We’ve heard lots of hype on the Wildflower Center-promoted Habiturf, sold under the name Thunder Turf by Native American Seed in Junction, as a drought-tolerant alternative to St. Augustine and other traditional lawn grasses. On paper, it’s great: less mowing, less fertilizer, less water – the perfect mix of the native short-grasses (Buffalo, Blue Grama, Curly Mesquite), that are able to survive all extremes of our crazy native climate.
We’ve tried this mix several times over the last 3 years with poor results. Most of the time, the seeds failed to germinate and grow fast enough to compete with the bank of weed seeds that exploded with all the extra attention they were getting. After about a year, the site was infested with weeds and with no visible native grasses left.
The problem with this grass mix is the same issue we see with other native plants. Sure, they’ve adapted to our climate over thousands of years, but here’s the kicker – NATIVE PLANTS NEED NATIVE SOIL!
Unfortunately, the soils under most Austin landscapes resemble nothing even close to native soil. For over a hundred years, urban soils have been brutalized by compaction, scraping, exotic material importation, erosion, and other constant disturbances. What’s left is a mostly sterile mix of a medium that only invasive and noxious plants can handle. Like Bermuda.
Combine dead soil and noxious weed infestation with the difficulty of establishing plants by seed (especially during drought), and Habiturf just doesn’t work as well as we all want it to. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
It can be done. But for most sites, it takes alot of work. For this project in Travis Heights, which was infested with Bermuda over highly compacted soils, we first solarized for several months. We chose this to avoid using any chemical herbicides to prep the site, just to make it as difficult as possible.
More than once during solarization, we had to come out to re-pin the black plastic tarp, which came loose during heavy winds. After a view months, we excavated 6″ of soil, hauled it off, and replaced with a mix of non shrinking compost, mineral sand, and other amendments – Thunder Dirt from GeoGrowers.
Then, in late summer, we spread 15 pounds of Thunder Turf from Native American Seed, roughly 5 times the recommended application rate. The owner took care of daily watering, and constant weeding of stuff that came through the 6 inches of Thunder Dirt. That fall, we re-seeded parts that didn’t take, due to wash out from rains. Then did it again the following spring. By the next summer, 10 months after the original seed spreading, the grass is finally established with very few bare spots.
Total cost in materials and labor: about $2,500 for roughly 1,000 square feet. Nearly twice as expensive as sodding with the only available native turf, Buffalo grass, but a far superior demonstration of a native and diverse lawn.