Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Can home turf be saved?

Bermuda grass has lower water needs than other types of turf grass.
Bermuda grass has lower water needs than other types of turf grass. Turfgrass Producers International

As we wrestle with mandatory water restrictions, many of us still haven’t confronted that big rapidly browning elephant in the front yard: What to do about the lawn?

During our epic drought, once-beloved green lawns have become targets of scorn and skepticism. Those now-fading strips of familiar grass have us re-evaluating what we want out of our landscapes and how we budget our irrigation. We realize turf’s usual water needs can be huge and we need to scale back.

But we still love our lawns. We love grass because it is so familiar. We know how to care for it. When there is enough rain to go around, we like the way it looks.

Now as summer heats up, it’s crunch time for our lawn: Can we save water and our turf, too?

It’s a perplexing dilemma for many California homeowners who are wrestling with their own should-it-go lawn debates.

As we progress into summer, our options – like our water supply – become more limited. It’s too late (at least this season) to “plant something else.” Even drought-tolerant landscaping needs water to become established, set down roots and actually grow.

Lisa Lanterman of Sacramento wants to keep her grass green but knows she must cut back on water use.

“My husband and I just bought our first house about a year ago in Arden Park – with large sprawling lawns,” Lanterman said. “I love my house and made a lot of sacrifices to get it. Though I know we need to conserve water – and I will – the thought of letting my lawn die is unsettling.

“I feel this way for several reasons,” she added. “First, what’s going to happen? Will it come back next spring? Will I have to replant or reseed? How much water will it take to squeak by with a lighter shade of green, rather than the lush rich green?

“There is also the stigma of an unkempt yard: It’s tacky,” she added. “If I’ve heard my dad say, ‘it’s about pride of ownership,’ once, I’ve heard it 100 times.”

Like many Sacramentans, Lanterman wants to reduce irrigation without giving up on the lawn. In most cases, it’s possible, say turf experts.

Lawn isn’t just for aesthetics, noted Dr. Mark Slavens, Scotts’ turf expert, who has helped the lawn and garden care company develop drought-coping guidelines for California gardeners.

“If you have kids or pets, lawn is very important,” Slavens said. “It’s a place to play. It also cools the environment and absorbs rain water. Think about what you’re giving up and what you’re gaining if you lose your lawn. When the rain returns, many kids won’t have a place to play.”

Turf grasses are more resilient than we think, he added. They can survive on a once-weekly water diet – or less.

Sure, they look a lot lusher and grow faster with irrigation three times a week. But we’re interested in keeping the grass alive, not necessarily at its finest.

Some turf grasses deal with less water better than others. The best low-water grass just about refuses to die; ask any gardener who has ever tried to pull it out.

Thanks to its notoriously deep roots and rhizomes, Bermuda grass will survive this drought and more to come with weekly irrigation. Because it is heat- and drought-tolerant, Bermuda grass may be the perfect lawn for the Central Valley.

Bermuda grass has grown in Sacramento for about 150 years. It was the kind of lawn planted in front of the city’s Victorian mansions when they were built. Besides its lower water needs, Bermuda grass can take a lot of wear and tear while still looking green and feeling soft. It forms football fields at schools and carpets play areas in city parks. It’s used for turf courses at California horse racing tracks.

“It’s still wonderful in summer,” noted Warren Roberts, superintendent emeritus of the UC Davis Arboretum. “It doesn’t need much water, just one-third (needed by) other turf grasses. Some of the newer forms have a finer texture.”

Bermuda also can deal with poor soil and water quality, Slavens added. Near the ocean, it can tolerate salt, too.

“The trade-off with Bermuda is that it doesn’t green up as fast in the spring,” he said. “But when it’s hot and dry, it does much better (than other grasses).”

Tall fescue is another drought-durable lawn. The key to keeping it happy – or at least alive – during drought is letting it grow longer; set the mower blades at 4 inches and mow less often. The long grass actually provides its own shade as well as encourages deeper roots.

Don’t treat your lawn as if it’s garden business as usual, Slavens noted. Let it go an extra week between mowings. Cut back on fertilizer use, opting for slow-release rather than quick green formulas.

How long can grass go without water and still come back? “Most grasses have much more drought tolerance than we think,” Slavens said. “They can go 30 to 60 days with no water. They will go brown, but they’ll spring right back as soon as it starts to rain.”

Research shows that a lawn irrigated with one-third inch of water once every three weeks receives enough moisture to keep the roots alive and active through drought and summer heat. No reseeding will be necessary to restore it to full strength when weekly irrigation resumes.

Most gardeners can save 20 percent or more of their lawn water use by following a few simple tips, Slavens said.

“Never water between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.,” he said. “Water in the early morning when it’s cooler and less windy; you’ll cut evaporation by 30 percent. Set your lawn mower at the highest setting possible. … Aerate the lawn; that helps water reach deeper into the soil. Check your sprinklers to make sure there are no leaks; switch to more efficient rotary heads. Just doing these things, you can easily save 20 percent without even realizing you’ve made any changes.”