sod dramatically decreases the use of pesticides and fertilizers. With proper soil preparation before installation and proper maintenance after installation, native grass sod should not require pesticides or fertilizers. There may be some weed control that could be done by hand if the area is not too large. Native grass is much easier to maintain than traditional turf grass with little to no mowing required.
    Regards,
    Doug

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is very stimulating discussion. Thanks everyone for enriching the class and for each and every valuable feedback/comment.

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  7. It is always exciting to see how academia research applies to real practice. Sod grass is a brand new topic to me. In California, people always argue that the traditional green lawns are water consuming and not well utilized. However, this California native grass provides a more sustainable way to restore green open space in dry California. Given that conventional methods to plant California native grasses such as hydroseeding and plug planning are labor intensive, costly, and inefficient, native sods cost less in the long run even if they are more expensive up-front than the common lawn. If this practice becomes more mature in the experiments, it will become a valuable alternative for many landscapes in California. It would be helpful if there were some comparisons between native grass sod and common lawn in terms of cost and water usage in the long run for public advocacy.    

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  8. It was interesting to hear Doug Brown talk about the native grass sod project because the idea was very new to me and I was hearing about the concepts of it for the first time. Because of the fact the the native sods’ look was green and healthy many were against the project due to their thinking that the sod requires a lot of water. But like Doug stated the native grass sod is an alternative that saves water. Other advantages as drought tolerant ad requirement of little fertilizer also should be big reasons to why the native grass sods should be used.
    The only thing that made me be skeptical towards the project is that there is no long term take of, the first project has been placed about 2-3 years ago, which cannot give us any guarantees of a long term use.

    Liked by 1 person

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