In the Garden:
Lower South
August, 2010
Regional Report

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When summer temperatures rise, so do our lawns' water needs.

Water Efficient Lawns

I haven't had to water my lawn as much this year thanks to a cooler, rainier spring and early summer. However, now that the heat has arrived and rain is a distant memory, I'm extra conscious of the cost when I turn on a sprinkler. Our city, like many others, bases our sewer bills on our water use. So wasting water not only results in a higher water bill but a higher sewer bill as well. Plus, we pay more per 1,000 gallons as our total usage increases.

As population increases, our available sources of water are strained to keep up with demand. Many cities across our region city limit landscape watering to certain days of the week during the high usage summer season. So it makes sense to get the most out of every drop both from a monetary as well as a regional environmental standpoint.

Lawns are often vilified for their, well let's say, "drinking problems". I would rather not enter the "turf wars" debate in this column so you Lawn Rangers and Turf Despisers can holster your weapons and relax. Let me just say that lawns are and will continue to be a way of life for a long time to come. While the LR's are correct that, per square foot of soil area, lawns don't USE more water than most other landscape plants, the TD's are correct that, due to a lawn's shallow root system, it requires more SUPPLEMENTAL IRRIGATION than deeper rooted plants to stay healthy during times of hot dry weather.

There is much that we can and, in my opinion, should do to minimize the amount of water it takes to keep whatever sized green carpet you choose thriving in your landscape. Here are a few thoughts to consider.

Choice of turf species matters but is not the total answer. Yes, St. Augustine uses more water that most other southern species when planted in a sunny spot. However there are many other factors in choosing a turfgrass including disease tolerance, shade tolerance, invasiveness in flower beds, and appearance during drought conditions. Buffalograss, for example, is a great drought survivor, but looks dead when you don't water it and, if watered, is easily invaded by weeds.

Choosing an appropriate area for turf is a great way to save water. Late summer is a good time to decide where you want to have turf. In my lawn there are many areas, primarily shady, where I have yet to irrigate. Then there's this one spot where, due to soil conditions and full sun exposure, the turf requires weekly watering. With fall planting season around the corner I am considering a redesign of that spot into a mulched area with some deeper rooted landscape plants that don't need such frequent supplemental irrigation.

Watering properly really matters. It's much better to give the soil a good soaking and then allow it to dry out for a few days than to water every other day as many people do. Less frequent, thorough watering promotes a deep root system and good soil aeration. And frequent wetting of the foliage really encourages diseases. If you can sacrifice a little aesthetic perfection you'll find that turf can be allowed to stress a little between waterings and still bounce back fine. Just don't take this too far, of course, or your lawn will lose density and may be more prone to other problems.

Proper fertilizing really matter too. Excessive growth from over fertilizing actually creates a lot of top growth at the expense of extensive root system development. You will end up watering more and more often when you push a lawn with lots of fertilizer.

If you mulch the clippings back into the turf when you mow they will decompose very rapidly in our warm southern climate. This amounts to free, organic fertilizer in the perfect blend of nutrients for growing grass- because it's made of growing grass! It sure beats "renting" fertilizer. That is, you buy it, grow grass with the nutrients, clip the grass off, put it in another bag, and set it by the curb where you pay someone to haul it away.

Proper mowing is another water saving tool. Turf clipped short tends to have a more restricted root system and thus needs more frequent irrigating. Set the mower to leave the turf taller and you'll have deeper rooted, more resilient turfgrass.


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