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Wild plants instead of commercial grass?

March 22, 2012

On request there is now a Facebook ‘Share’ button to the lower right on this page. This addition is solely thanks to Madeline Ragan, a garden school student and creator of the Dokmai Dogma blog. I am just a gardener who aims at sharing experience from Dokmai Garden so that newcomers to Chiang Mai/Thailand/Southeast Asia/the tropics can catch up quicker and develop monsoon horticulture, farming and conservation. It took me five years to gather the current information from daily trial and error, extensive book hunting and reading, jungle excursions and interactions with scientists and locals. A keen plant-lover can share that experience for free simply by reading the 630+ Dokmai Dogma blogs in a few days. If you like this resource, kindly click ‘LIKE’ on our website.

Ever since last year’s flooding in central Thailand where many grass producers are located, the price for ornamental grass (Axonopus compressus and Zoysia japonica) per square meter has been high. Before the flooding the price was between 26 and 32 Baht per square meter, now it is 42-48 Baht, from a top high a few months ago at 80 Baht/square meter. If somebody needs 2000 square meters for a new garden, he will save 20 000 Baht simply by waiting for normal prices to return. You can buy many young saplings for that amount of money.

Another option is to plant no grass at all, and simply mow whatever comes up (saving 80 000 Baht plus costs for transportation and working crew). From experience at Dokmai Garden, if you simply water and mow, the survival of the fittest will give you a green Chiang Mai ground cover composed of e.g. Hard slitwort (Lindernia crustacea, blue flowers resembling European Veronica from a distance), Haired slitwort (Lindernia ciliata, white flowers), Singapore daisy (Tridax procumbens, yellow nectar-rich flowers), Wild globe everlasting (Gomphrena celosioides, white flower heads and edible leaves), Slender amaranth (Amaranthus viridis, an edible plant), Tropical chickweed (Drymaria diandra, shade plant with edible leaves), Dove weed (Murdannia nudiflora, pale blue flowers), White-headed sedge (Cyperus leucocephalus, grass-like leaves, white flowering spikes, triangular stems), Purple nutsedge (Cyperus rotundus, grass-like leaves, brown flat spikelets, tubers used for making perfume, medicinal), Garden spurge (Euphorbia hirta, an antiviral plant used to treat Herpes blisters), Three-flowered beggarweed (Desmodium triflorum, clover-like, blue blossom, nitrogen-fixing), Natal grass (Melinis repens, an African grass), Missiongrass (Pennisetum polystachyon, a grass from western Asia), Kiss-me-quick (Portulaca pilosa, a creeping succulent with red flowers), Old world diamond-flower (Hedyotis corymbosa, white flowers, squarish stem) and Brazil pusley (Richardia brasiliensis, white flowers).

If you have neighbours with the commercial grass ‘ya malesia’ (Carpet grass, Axonopus compressus) then it will spread by seed into your garden too. Since it is quite competitive, especially in light shade, you may eventually have a lawn without any effort or costs.

Unwanted plants which can survive the mower are Sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica, fun in the beginning until bare feet bleed from prickles and other plants are pushed out) and Crab grasses (Digitaria spp.). If you do not want them they should be pulled up by hand. Begin pulling early in the establishment of the new garden and they will never be a problem, begin a year later and they will always inhabit your garden.

One comment is that the chemical industry (not so much Monsanto here in Thailand but the many Chinese copy cats) makes tonnes of money selling glyphosate (Roundup and its copies) and other chemicals to wipe out sedge (Cyperus spp.). If you just want a green cover and do not care what is growing there, or if you are thrilled about biodiversity and like a mosaic of foliage and cute little blossom, then save the money and reduce the use of industrial chemicals.

Another option to grass is to get another ground cover, such as forage peanut (Arachis pintoi and related species).

If you do not mow, plow or graze, any spot with sun will be covered with tall American weeds such as Mikania micranthaChromolaena odorata, Mimosa pigra  and Mimosa diplotricha.

Good luck, have fun, and remember that everything you like in your garden is correct design.

The spikelets of Purple nutsedge (Cyperus rotundus, Cyperaceae) carry the flowers. The ‘hairs’ are the male anthers. It is one of the most advanced land plants on Earth, being independent of insects for its pollination (it uses the wind) and independent of fungi for its mineral uptake (no mycorrhiza). A medicinal plant to some, a cheap substitute for grass to others, or the world’s most serious weed? It is all in the eye of the beholder.

Eric Danell

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