Train your lawn
If you water your lawn every day, you are encouraging shallow roots. By spreading out your watering you can help your lawn to establish deeper roots that will help it survive drought periods. Generally watering deeper, less days per week will encourage deeper root growth and a more healthy lawn.
Remove only one third of the grass length at each mowing. Try to mow weekly in spring – cutting too much at once stresses the grass. Leave the clippings on the lawn. “Grasscycling” provides free fertilizer (at least ¼ of your lawn’s needs), helps lawns grow greener and denser, and doesn’t cause thatch buildup. You can grasscycle with your existing mower. For best results, keep the blade sharp, mow when the grass is dry, and mow a little more often in the spring. Clippings left scattered on the surface will break down quickly – if there are clumps mow again to break them up.
Using proper soil preparation and lawn maintenance practices will help to build healthy soil and vigorous, deep-rooted lawns. These lawns are more resistant to disease, tolerate some insect and drought damage, and will out-compete many weeds.
Water At Night
Make sure you only water when the sun is down to reduce evaporation losses. Many irrigation experts feel the best time to water is between midnight and 6 a.m. because evaporation in kept to a minimum.
Repair All Leaks
Check your automatic irrigation system for leaks. To detect a leak in your irrigation system, you must shut down all water use inside your home and be fairly certain that there is no leakage occurring indoors. Once you have done this, you can use your water meter to see if any water continues to flow into your system. To do this, follow the instructions detailed in the water meter page.
The name of the game for lawn care under a drought is “low maintenance.” In general: Fertilize less, mow taller and water smarter. During a drought emergency you may be asked to substantially restrict your outdoor watering. Drought response plans vary from place to place, but they all include irrigation restrictions. Complying with drought restrictions will almost certainly require you to reprogram your irrigation controller (if you have one) and substantially cut back or even eliminate outdoor watering. Below are some tips for making the most of restricted irrigation during a drought emergency.
First, minimize fertilization. Lush lawns look great, but heavily fertilized lawns use more water and are more susceptible to drought stress. Most commercial lawn fertilizers call for multiple steps, including a second application of fertilizer about six weeks after the first one. During a drought this is too much. Remember, fall is the most critical time to fertilize a lawn.
Set your mower at a higher level than usual. Cutting your lawn short requires additional water to make it grow. You may not have that water to use on your lawn. Leave it shaggier than usual.
Water smarter using some of the suggestions below.
Alternating Day Watering
In the early stages of a drought, many response plans restrict irrigation to every other day or three days a week often based upon your address. To comply with these restrictions you must reprogram your irrigation controller so that it only waters on the specified days or restrict your manual watering.
Severe Drought Actions
In a severe drought that stretches over several years lawn irrigation with an automatic system may be banned completely and hose irrigation severely restricted. We hope this day will never come, but if it does we must all chip in and do our part. This means shutting down your sprinkler system. Remember, human beings throughout history have survived terrible droughts. It won’t be pleasant. It will be inconvenient. You will make it through. The actions you take will determine how much of your landscape will make it through.
OK, you no longer have an operating sprinkler system and your outdoor hose watering is all but eliminated. What do you do?
Prioritize Plants in Your Landscape
The first thing to do in this situation is to prioritize your landscape into three categories:
1) High value/must save;
2) Moderate value/try to save;
3) Low value/save if possible.
High value plants usually include valuable trees and shrubs that have taken years to establish that will die without water. Moderate value plants might include certain perennials, newer shrubs that can be replaced, and drought tolerant Xeriscape type plants that will require little water anyway. Low value plants usually includes turf grass (which can often bounce back successfully from a complete dry out) and annuals.
The old saying is still true, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. If there is a drought forecast for your area – plant more drought resistant plants. See Water-Wise Plants Maintenance for some suggestions.
Tap into Graywater Irrigation Water Sources
It’s time for drastic measures. It’s time to get creative. The more water you can capture from your faucets, shower, bathtub, and clothes washer the more plants you can probably help survive the drought. You don’t need to have an elaborate graywater collection and treatment system (although you might consider this option). Place basins in your kitchen and bathroom sinks to capture water that can then be put on plants outside. If you take a bath, don’t drain the water! Use buckets to haul the bath water outside for your thirsty plants. You can also keep a bucket in the shower with you to capture water. Capturing and reusing the clothes washer water may be more difficult, but it is certainly possible to do. If you do this, be sure to use laundry detergent that won’t harm your plants.
Place rain barrels at the bottom of your roof downspouts. If any rain does fall you’ll be able to use the water more effectively on the plants that really need it.
Ration Water Across Your Landscape
Use your ration of hose water to water your high value plants and trees first. If nothing else, you want to make it through the drought with those plants alive. If there is sufficient water, move on to the moderate value plants, etc. If you do not have further water from the hose, use your graywater on the moderate value plants and then finally the low value plants.
Keep your moderate and low value plants on a starvation diet. Contact local hortaculturalists and plant experts to determine the minimum amount of water required to keep your plants alive. Some plants can survive (not flourish, but survive) on a small amount of water delivered once per week.
Lawn Water Use
How much water does it take to grow an attractive and healthy lawn? There really is no “right” answer to this question, it all depends factors such as where you live, the type of lawn you have, local climate conditions, lawn maintenance practices, and so on.
Research has shown that on average about half of the water used in a single-family home during the course of a year will be put onto the landscape. Obviously if you live in a wet climate such as the Pacific Northwest you will use less water outdoors and if you live in a hot dry climate like Southern California you will use more. But even in a wet climate, the lawn area is often the single highest user of water in the house.
How to calculate the water requirements for your lawn
If you are an intrepid irrigator and internet user it should be fairly easy to calculate the theoretical irrigation requirement for your lawn. There are two key pieces of information you need to obtain: 1) The area (in square feet) of your lawn; and 2) the evapotranspiration (ET) rate for the irrigation season in your area. Don’t worry, both of these items should be fairly easy to obtain.
If your lawn isn’t too big you could simply go outside with a tape measure and physically measure the area. Divide the yard into a series of rectangles and triangles and sum up the areas. Recall that the area of a rectangle is the base length ´ height length. The area of a triangle is ½ ´ the base length ´ height length.
If you’re not in the mood to measure your yard you can calculate the lawn area in another way. Start with the total lot size. If you only know the lot size in acres you can convert to square feet by knowing that 1 acre = 43,560 square feet. From the total lot size subtract the footprint of your house and the area of your driveway and sidewalks. If you don’t know these exact areas make an educated guess. Finally, subtract any other areas on your lot that are not irrigated (swimming pools, patios, bare patches, ponds, etc.). The result will be an estimate of the lawn area at your house. This calculation is summarized below.
- Total lot area (sf)
- – building footprint (sf)
- – driveway area (sf)
- – sidewalk area (sf)
- – all other non-irrigated areas (sf)
- = Total irrigated area (sf)
Evapotranspiration (ET) Rate
Evapotranspiration or ET is a measurement (usually in inches) of the amount of water required to maximize plant growth. ET can be based on a number of factors including the local temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, solar radiation, and the type of plants you are growing. Most of the ET calculations done in urban settings are for turf grass.
To find the ET rate for your area you will need to do a little searching on the world wide web. Using google or your favorite search engine simply search for “evapotranspiration” followed by your city and state. You should turn up a number of possibilities. Usually ET is calculated by a local university or weather service. It is also used frequently in agriculture.
Once you have a measurement of the annual ET rate in inches you are ready to go!
Calculate the Water Requirement for Your Lawn
Use the following equation to calculate the water requirement for your lawn:
- Irrigated area (sf) x ET rate (inches) x 0.6233 = Water requirement in gallons
This calculation will give you a rough estimate of the amount of water your landscape needs over the course of the entire irrigation season.
Lawn Water Savings
Watering the lawn is almost always the largest user of water in a home. If you’re looking for a way to save water it makes sense to focus on the big uses. It doesn’t get any bigger than the lawn.
From a horticultural standpoint, over-irrigation occurs much too often. However, it is most prevalent in the cooler fall months when summer irrigation schedules have not been revised to meet the current weather conditions. Over-irrigation causes three basic problems.
- Over-irrigation pushes water beyond the root zone and is wasted. This occurs most notably in the case of turf grass. .
- Over-irrigation causes excessive run-off, which contributes to non-point source environmental pollution.
- Over-irrigation, in general, degrades plant health.
There are a number of ways to reduce turf grass irrigation and all of these recommendations are explored in great detail in this web site. Saving water outdoors depends on a number of factors including the type of grass, the soil, landscaping practices, climate, irrigation system efficiency, etc. It can all be a bit overwhelming. Many water utilities offer free landscape audits. An audit is a great opportunity to meet with a local expert and discuss ways to improve efficiency on your specific landscape. Contact your utility for information on these programs.
Ways to Save Water on Your Lawn
- Convert turf areas to low-water use plantings (Xeriscape)
- Improve the quality of your soil through proper fertilization and aeration practices
- Mulch when you mow and leave the clippings on your lawn
- Improve your irrigation efficiency
- Upgrade your sprinkler clock
- Reschedule your sprinkler timer at least monthly and when weather changes.
- Use hose timers for manual irrigation
- Install a rain shutoff device on your automatic sprinkler system
- Harvest rainwater
Improving irrigation efficiency is a win-win situation all around. You save money on your water bill and your landscape gets the water it needs without waste. What could be better?
Lawn Grass Benefits and Costs
It’s difficult to weigh the true benefits and costs of the American lawn. Turf is certainly not the most water or time efficient form of landscape to be sure, but there is no doubt that a green lawn is a cultural standard. Before we pass judgement on this element of our culture, let’s learn a little about the history of turf in the US.
From The lawn: a history of an American obsession by Virginia Scott Jenkins, Smithsonian Institution Press, c1994.
A History of Grass in the US
We didn’t always have a love affair with our lawns. In fact it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that lawns became practical for most Americans. Lawns were seen as a luxury expense for only the wealthy who could afford grounds keepers to maintain the fine bladed plants using scythes. Not everyone wanted cattle or sheep grazing in the front yard to keep the green stuff at a manageable height as did Woodrow Wilson while occupying the White House. Sheep on the White House lawn? Actually, it was an effort to draw attention to what could be done to free up men to fight and help with shortages of wool during World War I. The wool was auctioned off for $100,000 and given to the Red Cross.
The green lawns so common today didn’t exist in America until the late 18th century. Instead, the area just outside the front door was typically packed dirt or some form of cottage garden, a mix of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. In England, however, many of the wealthy had sweeping green lawns across their estates. Americans with enough money to travel overseas returned to the U.S. with the English example firmly planted in their imaginations. Reproducing the English lawn wasn’t as easy as they had anticipated. Grasses native to America proved unsuitable for a tidy and well-controlled lawn, and our climate was less than hospitable to the English grasses.
By 1915, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was collaborating with the U.S. Golf Association to find the right grass—or combination of grasses—that would create a durable, attractive lawn in a variety of climates. Included in the testing were Bermuda grass from Africa, blue grass from Europe, fescues, and bent grass. Fifteen years later, the USDA had discovered several useful grasses and turned their attention to the creation of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers for them.
The right grass wasn’t the only problem facing those wanting the perfect lawn. There was also the challenge of providing sufficient water to keep the grass green in summer. Cutting the grass was a challenge, as well. English lawns were trimmed with scythes, an expensive process that required a certain amount of finesse, or by grazing livestock on the greens.
Mechanical mowing came about early in the 19th century and there is a general agreement that an Englishman, Edwin Budding, an engineer at a textile mill, developed a cylinder, or reel-type mower. It was a series of blades arranged around a cylinder with a push handle patterned after a machine used in a cloth factory for shearing the nap on velvet. In 1870, Elwood McGuire of Richmond, Indiana designed a machine that basically brought push mowing to the masses. By 1885, America was building 50,000 lawnmowers a year and shipping them to every country on the globe.
For the average American, the invention of the garden hose and the rotary mower made the lawn a more realistic option. Until then, lawns were too impractical for most families. With most of the necessary tools and types of grass seeds, the average homeowner was now able to grow a lawn of their own. Still, it wasn’t a widespread practice until The American Garden Club stepped in. Through contests and other forms of publicity, they convinced homeowners that it was their civic duty to maintain a beautiful and healthy lawn. So effective was the club’s campaign that lawns were soon the accepted form of landscaping. The garden club further stipulated that the appropriate type of lawn was “a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged.” American thus entered the age of lawn care.
Today, U.S. homeowners spend over $17 billion on outdoor home improvements. More than 26 million households hired a green professional, according to a 2000 Gallup survey and this number is expected to grow. Your little patch of green has become a big business and for good reason. Landscape improvements and maintenance, including lawn care,
The Benefits of Turf
Turf grass is one of the most resilient and useful features of the landscape. It creates a great play space. It’s great for kicking a ball, walking barefoot, and it creates a relaxing space of natural beauty. Lawns have a cooling effect and prevent runoff and erosion of topsoil. Turf can function as a fire retardant around buildings and can increase filtration of water and clean the water as it passes through. Turf absorbs noise, cutting excessive sound and turf can reduce air pollution by absorbing carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Turf thatch acts as a barrier deterring chemicals from entering the soil profile. Well maintained home lawns can help reduce annoying insect pests while providing a place for family fun and entertainment and can add 15% to the selling price of a home. Some turf grasses also have the ability to go “dormant” during droughts and then recover.
While other plants and landscape options can serve the same function as grass, few offer the same recreational opportunities or have the same universal acceptance.
The Costs of Turf
Turf grass requires substantially more water and maintenance than many other plants. To keep grass healthy it must be watered, fertilized, aerated, and mowed. All of these cost money. The actual costs vary depending on the type of grass, cost of water, climate, mowing equipment, method of fertilization. It has been estimated that it costs more than $1 per square foot per year in some regions to maintain turf grass – after all costs are figured in. While your costs may be quite different, it is important to consider these costs when deciding between turf and other plant materials.
Other issues associated with maintenance of turf include the substantial amount of air pollution caused by gas powered lawn mowers and the water pollution caused by excessive use of fertilizers and herbicides. The American way of maintaining a lawn is hardly a benign activity.
Lawn Future Trends
Are we about to experience a “green revolution” on our lawns? Probably not, but it’s possible that the coming years will bring new grass varieties that use less water and still look lush and green. The biggest trend in residential turf grass is to get rid of it! More and more homeowners are taking out turf and replacing it with low water use plants and ground cover. To do this some people have been forced to battle with their homeowners’ association, alter restrictive covenants, and generally try to change the culture, which places a high value on green grass.
Gazing into the crystal ball, here are some possible future trends to watch out for!
- Genetic engineering – The genetic engineering of food crops like tomatoes and corn are well publicized. The genetic engineering of turf grass is a reality. The Proceedings of the 71st Annual Michigan Turfgrass Conference held from January 15-18, 2001 include an interesting article on the genetic engineering of bentgrass for putting greens. If it were not for controversy over genetic engineering in general, genetically modified bentgrasses could be available to the consumer by 2003. The genetic engineering of grass is a reality and could have impacts on the future of residential turf. The Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center has the largest on-line library of information on turfgrass and turfgrass research in the U.S.
- Native grasses – Planting locally produced native grasses is increasingly popular and with good reason. Native grasses should grow using only the available rainfall and may require substantially less maintenance. These grasses may not be suitable for all applications such as ball fields and parks, but they may be an excellent option for residential applications.
- Mulching mowers – Hardly a new technology to be sure, but mulching mowers are becoming increasingly popular. If your mower mulches as it mows it means much less work emptying clipping bags and raking endlessly. Expect these mowers to become the residential norm.
- New landscape regulations – In water scarce regions some water providers are starting to restrict the amount of turf that can be installed for each new house. This also requires the re-writing of some homeowners’ associations landscape covenants that require turf grass lawns at all houses. New regulations will encourage low water use Xeriscape.
- More organic fertilizers – Americans use a lot of chemicals on their lawns, but there is a growing trend away from chemical fertilizers. Expect to see growth in the use of organic lawn fertilizers in the coming years.
- Water shortages – Look for water shortages across the U.S. to dramatically impact residential turf. As water gets more scarce so will turf. Large scale graywater reuse projects for irrigation will become more common.
The Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center has the largest on-line library of information on turfgrass and turfgrass research in the U.S. Unfortunately they require a subscription to access many of their articles and publications.
There is a lot of on-going research relating to turf grass. Turf grass is a huge industry in North America and the increased popularity of golf has a resulted in a corresponding interest in turf grass. Unfortunately there is substantially less research being conducted about how to use less water on turf grass. As water becomes more scarce across the country, this will change.
Last modified: September 12, 2017