Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lawn care in a drought: brown is the new green

by Lynne Geller, communications and outreach, Water Resources Program

Using water efficiently (that is, not wasting it) is something we can all get behind – nobody thinks that wasting water is a good thing.

But what about our lawns? Can we keep our lawns and still protect our limited water supply when half of our state is in extreme drought (U.S. Drought Monitor)?
Photo courtesy of City of Olympia

Happily, the answer is yes. And that’s a good thing: in the summer, as much as 50 percent of our home water use goes to lawns and gardens. The typical suburban lawn consumes 10,000 gallons of water above and beyond rainwater each year. So we are talking a lot of water – and along with that, a lot of money!

The good news about brown grass

Probably the single best way to limit water use is . . . . to stop watering your lawn! Yes, brown grass may not be your favorite aesthetic, but rest assured your lawn is not dead. Lawns go dormant as a natural response to summer heat stress. They will revive in the fall when the rains start. (Tip: giving your lawn a good soaking before the fall rains, in September/October, will help give your dormant lawn a jump on recovery.)

If you are not comfortable with an all-or-nothing approach, the Oregon State University Extension Service encourages developing a “lawn maintenance plan.” Assess what areas of lawn matter most and so will require more care, and what areas can acceptably make do with little attention. Any watering can then be focused on what you most care about. For example, maybe you want your front lawn to be more of a showcase, and can let the side or back yards rest.

Tips for water-efficient lawn care

Here are some year-round, water-efficient lawn care tips. Using water efficiently is important every year, and especially in a drought year. There are things you can do now that will strengthen your lawn for years to come.

  • Infrequent, deep watering encourages deeper root growth and results in plants that are better able to withstand variations in soil moisture. (An occasional shallow watering during a drought is actually counter-productive. It can drain resources from the roots, which the grass needs to stay alive.)
  • As a general guideline, green lawns need one inch of water a week, including rainfall. But this will vary with location, soil type, etc. Check with your local utility for an online sprinkler calculator, or local county extension service.
  • Dormant, low maintenance lawns can survive the summer with no water. If you must, water one inch once a month (this could help support the sleeping lawn, but is not necessary).
  • If you do choose to water, don’t just set the automatic irrigation timer in the spring and forget about it. To be water smart, adjust the time as the summer progresses, based on temperatures and other changing conditions.
  • Always water early in the day or in the evening, when it isn’t windy, for maximum water benefits.

Mowing: For most lawns, set mowing height at two or three inches. This reduces the growth rate and demand for water, promotes deeper root growth and lessens likelihood of sun damage. A general rule-of-thumb is to never remove more than one-third of the grass height at one time.

Fertilizing: Fertilizers increase water consumption; only apply the minimum amount. Fertilizing is a case of “less is more.” Don’t apply fertilizer in the summer. It can stress the lawn, forcing growth that cannot be supported by the root system or availability of water.

Mulching: Leave lawn clippings on your grass, this cools the ground and holds in moisture. It also reduces weeds, which will compete for available water.

Weeding: Should be done regularly, as weeds compete with other plants for nutrients, light and water. A thorough weeding in the spring will help your lawn all summer long.

Lots of gardening information available

For all you gardeners out there, the good news is that there is an abundance of information available on water-efficient lawns and gardens. Maybe you are designing a new garden with drought-resistant plants, taking out part of a lawn and replacing it with groundcover, need to know more about appropriate fertilizers – whatever you are tackling, there is no shortage of help. Here are a few examples of what’s out there:

Water-Smart Landscapes – publication from the EPA, WaterSense program

Water Efficient Gardening – a power point put together for Clallam County but contains the basics for gardening anywhere

Efficient Irrigation – tips from the WaterUseitWisely campaign