Man watering plot of grass plugs
Jay Pedersen waters the recent planting of a sedge meadow with a grass called Carex Pansa at the Children's School.

Not All Lawns Are Created Equal … or Alike

By Lakin Khan

In the heat of this past summer, on any of my necessary walks around campus, I stuck to certain particular routes that kept me out of the direct blast of the sun, bouncing from one patch of shade to another like a cue ball on a campus-sized pool table: aiming for the shady side of a building, ducking through courtyards and hallways, hopping from tree shadow to tree shadow.

On each walk, I attempted to include the redwoods that dot the campus, for I could always count on the moist coolness that clings to them, an atmosphere several very noticeable degrees lower than the blistering day. I made a point of staying on lawns rather than on paved pathways for a similar reason: lawns are as much as 40 degrees cooler than heat-absorbing concrete or asphalt.

Returning from the northwest corner of campus on one such day, I faced a long walk across super-heated parking lots and crispy grass. Near the Environmental Technology Center building, beside a young redwood, I spied an inviting patch of lawn. I couldn’t resist the full shade, the bit of creek music, the spicy, refreshing smell of redwood, the grass blades begging for bare toes. I scraped off my sandals and sank to the greenness. This lawn was a tad different, I noticed; it didn’t look as soft as it felt, it didn’t feel as sparse as it looked. On close inspection it wasn’t what most of us would call a lawn at all.

Children planting grass plugsChildren plant the sedge meadow in their own Daisy playground of the Children's School. They are, from left: Zhonna Pedersen, Rylee Means, Nicki Watt and Mike Watt with Gardener Specialist Jay Pedersen.

Rather than dense matted turf clipped short like a Marine’s hair cut, this was more like bunches of soft spikes that had grown towards each other, making a thick thatch of ground cover. It was green and welcoming, yes, but it was different. And, as I discovered later in talking with Jay Pedersen, Gardener Specialist, different in some very important ways.

The types of grasses traditionally used for lawns are far more suited to the foggy, rainy, not terribly warm islands on the west coast of Europe, where lawns originated, than to just about anywhere on the North American continent. Here in our Mediterranean climate of hot, bone-dry summers and mild, wetter winters, these grasses (fescue, ryegrass, bluegrass, zoysias, etc.) suffer. They need constant attention: watering, rolling, aerating, fertilizing, more watering, mowing, and so on, in order to stay green throughout a summer when they’d much rather just curl up and die until the winter rains revive them.

But who would we be without our lawns? Un-tethered, un-focused folk with far too much free time on the weekends, most likely. Giving up our lawns, even though they are so ill-suited to our climate, challenges some deep-rooted need we have to control and manage nature.

But there is hope for the lawn-aholics. Sedge and bunch grasses, which have recently become quite popular with backyards and public spaces, are generally drought resistant, require less mowing, much less chemical support and are quite dramatic.

“We have about 15 to 20 different species of sedges around our campus,” said Pedersen, “generally for ornamental purposes.” And they are quite lovely, with a variety of shapes and colors, the variegated blades, seed-heads and flowers creating shifting vistas of light. The Berkeley sedge (Carex tumulicola) around the fountain in the Beaujolais Village has lovely trailing lush-green blades dancing in the breezes. The Orange New Zealand sedge (Carex testacea) near the Schulz Information Center sign is a festoon of rusty orange.

But these sedges aren’t known to create the smooth green carpet we call a lawn. Their stiff blades can be quite distracting to lawn-lollers, cartwheel-turners and Frisbee players, which after all is a lawn’s primary purpose on a mid-sized liberal arts and science campus. Anything too springy or brisk might tickle bare feet and cause an abrupt loss of concentration, launching said Frisbee in the completely wrong direction, to land perhaps on Danny’s grill and becoming one with a Patty Melt.

Searching for a more lawn-like planting, Pedersen learned, through the California Native Grasslands Association, of a native sedge that shows promise. Carex pansa, Pacific dune sedge, also known as California meadow sedge, has a constellation of desirable qualities: heat-tolerant, with moderate water needs, and naturally short, soft blades of an appealing dark green color. He planted them in plugs spaced about 6-8 inches apart and they grew towards each other – making the soft mat I discovered on that hot day in July.

Among the many sedge grass plantings on campus, this is the only sedge meadow, as it is known. But not for long – two more have been planted in the Children’s School for the kids to romp on, two more steps towards creating an environment that works with our climate and native species, that invites nature to be itself on our campus, without being over-managed, tamed or subdued.

NOTE FROM NETTIE CESAR, CHILDREN'S SCHOOL MASTER TEACHER FOR THE DAISIES: Children and parent volunteers, under the guidance of Jay Pederson spent many days and hours in the Daisy playground first removing cement and preparing the compacted adobe dirt. One Saturday they gathered and mixed in topsoil, and next planted the grass in little clumps. The clumps will grow bigger and cover the whole ground with time. We have to make sure to give the baby grass lots of water each day so it will grow big and healthy. The Daisies welcome you to come and see Sedge Meadow.

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