Replacing Lawns with Wildflowers Part 1

Home Grown  by Keith Reed
If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know that one of the biggest barriers to creating a successful wildflower or pollinator garden is competition from our most common Payne County lawn species, bermudagrass. As we discussed in the August 10, 2018 column, elimination of bermudagrass requires a multifaceted effort with one of the key factors being time. Time to allow for regrowth so that the seemingly endless energy supplies of the underground reproductive system can be overcome.

Reality check: I’ve been in the plant business for a long time now, long enough to know that we as gardeners don’t always operate in an ideal world with an ideal calendar. I also appreciate the power of those seed catalogs we’re all reading right now and know that some of you would love to create a new wildflower/pollinator garden this spring as soon as you possibly can.

With this in mind, here’s a plan that should give you some chance of success. By some, I mean don’t be too surprised if you still lose the garden to bermuda this year and have to start again later this summer.

Begin by digging up as much of the existing bermuda as possible without removing any more soil than necessary. The underground portion of the plant that we are targeting for removal is the rhizome. Rhizomes are easy to spot as they are much thicker than roots and feature nodes, small bumps at regular intervals along the stem. Leave a rhizome in the soil and before long, an entirely new plant will spring up at the node.

It’s best to dig when the soil is relatively dry to make the separation process between rhizomes and soil easier. A handy trick for this is to keep a large piece of plywood (or heavy cardboard) close by to drop the clumps of shoveled soil on to break them up. Rhizomes can be found at varying depths within a soil depending on the variety of bermuda, the health of the stand, and the soil type so it’s impossible to say with certainty how deep you’ll need to dig. For most Payne County soils, about 8-10 inches is be a good place to start.

What about a sod cutter instead of digging? A sod cutter can be used to remove the top couple of inches of material as well as being an alternate way of loosening the soil, but it will not entirely replace the procedure just explained.

After you’ve removed as much of the plant material as possible, cover the area with plastic (old windows work great as well) so the soil can begin to heat up. This will help any bermuda you missed in the digging process sprout, making it easy to spot at the next round of removal. This step will require some patience as you’ll be dependent on our weather, but it will still put you a few weeks ahead of leaving the soil uncovered.

We will continue this discussion next week with some after-seeding follow-up instructions including some limited herbicide options. Speaking of herbicide, it is important to emphasize that there are no (none, zero) products that can be applied on dormant bermuda that will kill it while still allowing future plants to grow.

For more information on this or any other horticultural topic, you can contact Keith Reed, the Horticulturist in the Payne County Extension office. Keith can be reached via email at keith.reed@okstate.edu, phone at 405-747-8320, or in person at the Payne County Extension office, located at 315 W. 6th in Stillwater.

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