Top 10 Benefits of Urban Trees

Street trees in Rome Photo by Maria Gulley

Street trees in Rome
Photo by Maria Gulley

Happy Arbor Day! Many people enjoy looking at trees, using photos of them as desktop backgrounds, or even occasionally planting one on Arbor Day (or when Keep Indianapolis Beautiful hosts a community tree planting in your neighborhood). While the general opinion is in favor of trees, we are sometimes hesitant to have them in urban or suburban settings near our homes and streets because we're intimidated by the damage they can cause or the effort they can require to maintain. In reality, a properly chosen and placed tree requires little maintenance after establishment, and as long as that maintenance is attended to, the chances of a tree crashing down on your house without warning are low. But over and above that, urban trees are important because they provide tremendous (I could have said "tree-mendous" but I stopped myself) benefits to our environment, communities, health, and even economy. Below are the top 10 benefits of urban trees from as ranked by David Nowak at the U.S. Forest Service and presented by the staff at Keep Indianapolis Beautiful.

1. Oxygen Production
If oxygen is so important, why are we placing this benefit at the bottom of the list? Trees do produce oxygen, but the amount produced by urban trees isn't much compared to the amount produced by the oceans and forests of the world, and that oxygen does a pretty good job of working its way through the atmosphere to areas far from oceans and large forests.

2. Noise Reduction and Screening
Trees can buffer the noise from a busy road or highway or help create a quiet spot in a city. Not only can the trees physically reduce some of the sound, but they also mask unpleasant sounds with their own soothing noises of rustling leaves and birdsong.

Trees along the Cultural Trail in downtown Indy Photo by Maria Gulley

Trees along the Cultural Trail in downtown Indy
Photo by Maria Gulley

3. Wildlife Habitat
Without trees, you can't establish much wildlife. Wildlife provides opportunities for informal education and nurturing curiosity, and it is essential to our urban ecosystem. Native trees are especially valuable, as a single species can host literally hundreds of species of native insects that in turn feed birds and other animals. In a few weeks I'll be writing about the value of native wildlife and biodiversity, so tune in for an exciting discussion.

4. UV Radiation Protection
A tree's shade can reduce UV exposure and delay sunburn. The benefit will vary depending on the density and spread of the canopy, but dense shade can offer up to a 95% reduction in UV radiation.

5. Greenhouse Gas Reduction
Trees use the carbon dioxide in the air to make the sugars they need to live, and this helps offset the carbon dioxide we produce both biologically and through burning fossil fuels. In one year, an acre of trees can consume enough carbon dioxide to match what is emitted by an average car driving 26,000 miles. Our urban forests aren't large enough to totally compensate for the amount of carbon dioxide we produce, but they certainly reduce it.

6. Air Quality Improvement
Producing oxygen and capturing carbon dioxide are types of air quality improvement, but urban trees don't stop there. They can also reduce air pollution as the trees catch particulate matter in the air that might otherwise turn into unhealthy smog.

7. Water Quality Improvement
Whenever we get a heavy rain in Indianapolis, we are at risk for a combined sewer overflow. What this means is that so much rain is running off of our paved surfaces and into our sewer system that raw sewage overflows and gets into our natural waterways (see the diagramon the left). Trees can reduce the number and severity of combined sewer overflows by collecting rain on leaves, bark, and in the soil. Indianapolis is doing great work in using green infrastructure to manage stormwater, and was even featured in a 2013 report from the Natural Resource Defense Council, but there is still a long way to go.

8. Health Benefits
Beyond reducing UV radiation, trees offer some surprising and substantial health benefits. Trees reduce asthma and respiratory disease by reducing air pollution. Being around trees and other plants can have psychological effects similar to antidepressants and ADD medication, and they have been shown to reduce stress. Hospital patients with a view of greenery recover faster, require less pain medication, and have fewer complications than patients without such a view.

9. Aesthetic and Socio-Economic Benefits
We intuitively understand the aesthetic benefits of trees. They're beautiful, and they make the spaces around them more beautiful. The socio-economic benefits of trees are less obvious, but studies show that trees reduce crime rates, increase business sales, and reduce traffic speeds, and we also know that they increase property values and strengthen communities.

Street trees in NYC Photo retrieved from Pixabay

Street trees in NYC
Photo retrieved from Pixabay

10. Cooling and Energy Savings
Not all of these benefits can be measured in dollars and cents, but this one can. Trees reduce heating costs through shade and evapotranspiration (as they pull water from the soil, more evaporates from the leaves and has a cooling effect), or they can provide a windbreak to reduce winter heating if properly placed. Adding greenery to cities can reduce or even eliminate the urban heat island effect. The urban heat island effect explains that urban areas tend to be substantially warmer than suburban or rural areas due to the lack of green space and the abundance of heat reflecting surfaces like glass and asphalt.

These 10 are by no means the only benefits of urban trees, and many of these could be broken down into several separate benefits, but this gives a glimpse about just how essential trees are in our communities. If you want some handy pamphlets summarizing some of these benefits, I highly recommend these fact sheets produced in collaboration by the Indiana DNR Community and Urban Forestry program and the Indiana Urban Forest Council. To delve into the tree benefits we can put a price tag on, check out the free i-Tree Design tool to calculate the value added by any tree. We don't need to be afraid of trees; we need to embrace them and the benefits they provide. What are some of the reasons you love trees? Can you think of any benefits I left off the list? Feel free to add to the conversation in the comments.

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To Shear or Not to Shear? How to Prune Shrubs

It's the time of the year where you're probably starting to think about tidying up wayward shrubs and pruning hedges during the spring growth spurt. But before you grab shears or gas-powered hedge trimmers, let's talk about proper pruning practices and how they differ from species to species. Not all shrubs can be pruned the same if you want them to live long and prosper.

Rule #1 is to put away your electric or gas-powered hedge trimmers. Unless you're maintaining a substantial yew hedge or something like that, this tool doesn't have a place in shrub pruning. They can be useful for cutting back ornamental grasses or other sturdy perennials, but when used on shrubs they can tear and tatter twigs ends and leave the shrub vulnerable to pest and disease problems, along with leaving unsightly dead tips on branches.

Yews are one of a handful of shrubs that does well with tight shearing, as seen in this image of our work. Photo by Maria Gulley

Yews are one of a handful of shrubs that does well with tight shearing, as seen in this image of our work.
Photo by Maria Gulley

Even if you're using sharp, clean hand shears, a tight globe or box look is not suitable for every shrub in the landscape. For some species, this kind of pruning can result in poor internal structure that leaves huge holes in the shrub if even a single branch is lost. Pruning shrubs into uniform shapes can also rob them of the beauty of their natural form. We pick shrubs not just to provide a desired flower color or fill a space; when we design we take into account the natural shape and texture of a shrub, and if you shear a shrub that isn’t meant to be sheared, you’ll lose its natural beauty. You can also be giving yourself a headache, as some species will fight back with aggressive shoot growth after shearing. If you've ever tried to shear forsythia, you know what I'm talking about.

However, there are times when you want or need the clean formal shapes that a pair of hedge clippers can bring. The following species tolerate shearing well: arborvitae, yew, boxwood, privet*, barberry*, and burning bush*. When shearing a hedge, keep the top slightly narrower than the base. Hedges that are narrower at the bottom often end up thin and scraggly at the bottom because sunlight can't reach the lower branches.

Diagram of proper shrub pruning to reduce overall size. Click to view larger.

So how do you keep other species of shrubs in check if shearing isn't an option? Selective pruning is the process of removing individual branches to control the size and shape of your shrub or promote without destroying its natural shape. Branches can be cut back where they connect to a larger branch or snipped off just above a lower bud. If it seems like the bush is getting too dense and crowded, limbs can be removed all the way down to the ground. Make sure you look twice and cut once so you don't accidentally remove a limb that will leave a bare spot. This may be unavoidable at first if you're switching from shearing to selective pruning, but with time it will be easier. See the diagram on the left for an illustration of selective pruning.

If this seems like a lot of work, don't worry. Once you ditch the shears and pick up the hand pruners, you'll notice that your shrubs need considerably less taming. You will rarely see long, leggy shoots springing up left and right once you switch your methods and stick to it. Instead you'll just be removing the occasional wayward shoot and periodically reducing the shrub's size. If your shrubs have been sheared for so long that you are left with dense growth on the outer few inches and twiggy, leafless growth on the inside, then you may need to resort to renewal or rejuvenation pruning to bring it back to a healthy habit.

Forsythia especially dislikes shearing.  By Rdsmith4 - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5

Forsythia especially dislikes shearing.
By Rdsmith4 - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5

One last consideration in pruning is timing. Pruning should be done when the plant has the most time to recover, such as early spring or early summer (unless you're cutting just a few stems - you can do that any time without doing the plant any real harm). If you prune in the hottest part of the summer when your shrub is already stressed, you can increase the plant's stress and make it more vulnerable to other problems. Pruning in the fall can encourage new growth that won't have enough time to mature before freezing temperatures arrive, especially if you're shearing a hedge. Flowering shrubs need to be pruned at different times of year depending on when they flower. Spring blooming shrubs usually develop next year's flower buds during the summer, so it's vital that you prune immediately after flowering so you don't remove next year's flower buds. Summer blooming shrubs usually bloom on new growth, so they should be pruned after flowering, but before new growth starts in spring. Some shrubs can be pruned at any time, because they bloom on both new and old stems. Below I've listed some common flowering shrubs by optimum pruning time.

Prune in spring immediately after flowering:

  • Deutzia (Deutzia gracilis)

  • Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia)

  • Rhododendron and Azalea (Rhododendron species)

  • Thunberg Spirea (Spiraea thunbergii) (varieties include 'Ogon')

  • Lilac (Syringa species)

  • Viburnum (Viburnum species)

  • Weigela (Weigela hybrids)

  • Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla x gardenii)

  • Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia and melanocarpa)

  • Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

  • Oak Leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)

  • Big Leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla)

Prune before spring growth:

  • Butterfly Bush (Buddleia hybrids and species)

  • Beautyberry (Callicarpa species and hybrids)

  • Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens, varieties include 'Annabelle', 'Incrediball', 'Invincibelle Spirit')

  • Hardy Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata, varieties include 'Limelight', 'Pinky Winky', 'Quick Fire')

  • Sumac (Rhus species)

  • Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

  • Summersweet Clethra (Clethra alnifolia)

  • Bumald Spirea (Spiraea x bumalda, varieties include 'Anthony Waterer')

  • Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

Prune before or after blooming:

  • Reblooming Hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, specific varieties such as Endless Summer series)

  • Knock-Out Roses (Rosa Knock-Out hybrids)

  • Japanese Spirea (Spiraea japonica, varieties include 'Little Princess', 'Goldflame', 'Magic Carpet')

Azalea Photo by Maria Gulley

Photo by Maria Gulley

Dwarf Fothergilla Photo by Maria Gulley

Dwarf Fothergilla
Photo by Maria Gulley

Smooth Hydrangea Photo by Maria Gulley

Smooth Hydrangea
Photo by Maria Gulley

Knock-Out Rose Photo by Maria Gulley

Knock-Out Rose
Photo by Maria Gulley

I've provided some additional resources on pruning shrubs below. Feel free to direct any other questions you may have to me. Good pruning practices are essential to the long-term health and beauty of your garden, and we’d like to help. Contact us to learn more about what our maintenance team can do for you.

Additional Resources:
Pruning Ornamental Trees and Shrubs (Purdue University Extension)
Shrub Pruning Calendar (Virginia Cooperative Extension)

*Privet, barberry, and burning bush are considered invasive and should be avoided. Privet and barberry are included in Indiana’s newly adopted list of banned invasive plants, and they will not be available for purchase within a few years.

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May: Bluestar

There are a lot of perennials that I think deserve more attention. Bluestar is definitely one of them. This plant has an informal but not messy look, blooms earlier than most perennials, stays put where it’s planted, and has brilliantly golden fall color.

There are a handful of species in the genus Amsonia referred to as bluestar that grow naturally in different regions of the U.S. The two that are easiest to find for sale in the Midwest are Amsonia hubrichtii and Amsonia tabernaemontana, and A. tabernaemontana is also native to our region. They all have in common clusters of pale blue flowers and yellow fall color. The main difference is in foliage texture: A. hubrichtii has an airy, fine texture while A. tabernaemontana has a more substantial presence with wider leaves. They are good for massing in mixed perennials beds, and pollinators love the late spring flowers.

Common Name: Bluestar

Scientific Name: Amsonia species, hybrids, and varieties

Light: full sun

Size: 2-3’ tall and wide

Bloom Time and Color: pale blue flowers in May

Notable Varieties: ‘Blue Ice’ (dwarf variety of A. tabernaemontana), ‘Storm Cloud’ (variety of A. tabernaemontana with smoky purple stems and emerging foliage and deeper blue flowers)

Soil: doesn’t like waterlogged soil, but can take a lot of water if it drains quickly

Other Notes: native to Indiana, deer resistant, pollinator-friendly, good fall color

See other plants of the month.

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Pest Alert: Spotted Lanternfly

Spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) adult winged, in Pennsylvania, on July 20, 2018. USDA-ARS Photo by Stephen Ausmus.

Spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) adult winged, in Pennsylvania, on July 20, 2018. USDA-ARS Photo by Stephen Ausmus.

Another major tree pest has emerged: the spotted lanternfly. This striking planthopper was first identified in Pennsylvania in 2014, and while it has not yet become widespread, it has the potential to spread quickly. Tree-lovers everywhere need to be on high alert. Spotted lanternfly targets grapes, hops, and the invasive tree of heaven first, but it can also attack and kill maples, oaks, fruit trees, pines, sycamores, willows, walnuts, and poplars.

How did it get here?

Spotted lanternfly is native to eastern Asia and parts of India where it is a common agricultural and forestry pest. It was first spotted in Pennsylvania northwest of Philadelphia in 2014, and it is not known exactly how it made it here. The grey egg masses are easy to miss, so it could have arrived in any number of ways. So far it has spread to some areas of New Jersey, New York, and Virginia, and those states are on high alert to identify and contain the insect.

An adult spotted Lanternfly (Photo courtesy of Bugwood)

An adult spotted Lanternfly (Photo courtesy of Bugwood)

What does it do?

In late spring to early summer, typically around May, eggs hatch and young spotted lanternflies (called nymphs) emerge to begin feeding. During the early nymph stages, they like to feed on leaves and soft stems. As they develop into later stages (called instars), they start feeding on tougher tissues, even thick branches and trunks. The adults prefer to feed and mate on tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima, also an invasive species), but they are not terribly picky, and they will still attack a wide range of plants. They use their straw-like mouths to pierce plant tissues and suck out water and nutrients. This saps the plants of valuable resources and creates weeping wounds that leave the stressed plants susceptible to other infections and infestations. Over time, even a tree can succumb to the prolonged stress and die. More tender plants like grapevines will die more quickly.

2nd and 3rd instar nymph (black), 4th instar nymph (red body) in Pennsylvania, on July 16, 2018. USDA-ARS Photo by Stephen Ausmus.

2nd and 3rd instar nymph (black), 4th instar nymph (red body) in Pennsylvania, on July 16, 2018. USDA-ARS Photo by Stephen Ausmus.

How do I spot it?

Partially covered egg mass, 11/15/15, photo by Emelie Swackhamer of Penn State University CC by 3.0

Partially covered egg mass, 11/15/15, photo by Emelie Swackhamer of Penn State University CC by 3.0

Fortunately, spotted lanternfly spends its entire life cycle on the outside of the plant where we can see it, and it is very distinctive. The egg masses are the most difficult stage to spot, but also the easiest to deal with. In October, adult females lay egg masses on just about any surface they find. The masses look like lumps of grey clay mud about 1” wide and 2” long. At first, they’re shiny, but over time they dry out to a dull, matte grey. They can be on trees, houses, cars, trailers, crates – just about anything. This is the species’ best way to spread quickly. When the eggs hatch, the first three instars are round, black, wingless little dudes covered in white spots. The final nymph instar is a brilliant red with black and white spots, and it doesn’t look like any other bug I’m used to seeing in the garden. The adults are about 1” long and ½” wide with brownish-grey outer wings with black spots and a netting-like pattern. When their wings are fully spread, the bright red inner wings are revealed.

What do I do if I find one?

If you think you find a spotted lanternfly, take pictures, collect it in a sealed container if you can, and contact the entomology department at the Indiana DNR immediately. You can reach them on the phone at 1-866-NO-EXOTIC (1-866-633-9684) or by email at You can also find your regional inspector and contact them directly. If you live outside of Indiana, you can go through this website from the USDA to find your state’s extension service, and they will put you in touch with the right people. Want to learn more about spotted lanternfly? The APHIS division of the USDA has all sorts of helpful information in their spotted lanternfly profile.

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8 Invasive Plants to Avoid

Did you know that some of the plants sold at many big box stores, garden centers, and nurseries are invasive species? An invasive species is a non-native species with the ability to grow, reproduce, and spread quickly to push out native species and cause ecosystem damage and/or economic harm. The classic plant examples are Asian honeysuckle and kudzu. Invasive species make their way into our ecosystems in all kinds of ways, but when it comes to invasive plants one of the most common ways they are introduced is through ornamental use.

Many of these plants are beautiful, easy to grow, and quick to establish. That makes them great candidates for low-maintenance landscapes, but sometimes they're just a little too good at thriving, and they can escape into our natural areas and wreak havoc on the environment. Not all easily grown and quickly established plants are invasive though: there are several rockstar hydrangeas, and none of them are invasive (some are even native).

There are two main arguments I typically hear when I encourage people not to buy these plants: “it’s not invasive in my yard,” and “if it were really that bad I wouldn’t be able to buy it”. You might be able to keep a plant under control in your yard pretty well with trimming and weed control, but when seeds or scraps make it into areas with less detailed oversight, they may quickly take off and cause significant problems. I agree that invasive plants should be restricted early and not sold, but regulatory wheels turn slowly. Some states take longer than others to ban species, and some states are more aggressive than others in which species they list. Right now, Indiana actually has no laws restricting invasive terrestrial plants, but a new rule is currently under review to ban the worst of the worst species.

Beyond official regulations, it’s up to an individual nursery, garden center, or landscape company to choose not to use these harmful species, and several companies have begun to self-regulate. Below we've listed ten plants widely available for purchase that should not be planted, and we’ve provided some well-behaved alternatives (*native species are marked with an asterisk). We have stopped using any of these, and we want to encourage you to join us.

Burning Bush

Euonymus alatus

Why it's planted: easy-to-grow-shrub with bright red fall color

What to plant instead:

  • Chokeberry hybrids and varieties*: medium sized native shrub with excellent red fall color, also has white flowers in spring and showy black or red berries in fall

  • Diervilla ‘Kodiak Orange’: medium to large shrub with an orange tint to leaves most of the year followed by brilliant red fall foliage, pollinators like the yellow flowers

  • Dwarf Fothergilla*: small to medium sized native shrub with sweet-smelling spring flowers and a rainbow of fall color


Euonymus fortunei

Why it's planted: easy-to-grow evergreen groundcover

What to plant instead:

  • Canadian Wild Ginger*: semi-evergreen native groundcover, spreads underground by roots

  • Allegheny Spurge*: native cousin of Japanese pachysandra, spreading groundcover

  • Epimedium: colony-forming groundcover with good spring and fall foliage color and delicate flowers in spring

Callery Pear

Callery Pear

Callery Pear

Pyrus calleryana

Why it’s planted: inexpensive small tree with tight shape, white flowers, and good fall color

What to plant instead:

  • Hornbeam*: has a tight oval shape and can even be sheared for an even cleaner look, attractive gray bark in winter

  • Hawthorn*: small tree with round to spreading canopy, white spring flowers, and bright red berries in fall and winter

  • Serviceberry*: small tree, often multistemmed, with white spring flowers and tasty dark red berries in early summer, good orange fall color


Ligustrum species and hybrids

Why it’s planted: low-maintenance, hedge-friendly shrub

What to plant instead

  • Boxwood: evergreen shrub that can be tightly sheared or grown in a more natural shape, somewhat shade tolerant

  • Yew: evergreen shrub that can be tightly sheared or grown in a more natural shape

  • Panicle Hydrangea: showy summer-flowering shrub available in a range of flower colors and sizes, with the right variety selection pruning is unnecessary for an un-sheared but still tidy hedge

Purple Loosestrife  By AnRo0002 - Own work, CC0

Purple Loosestrife
By AnRo0002 - Own work, CC0

Purple Loosestrife

Lythrum salicaria

Why it’s planted: low-maintenance perennials with attractive spikes of fuschia flowers

What to plant instead:

  • Bee Balm*: colony-forming perennials that pollinators love, firework-shaped flowers in mid-summer in shades of red, pink, and purple

  • Blazingstar*: spikes of vibrant purple flowers in mid-summer, very popular with bees and butterflies

  • Turtlehead*: a late bloomer to extend the season with pink or white flowers from August to October

Japanese Barberry

Berberis thunbergii

Why it’s planted: un-kill-able shrub with colorful foliage, thorns make a hedge that keeps people out

What to plant instead:

  • Chokeberry hybrids and varieties*: medium sized native shrub with excellent red fall color, also has white flowers in spring and showy black or red berries in fall

  • Ninebark*: medium to large dark-leaved shrub with arching branches and smallish white clusters of flowers, larger varieties are most suitable for natural styles

  • Diervilla: medium to large shrub with options for colorful foliage, brilliant red fall color, pollinators like the yellow flowers

Sweet Autumn Clematis  By Σ64 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Sweet Autumn Clematis

Clematis terniflora

Why it’s planted: quick-growing flowering vine, late blooming, delicious smell

What to plant instead:

  • Woodbine*: North America’s native clematis is virtually identical to sweet autumn clematis, just less vigorous with not quite as many flowers

  • American Wisteria*: North America has a native wisteria as well with smaller flowers and slightly less fragrance than the better-known Asian varieties that some consider to be invasive

  • Coral Honeysuckle*: native non-invasive honeysuckle vine, trumpet-shaped yellow and red flowers, popular with hummingbirds

Maiden Grass

Miscanthus sinensis

Why it’s planted: quick-growing, dependable ornamental grass with strong structure and attractive seed heads

What to plant instead:

  • Little Bluestem*: narrow, upright ornamental grass about 18-36” tall with thin, attractive seed heads, good reddish fall color

  • Switchgrass*: upright ornamental grass about 24-60” tall depending on variety, open and airy seed heads

  • Karl Foerster Grass: reliable designer favorite beloved for its tidy basal leaves and stark upright golden yellow seed heads

These are all plants that people loved (and still love) for a reason, and it’s not going to be easy for everyone to let go of them. Fortunately there are great alternatives, and I’m hoping you join us in embracing them. If you want to learn more about the proposed rule restricting invasive plants in Indiana, WFYI has shared some more details along with the full proposed list of banned plants. Still not sure why invasive plants are such a serious problem? The Indiana Native Plant Society does a great job going into more detail and linking to other resources. Got any other recommendations for alternatives to these invasives? Leave us a comment!

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Types of Turf Grass

Did you know that there are over a dozen different species of grass that can be used for lawns in Indiana? Chances are you’ve heard of bluegrass, and maybe zoysia grass, but most people don’t have any reason to think about different types of lawn grasses on a daily basis. Lucky for you, we do have reason to think about different types of grass on a regular basis, and today we’ll teach you the basics you need to help pick the right grass for you. There are two main things to think about when selecting a type of grass: warm or cool season and spreading or clumping. Once we touch on those, we’ll talk about some of our favorite grasses for the home lawn.

Cool season grasses green up early in the year.

Cool season grasses green up early in the year.

Cool Season vs. Warm Season Grasses

Cool season grasses do well in areas that get cold in the winter and don’t have extended periods of extreme heat and drought. They do the most growing in spring and fall, and while they get duller in the winter they still have a green tint to them all year long. They are more common in central Indiana and northern Indiana. Warm season grasses thrive in extreme heat, and they can often handle drought better than cool season grasses. Their down side is that they turn totally straw brown in the winter, and they take much longer than cool season grasses to green up in the spring. You’ll find them more often in southern Indiana than central Indiana, and it’s rare for them to be able to even survive in northern Indiana. In the deep south and Florida, that’s about all you’ll see. In the Midwest where access to water for irrigation typically isn’t a problem, the better bet is usually going to be to go with a cool season grass and then irrigate as needed in the summer to help your lawn keep cool with proper moisture levels.

Clump-forming vs. Spreading Grasses

The other big difference between different types of grasses is in how they grow. As you might guess, clump-forming grasses grow in clumps that very slowly expand. They primarily rely on seeding to spread and fill in bare spots. Spreading grasses send out roots and/or stems horizontally to spread much more quickly. Aggressive spreaders can become difficult to contain and can invade planting beds, but strict clump-forming grasses are not able to repair damage easily without help. For most settings, the ideal grass is a moderately aggressive spreading grass, especially for areas that expect high foot traffic from people or pets.

Some of Our Favorites

A new RTF lawn just two seasons after seeding from bare soil.

A new RTF lawn just two seasons after seeding from bare soil.

Our favorite grass for lawns, bar none, is rhizomatous tall fescue (a.k.a. RTF). RTF is a spreading, cool-season grass, but its benefits go far beyond that. It is drought-tolerant, disease-resistant, and pest-resistant, and it doesn’t require much fertilizer to form a lush, green lawn. In fact, pest or disease problems are usually an indicator of over-fertilization. It stands up to high heat much better than most cool season grasses. It has a deep green color and medium texture for a comfortable walking surface. It has a fairly quick germination time, so you don’t have to wait weeks for seeds to sprout. It even does well in shade! It’s not the most shade-tolerant grass available, but it’s one of the best for a lawn with mixed sun conditions. Is there anything it can’t do? Not really. It doesn’t do well in dense shade, especially wet shade, but in those conditions there’s no lawn that will thrive and also be able to survive our cold winter.

RTF is a relative newcomer on the turf grass scene, and before its arrival on the market in the early 2000s, bluegrass was the best selection for an attractive, walkable lawn. A well-maintained bluegrass lawn is truly gorgeous. But it falls behind RTF in several areas. It requires much more fertilizer and water, it is fairly susceptible to disease and pest problems, it doesn’t hold up to extreme heat as well, it isn’t as shade-tolerant, and it takes up to a week longer for seeds to germinate. But bluegrass remains a popular choice for its nostalgic appeal and because there are so many high quality bluegrass lawns around already. It can make more sense to repair an existing high quality bluegrass lawn with the same species for localized damage than to totally convert them to a new species.

Buffalo grass isn’t deep green, but it is dense and durable.

Buffalo grass isn’t deep green, but it is dense and durable.

Another grass we occasionally use is buffalo grass. It’s one of the only turf grasses native to North America. It grows naturally in dry, tough settings from North Dakota to Texas, so you know it can take some abuse. It also needs almost no mowing. Buffalo grass rarely gets above 3” tall, so it only needs to bed trimmed to encourage thicker growth, and it needs to be edged to keep out of areas where it doesn’t belong. It’s tough as nails, but it’s not conventionally attractive. It will never get a lush, vibrant green, and the more you try to fertilize it the worse it will look. We recommend it for areas where you want a lawn, but you don’t want to have to maintain it, and you’re not expecting a golf course look. We have also used it in settings where clients want to use only plants native to North America.

For really shady areas, we recommend going for mulch or gravel beds or a shade-tolerant groundcover instead (Stepables has some for high foot traffic), but if you really want lawn, and RTF can’t handle the shade, you have a few other options. Most hardware stores and garden centers will carry shade-friendly seed mixes that are typically a mix of fine and creeping fescues. Zoysia grass is a warm-season grass with pretty good shade tolerance, but since it is a warm season grass it will look dead for up to six months out of the year.

Ready for lawn repair or renovation? We have decades of experience and education in turf management, and we’re ready to put that knowledge to work to help you get a healthy, vibrant lawn, no matter what your starting point is. Contact us if you’re ready to learn more today!

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Make It Pop with Color

Make It Pop with Color

We pride ourselves in being able to make the best creative and functional use of small spaces, and this project in downtown Indianapolis really pushed us to our limits. At just 950 square feet, this may be the smallest back yard we have ever designed, and the front planting beds are even more limited. Our goal was to bring out the character of the house and the homeowners while getting the best use out of every square foot of horizontal and vertical space.

April: Flowering Dogwood

April: Flowering Dogwood

If you ask someone what their favorite tree is, there’s good chance that they will name a spring-flowering beauty. And of those spring bloomers, flowering dogwood is a classic crowd-pleaser. With its snowy white or soft pink blossoms, flowering dogwood stands as a sign that spring has fully arrived at last.

Keep Pollinators Around All Season Long

Keep Pollinators Around All Season Long

If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you have probably picked up on the fact that I’m a big fan of pollinator-friendly landscaping. Pollinators like bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds are responsible for reproduction in many of our favorite landscape and food plants, and they’re fun to watch. Nothing says “summer” to me like watching a garden buzzing with all kinds of pollinators. But summer isn’t the only season these critters are out and about, and one of the keys to ensuring that they maintain healthy populations is to make sure that we’re planting pollinator-friendly plants for the full season.

Our Design Philosophy

Our Design Philosophy

At 317Grow our biggest priority is giving our clients a beautiful, unique, and functional outdoor space. We aim to create spaces that reflect the interest and personalities of our clients which is why we encourage client involvment in every step of the process to ensure that what we create is a product of your vision. To us the design process is the most important step of the process which is why we make it a goal to spend as much time as possible perfecting the design. The key to a successful outdoor space is a great design.