How to plant a sedge lawn

If mowing once a year sounds good, if pouring less water on the ground is a goal, and if you appreciate or can tolerate a shaggy, meadowy look, a sedge lawn may be your perfect alternative to a thirsty, summer-crisped St. Augustine lawn. Sedges exist for seemingly every climate, so if you live elsewhere, do some investigating to find the right sedge for your area. Here in central Texas, I know of two that are particularly well suited for shade or dappled shade: Texas sedge (Carex texensis) and Berkeley sedge (Carex divulsa). (For sun or even part-sun, I’d go with an ornamental grass like Mexican feathergrass or an ecological lawn like Habiturf, if you want a grass that uses less water.)

I had a retaining wall and a front path constructed last fall, which took out a large chunk of lawn. By March I was itching to rip out the remaining grass and plant Berkeley sedge in its place, keeping the “negative space” that the lawn provided but without the mowing and excessive watering. Why Berkeley sedge and not our native Texas sedge? I just like its longer, fuller look, which I’d admired in several gardens I’d seen on tour (click for an example).

That said, Texas sedge is also quite nice (see The Grackle’s Texas sedge post), and I’m growing patches of it in my back garden. It’s also easier to obtain without a wholesale license; Barton Springs Nursery, for example, grows and sells large quantities of it under the name ‘Scott’s Turf’.

Since sedge’s popularity is increasing, I want to share the process for converting your traditional lawn into a sedge lawn.

Step 1: Eliminate the existing grass and any weeds. Proper preparation is extremely important in ensuring the success of your sedge lawn. If you have St. Augustine, it’s easy enough to dig out. A few sprigs may reappear here and there in the following months, but those will be easy to dig out. Just don’t let them get a foothold again. If you have Bermudagrass or tenacious weeds, I advise spraying the area (following all safety and disposal precautions) with Roundup or some other brand of glyphosate. Do this during the growing season and on a non-windy day. Water well a few days before applying, which will help the plants absorb the herbicide. After spraying, wait a couple of weeks to see if any green grass comes back and spray again. I know this is not organic, and you can surely dig out Bermudagrass with persistence and a lot of hard work. But if you don’t completely kill the Bermudagrass, any tiny bit of root that remains in the soil will, hydra-like, regrow and quickly overtake your sedges. Using herbicide selectively once or twice is, to me, an acceptable tradeoff for converting your traditional lawn into a more sustainable landscape over the long term.

Step 2: Spread a layer of compost. After digging out the grass, my family helped me spread several inches of composted soil (I think we used Hill Country Garden Mix from The Natural Gardener). We raked it smooth to break up any clods of dirt and kept excess soil pulled away from the root flares of existing trees.

Step 3: Plant your plugs. If you can find plugs (tiny, 1/2-to-2-inch plants sold in plastic trays), you’ll save money, but generally these are only available from wholesalers. If you’re working with a designer with a wholesale license, you’re in luck. (No, I don’t have one because my business is design-only, no installation.) If you’re going the DIY route, you might try negotiating with your local independent nursery for a bulk discount. Otherwise, you’ll have to buy 4-inch pots from your local nursery. Call around to see who carries the sedge you want. Sedges are still not widely available, but I do see them regularly at Barton Springs Nursery. (I’ll be glad to update this if anyone knows of another dependable local source.) For wholesale, McNeal Growers in nearby Manchaca can’t be beat. Pat, the owner, knows all about sedges and carries many different varieties for central Texas. But don’t call him asking him to sell retail. That’s not his gig.

You can’t really overcrowd sedges, Pat told me, so space them as tightly as you wish or can afford. A tighter spacing will give you a more immediate result, obviously. Berkeley sedge grows about 12 inches wide and 8 inches tall. (By contrast, Texas sedge grows 5 to 6 inches tall and wide.) For my approximately 460 square foot space, I bought six flats of 1-inch plugs. Each flat holds 128 plugs, for a total of 768 plants.

I used McNeal’s triangular plant-spacing guide — just because I like that pattern — to determine plant spacing. Math skills came in handy here! Considering the number of plants I’d bought and the square footage of the area to fill, I calculated that I needed to space each plug 9 inches apart.

I enlisted my daughter to help me plant on a cool morning in early March. To stay on a straight line, I ran a long string between two stakes, and she used a ruler to determine exact spacing. She knelt on a cushy knee pad and moved the ruler along the string to show me where to make holes for the plugs. I stood in front of her with an upside-down hoe and used the handle to punch and twist holes in the soil. You could also use an old broom handle, as Pat suggested to me.

As we reached the end of each row, I moved the string approximately 8 inches behind the first row (according to McNeal’s triangulation formula), and started the next row at the midpoint of two sedges in the completed row. This gives a diagonal look to the planting. You can also plant on a square pattern; McNeal has the formula for that too.

This is harder work than it sounds. After about 100 holes, my hands were aching. After about 300 holes, my back was complaining. I did a total of 700 holes. You definitely want to make sure your soil is soft by watering a day or two beforehand. Don’t work on wet soil, but slightly moist soil gives better when you punch and twist that broom handle into the ground. Since we’d dug out the grass and added compost, we’d effectively pre-softened the soil. If you were to use herbicide to kill your grass, you’d want to come back afterward and lightly till your compost in to loosen the soil.

Find a helper too. With my daughter measuring and methodically pulling plugs out of the tray and popping them into the holes I made, the entire planting process took us several hours. It would have taken much longer — and I’d have been a lot sorer — if I’d had to go back along each row and plant the plugs myself.

March: When we finished planting, I gently watered all the plugs well and then spread bird netting across the area, anchoring it with a few rocks. Although sedge is deer resistant, I worried that our neighborhood herd would want to sample, pulling the plugs out of their holes. I left the bird netting on for a few weeks to give the sedge time to put down some roots and for the area to lose that deer-tempting, new-planting smell.

I watered every day for the first week and every few days for several weeks after that. By the time the hotter months arrived, I felt that the sedges were established and watered them once a week on my regular irrigation schedule. (More about watering below.)

April: A month after planting, here’s how it looked. Pretty underwhelming, right? It was early April, and the annual live oak leaf drop was underway. All my baby sedges were getting buried under slippery, non-decomposing live oak leaves.

By pulling off the bird netting I got rid of some leaves, and I had to blow the rest so that the sedges weren’t buried.

Is it just me, or do the sedges actually look shorter than when I first planted them? Hmm, maybe the deer sampled after all?

May: After another month the sedges looked a tiny bit fuller. I’d also added three ‘Margaritaville’ yuccas as accents, plus some plants along the periphery of the sedge lawn…

…like the ‘Wendy’s Wish’ salvia at left.

By midsummer I noticed that while certain sections were filling in nicely, other sections had hardly grown at all and still resembled baby plugs. I realized that my sprinkler system wasn’t watering the area evenly, and some sections were hardly getting watered. Oops! I started hand-watering the thin sections mid-week to help them recover and counted myself lucky that I hadn’t lost a whole swath of sedges.

August: Progress is slower than I expected. A hair-plug effect alternates with sections of lush, long growth.

Nevertheless, it is growing and gradually filling in. As you can see, I relegated the sedge to the shady area under the live oaks. The sunny space at the far end, by the car, is planted with ground-covering wooly stemodia (Stemodia lanata) as well as ‘Green Goblet’ agave, giant mullein, purple skullcap, and a new variegated miscanthus grass.

Some other views. Here’s the decomposed-granite path along the front of the house, leading to stone steps and flagstones through the sedge lawn.

Stone steps lead to the top of the wall.

View from the other path running between the sedge lawn and the curbside bed

And here’s the path I was just standing on. Boy, the sedges are really thin on this side.

Maintenance: McNeal Growers recommends watering sedges that are planted in shade only in the summer and only if it hasn’t rained in a week. During the cooler seasons, they suggest, you shouldn’t have to water established sedge at all, and in fact overwatering can harm them. That said, remember that plugs and small plants need regular watering to get established and full.

McNeal also suggests a light cut-back after they finish blooming in the spring, which stimulates new growth. Leave the clippings on the ground in order for any seed to germinate and help fill in the lawn. A light feeding in the beginning of summer, after the cut-back, and in the fall will encourage new growth. Sedge can go dormant in our climate in summer, but it stays green in winter.

I’m thinking of giving mine a light trim in late September, as the weather starts to cool off a bit, and then spread a light layer of compost in hopes of encouraging strong fall growth. I’ll provide additional updates in the coming months.

One more thing. If you prefer the Berkeley sedge, know that there are different varieties of sedge being sold under that name, and they do not have the same growth habit. Cyndi at Growing Optimism told me she’d bought Berkeley sedge at two different times and ending up with two different species. She researched online and learned that Carex tumulicola and Carex divulsa are often both labeled as Berkeley sedge, but they are not the same. Pat McNeal confirmed for me that growers and nurseries often mislabel sedges because it’s very hard to identify them conclusively without looking at their seed under a microscope.

Also, while deer don’t seem to bother my sedges, armadillos can create problems. The armored diggers plow through my sedge lawn almost every night hunting for grubs and earthworms. They don’t eat the plants, but they’ll sure uproot a bunch of them, like little bulldozers. It’s a morning routine of mine to gingerly walk through the sedges, pushing soil back into place around the plants. I’ve lost 4 or 5 plugs to the ‘dillos so far, but the larger, established plants don’t suffer. So I hope that once all the sedges have deep roots this won’t be as much of a problem.

I’d love for you to share your sedge stories, posts, or resource links in the comments. Sedge is such a great alternative groundcover, and yet it’s still not widely known. Let’s change that!

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

17 Responses

  1. Chris F says:

    After you mentioned sedges in a previous post I started noodling around and found Carex Caryophyllea (Moss Sedge) which has been grown in an attractive cultivar called The Beatles.
    Needs a moister soil than you have in Austin, but I’m thinking it might do well here in Houston. Anyone out there have any experience with this?

    There are so many great-looking sedges, Chris. The name ‘The Beatles’ must be due to its shaggy “hairstyle,” eh? —Pam

  2. Thanks for the timeline on how it’s progressed. Interesting the need for fine-tuning irrigation coverage, but not surprising. I actually like the “hair plug” look, but out here, that’s how grasses grow (where they actually can grow)! I see the need for the fuller, lush look, though. Sounds like this establishment is the hardest part on anything that’s an alternate to sod…much we can learn to accept.

    I’m eager to see how this experiment turns out, David. Yes, sometimes getting something started is the hardest part. Although in the case of sedges, just finding them in affordable plugs may be the hardest part for non-wholesale buyers. —Pam

  3. Great post Pam, and while the more grown-in section looks fabulous I too like the “hair plug” look. So much nicer than a dormant golden lawn.

    Or even a green lawn, to my eyes. But then our lawn grasses aren’t the pretty, fine-bladed grasses you mild-climate gardeners are able to use. They tend to be coarse and uncomfortable for bare feet. —Pam

  4. Sheryl says:

    I love my Texas Sedge – as you know. I had to take down my two trees in the front, which transformed the yard from mostly shade to full sun. I am happy to report that the sedge handled it great! In fact, they have grown more in full sun. I haven’t watered them at all this summer (although I’ve had a good rain each month.) I cut my sedge once just to see how it looked and didn’t like the trimmed version. It seems to grow just fine without the haircut and has produced plenty of offspring from seed. I noticed last night that the neighbor’s cat uses it as a comfy cat bed. Can’t get a better endorsement!

    Sheryl, I’m delighted to hear how adaptable the Texas sedge is proving in your garden. From shade to full sun with no additional watering is quite a feat. —Pam

  5. I am loving the way that is looking, Pam! It is such a bright green!!!! It looks lovely with all of your other plantings. Sets them off!

    The expanse of green really is quite nice. That’s something a lawn gives us that many other groundcovers cannot. That’s why I’m excited to be trialing the sedge as a substitute. —Pam

  6. ryan says:

    It looks great. I think the surrounding planting and context is important with un-mowed carex lawns, and it looks like you did a great job with yours. The Yuccas are a nice touch. The installation really is harder than you think it will be. I ended up planting the Dudan’s Carex pansa lawn almost entirely myself, and I still groan and reflexively straighten up my back when I think about it.

    Thanks for the ID on the carex in the Dudan garden, Ryan. I’ve updated that post — and linked to it here — for future reference. —Pam

  7. Katina says:

    Once that sedge lawn finishes filling in, your yard is going to be done, and then you’ll have to move to a new house to have a new yard. :)

    Oh no, Katina, not hardly. I had to have a dead tree in the back yard removed last week, and now a fifth of the back garden is wilting and bleaching under the Death Star. I’ll be rethinking that area this fall! (It never ends.) —Pam

  8. ricki says:

    Thanks for this in-depth look at the entire process (so far). I recently planted one 4″ pot of Carex bergrennii, or Caramel Sedge, and am keeping an eye on it as a possible ground cover in a certain area. So far, so good.

    I’m trying ‘Red Rooster’ sedge, another caramel-colored one, in a small area in my front garden. I’m glad I only paid a dollar for each plant because it looks like they want more water than they’re getting (the story of my gardening life). —Pam

  9. Steve says:

    Great story and pics, Pam. I have kept the native sedge in my country yard, Texas Sedge I presume. I let the oak leaf drop coexist with the sedge so it isn’t a full green color. Walking on it will kill it in time. Steve/Bergheim

    Smart of you to keep the native sedge, Steve, rather than battling it. I think it looks so nice as a groundcover under the oaks. —Pam

  10. Jenny says:

    Irrigation is always tricky but I am sure now that you have spotted the difference the rest of the sedge will catch up. It certainly looks healthy. I have some native sedges which grow with no irrigation at all. It really amazes me how they stay green.

    They’re tough, little plants, aren’t they? Next year I’m expecting my Berkeley sedge to be fully established and I can see how it does with less watering. —Pam

  11. This is very helpful, Pam. It seems like a lot of work, but I can see doing it for a small area. Actually, I’ve had a plot in mind for it for a while. Now I just have to decide on the right time and set aside the budget for it. We saw Sedges growing wild along a hilly wooded pathway recently. They do make a lot of sense for areas that you can’t or don’t want to mow. Great post.

    Thanks, PP. Yes, especially for sloping areas that are hard to mow. I also like a negative space of green, and this is a great substitute for the lawn in that regard. —Pam

  12. Kate S. says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this post as I think about making the same change. Thanks for all the details, especially about Berkeley sedge being sold at varying growths!

    You’re welcome, Kate. I hope it helps! —Pam

  13. Scott Weber says:

    I can’t wait for it to fill in…all those lovely, undulating waves of green :-)

    Me too, Scott! Of course, this morning I was out pushing soil back around the plants that the armadillos had plowed through. Argh. —Pam

  14. […] my Berkeley sedge lawn growing? October 25th, 2013 Two months ago I wrote a post about my experimental “lawn” of Berkeley sedge (Carex divulsa). After 5 months it was filling in, but with areas of patchiness. Since then, the […]

  15. David says:

    Apparently there’s a lot of confusion outside California regarding Berkeley Sedge. C. divulsa is in fact the same plant as what was formerly sold as C. tumilicola, which was so ubiquitous it was presumed a California native, but has been since deemed non-native. I’ve planted out Berkeley sedge as a lawn substitute on multiple projects, where it has proven reliable with full sun to full shade, winter flooding to summer baking. I generally keep it mowed at 4 inches, which in warmer months/bloom season, is every 6 weeks. It can get 18″ tall by across in bloom, but stays more manageable at 5″ tall in winter here in northern California.

    There is similar confusion between what’s what with Carex pansa and praegacilis here on the West Coast. Neither have proven as durable or long lived for me; won’t take shade and winter wet clay loam without significant die off.

  16. […] lawn update, 1 year later June 13th, 2014 It’s time for an update and assessment on the Berkeley sedge (Carex divulsa) “lawn” I installed in my front garden a year ago, in March 2013. (Click the link for my how-to.) Seven months after […]