Low-water lawns and tough turfgrasses that look good even in a drought
By Debbie Arrington
Is there still room for lawn in a low-water landscape? Yes, but it takes the right grass (or turf alternative) and a thoughtful approach to irrigation.
Don Smith, water management coordinator for the City of Folsom, has studied lawns for decades, including a stint as a professional landscaper. He also teaches a lawn care workshop.
The question he hears repeatedly this summer: How can I save my lawn?
“If you wait until we’re in a drought to get ready, you’ve waited too long,” Smith says. “The critical point: How healthy was your lawn before the drought?”
If that lawn has deep roots extending 6 to 8 inches into the soil, it should cope just fine. Even if it browns, it should bounce back quickly once weather cools and rains return (hopefully) this fall.
But if that grass was repeatedly overwatered, those roots likely grow less than 2 inches into the ground. That’s not enough to reach soil moisture deeper below the surface.
“Most people overwater their lawn,” Smith explains. “Nothing needs as much water as you think it needs. … Brown, suffering lawns – like you see now – mostly were overwatered before cutbacks. Their soil was always saturated and they have a very shallow root zone.”
To cope with less water, grass needs a deep root zone, he adds. “If not, your lawn will suffer because it has less water-gathering capacity.”
In his own water-efficient garden, Smith still makes room for a small, 230-square-foot patch of grass for the same reason many people keep lawn amid drought: He has a dog.
For years, Smith has experimented with different turfgrasses and lawn alternatives to find the right stuff to hold up to daily dog use and stay green while using less water. It’s been an expensive learning curve.
“My favorite low-water turf is Native Mow Free by Delta Bluegrass Company,” Smith says. “It grows 10 to 12 inches tall and is a beautiful deep emerald green. It has a real meadowy, wavy look to it. You can let it go long or mow it occasionally. About two or three times a summer, I evened it off with a weed eater.”
Naturally slow growing, Native Mow Free performs best in areas with partial shade and needs less than half the irrigation of traditional lawns. But it has one major drawback, Smith notes. “Native Mow Free is really sensitive to dog urine. I’m a big supporter of Native Mow Free – if you don’t have a dog.”
For dog lovers, UC Verde Buffalograss is a good alternative. Fine textured and sturdy, UC Verde Buffalograss holds up to pets – and kids. It’s become a go-to tough turf for parks and playgrounds as well as backyards in California and Arizona. A heat-loving warm season grass, it takes 75 percent less water than traditional tall fescue lawn. Buffalograss needs only weekly irrigation in 100-degree heat; less when temperatures are cooler.
“It’s seedless, so it’s good for people with allergies,” Smith adds. “It’s a very good low-water lawn.”
Buffalograss tends to go brown in winter, its dormant season. For year-round green, Smith suggests Kurapia, a sterile cultivar of Lippia nodiflora that is naturalized throughout California. Staying under 3 inches, kurapia has all of lippia’s positive assets – low water, low growing and year-round green – without lippia’s invasiveness.
“Kurapia doesn’t look like grass; it’s broadleaf and covered with little flowers,” Smith notes. “But it can tolerate drought and dogs. UC Davis tested it and found that kurapia can go 50 days in summer with no irrigation and still look good.”
Got sandy soil or slopes? Pacific Dune Sedge (Carex pansa) is native to Northern California beaches. As its name implies, it grows naturally on sand dunes but adapts to suburban backyards, too, as long as it has good drainage.
“This sedge looks more like traditional grass than some other turf alternatives,” Smith says. “It grows slowly and only needs mowing four to eight times a year, depending on how short you like it.”
As for his own little lawn, Smith went back to tall fescue because of its natural toughness, but still saves water.
“I keep it long,” he explains. “I set my mower at the highest setting. The grass blades shade the roots, so they need less water. When I water, I water it deeply by using the cycle and soak method – run the sprinklers for a short interval, let the water soak in, then run the sprinklers again. That trains the roots to grow deep. I also fertilize it and keep it healthy. So even when I do cut back more on irrigation, it can bounce back quickly.”
With those tips, tall fescue can look good with twice-weekly irrigation, he notes. And your dog will be happy, too.
Debbie Arrington is a longtime home and garden reporter and co-author of the blog Sacramento Digs Gardening: https://sacdigsgardening.blogspot.com/
For more information or additional lawn options go to bewatersmart.info/lawn-options