Bunchgrass and the death of the american lawn

By Casey Merkle

Concerns about the use of turf are rising with the increase of droughts and water shortages. The solution lies in my new obsession, the wide and wondrous world of bunchgrass.

I live in Rhode Island Island where most of the agricultural economy relies on turf grass. There are 3,000-plus acres of turf valued at about $32 million, according to URI’s Turfgrass Research program. Rhode Island is bent on the turf grasses, which are used to cover lawns and sports fields all over America. Picture all those mansions along the coast of Rhode Island. Those lawns are turf, or sod, grown in the small state of Rhode Island.

How is it that turf is more lucrative than growing food? The answer lies in our cultural perception of how a lawn “should” look. A lawn is a luscious green, freshly cut, and weed-free space -- not for all, but for some people this is true.

However, this isn’t ideal for wildlife and pollinators, or the soil. Due to the lack of diversity, wildlife and pollinators have no food and no shelter in a typical lawn. Combining all the lawns across America, there is estimated to be 62,500 square miles of this obsolete space. That’s almost the size of the state of Washington.

What are the alternatives, rather than an expensive and expansive turf lawn? Plant more native grasses, like bunchgrass (Big bluestem, purple lovegrass, poverty dropseed, and more).

These are my thoughts on bunchgrass:

  1. Am I too vague when I call the Idaho fescue, simply bunchgrass? It was the first common name I found to describe this type of grass. I became very used to the name quickly. I am pleased by how the name describes its shape… a bunched up bouquet of Idaho fescue.

  2. I learned there are many other species of bunchgrass, Idaho fescue is just one particular plant that grows well in the high desert. They grow everywhere.

  3. What’s not to love about the tall bunchgrasses? Their beautiful sway in the wind on a summer day is sure to make anyone dance along.

  4. If that’s not enough, the hues of seafoam green and a gray-toned turquoise give off the effect of a flowing ocean bay. That’s just the summer months.

  5. During the winter, leave the bunchgrass (highly recommended for sheltering insects) and you will be gifted with all the various shapes and textures their skeletons leave behind. Bleached by the sun and a loss of chlorophyll, they have a beauty to them similar to what you’d find in the desert. They stand tall and erect, ready for next season’s dance.

  6. The scientific name for blue bunchgrass, or Idaho fescue is Festuca idahoensis. It supports a wide diversity of caterpillars, including the Lindsey’s skipper, sandhill skipper, Sonora skipper, woodland skipper, and the western banded skipper. Across many ranches in the high desert, you will find them along fence lines serving up a nutritious and preferred snack for wild and domesticated animals.

Can the bunchgrass native to Rhode Island be integrated into turf farms? Let’s grow bunchgrass all along the edges. Take it a step further and split up the large plots into smaller plots making corridors for domesticated animals. Not only would it provide habitat for wildlife, but it would also serve as a protein-packed meal for the animals as they pass through.

Eventually, I’d like to see the demand for turfgrass disappear, replaced by rolling waves of bunchgrass. I’m predicting the death of the American lawn is not far away. But for now, why not try to make the best of what obsolete space is available before it goes on to take up more obsolete space?