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Aug 262011
 

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

As the drought in the Southern US wears on, and on, lawns everywhere are crisping in the heat, raising a question about both the viability and ethics of keeping a lush green lawn in the face of increasing water scarcity.

It seems that homeowners have three basic options for their lovely turf as the heat marches on.

A conventional lawn requires a lot of watering.

First option: Continue to blast the water sprinklers, keeping the grass green and flourishing. That could run up quite a water bill, and also raises questions about the ethics of using so much water for landscaping when reservoirs are running dry and cities are limiting water usage.

Second option: Back off on the watering, follow your city’s water restrictions and maybe even go beyond, cutting lawn watering to a one-inch dousing each week. Experts say that much water can nurse healthy turf through a drought like the one afflicting Texas, Oklahoma and other states. Be ready to tolerate  some brown patches and invasion of weeds. But that might be a small price as you try to balance the use of natural resources with the implicit social contract that your lawn remain presentable. The Lawn Institute offers excellent advice on how to let your turf go dormant during stressful times.

Third option: Concede to Mother Nature, quit watering and say goodbye to the turf as you’ve known it. Get ready to start over with a more eco-friendly grass like Buffalo or Blue grama. With a little work, you can turn this summer’s bad vibe into an opportunity by converting your lawn to more drought-tolerant grasses that will do better during next summer’s brutal heat and ease your conscience about using water when it’s in short supply.

A Buffalo grass lawn can stay green with minimal watering.

The risks with making the switch are not great. You could run into problems if you don’t properly reinstall a native lawn. And you could run a gauntlet of social disapproval as you strip, re-seed and re-grow a turf that will look a little different.  Neighbors who may not share your righteous attitude about water could be caught off-balance by what they see shaping up.  But they’ll likely soon be admiring the wispy new blanket of green cradling your domicile.

You’ll pass the appearance test as long as you use native varieties bred for urban and suburban settings, which present a neater look than their wild cousins. (More seed advice and sources below.)

So if you’ve been waiting to go native, the time to strike is now, while the turf’s hot.

Going native, step by step

Before you demolish anything, you’d better have a good place for replacing it. We sought the expert advice of Dr. Mark Simmons, an ecologist and sustainable design expert at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. Dr. Simmons keeps a native lawn at home and has helped the LBJ Wildflower Center develop native grass mixes that perform well in a variety of conditions. He likens a good native grass mix to a high performing mutual fund, it uses diversity to hedge its bets in varying conditions.

Simmons recently published a study with Michelle Bertelsen, another ecologist at the LBJ Wildflower Center, and two other former center ecologists, showing that a variety of native turf grass mixes outperformed Bermuda grass, growing thicker and more resilient, even with minimal watering and mowing.

The native mixes also turned out to be more weed resistant, proving the theory that natives can thrive without chemical inputs.

So with Simmons’ guidance let’s take it step-by-step.

If your lawn is dying, first take stock of what type of grass you have. St. Augustine grass is probably the least drought-tolerant and therefore the easiest to kiss goodbye. Zoysia is more drought-tolerant, but may still struggle in drought conditions. Bermuda grass, depending on the variety, could be going brown and getting spindly, but it may actually only have gone dormant. Bermuda grows by runners and is moderately drought-tolerant, so it could spring back later when it gets a good watering, though this is small comfort if you’re longing to be rid of this grass known for invading flower beds and crawling across sidewalks.

You’ll have to make a judgment call about whether you want to retain your conventional turf grass lawn that’s so-so drought-tolerant – say a Zoysia or Bermuda lawn – or replace it with a native turf that will drink even less.

Since lawns typically account for at least 50 percent or more of a household’s water consumption, and native lawns generally need a good sprinkling only once a month during the summer, let guess you’re ready to go native.

Step one: Turn off the sprinkler and “let nature do its thing,” says Simmons. With zero water in a drought-stricken region, the grass will soon turn brown. Once it’s been that way for three or four weeks, you can play taps for your turf. It has died, though some lawns (think Bermuda!) have a Lazarus-like ability to bounce back with a rainfall. However, the question of whether the lawn has died or gone zombie is really academic because Step Two requires its burial.

Step two: OK, some experts say that at this point you could take that dead top layer of grass and compost it in place. This would involve covering it with cardboard or plastic for a few weeks. Simmons’ method, though, calls for a complete shear. Have the the top two inches of brown matted material   or “biomass” removed. Your drinkaholic lawn is now headed to the compost pile (we hope).

Morris says it’s best to have a landscape crew in to perform this operation. If you can afford it, we would agree. If you’re doing this on your own, which you probably very well could be, you may want to invest in a sod cutter. (See the You Tube video below to see a sod cutter in action.). But let’s say you’ve gone the crew route, Morris says you should have them prep the lawn at the same time, but keep an eye on this key operation.

Step three: Soil preparation. If there’s a “magic trick” to this process, it is proper prepping, Simmons says. So say “proper prepping” three times really fast.

“If you get the soil right, you could have a great lawn,” he says. Conversely, if you short change the prep, your Buffalo grass could bolt and run off a cliff.

A properly prepped site should be tilled to at least six inches deep. Be sure to convey this to the “crew”. (Honey, you’re not digging deep enough!) This will break up any hard packed soil and ready it for sowing. The newly tilled area should be top-dressed with a rich, well-decomposed compost. Simmons is adamant about getting the compost right. It should be fairly fine, not too coarse.

Do not try to substitute a compost full or sticks, or worse, a mulch, which would not impart the right nutrients.

Step four: Sow the seed with a small hand broadcaster. And get the timing right. You can tear up the lawn and start over in the fall or the spring. A new lawn installed in the fall should be seeded at least four weeks before the first anticipated freeze. Of course, with global warming that could mean you have until Christmas, not to mention that first freezes are becoming harder to predict, period. The hardiness of the grass will work in your favor though. Buffalo and grama mix grasses can come up in five to 10 days, so just check the long-term forecast.

If you’d rather tackle your lawn remodel in the spring, you could probably begin with the tilling in March in Texas, and later as you move northward, Simmons says.

He advises you to consider having a underground sprinkler system installed while the lawn is under construction. Your new native mix lawn may only require watering once or twice a month, but with a sprinkler system, you’ll get even coverage. And, as with all new plantings, you’ll be in position to start the lawn with more frequent waterings. You should irrigate every day for the first 10 days to keep the soil from drying out. Then water twice a week for the next month, and twice a month for the remainder of the growing season. (Wetting soil to 4 inches deep.)

You’ll notice right away, though, that your native grasses will not be as thirsty as their conventional counterparts. Nor will they demand the weekly mowings and fertilizers and herbicides to which typical suburban lawns are addicted. That’s because non-native grasses need constant weeding, mowing and watering. They’re chemically dependent and you’re their co-dependent. Your new native lawn will liberate you from a lot of work. (Bet your neighbors will notice that!)

“From our research you tend to get fewer weeds with these lawns,” Simmons said. “You don’t have to be out there pouring herbicides on it, and so it’s better, not just for you, but for your city and water authority. They’ll thank you as well.”

Of course you could also replace some of your turf with rocks, mulch and native shrubs.  That’s another way to reduce water use. But homeowners don’t need to go completely bonkers about boulders in Simmons view.

When it comes to debates about how much to change a home’s surround, whether to go mainly with rock gardens and beds of native shrubs, Simmons argues that beautiful, willowy lawns have a rightful place in the home landscape. Unlike a native shrub garden, which may be drought tolerant but only for show, lawns can host family activities.

“I don’t want my kids to have to play in prickly pears and rocks,” he says.

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