Friday, September 29, 2017

Creating a Drought Tolerant Lawn

I need to preface this post with a disclaimer. I'm not fan of turf. There's far too much lawn being mowed in the USA; it unnecessarily uses up water, gas, fertilizer, and time and creates nothing but poor water infiltration and extra pollution. However it's hard to argue against it for some areas, it's practically necessary in yards and parks where kids and pets play.

But people love their lawns. So how do we create lawns that are a little more environmentally friendly? There's a few things we can collectively do, but homeowners, businesses, and landscape contractors need to get on board with these things. It benefits them all.

While it's not the focus of this post, the biggest thing we can do to create more environmentally friendly "lawns" would be to use short grass prairie in place of turf in areas that aren't high traffic. This isn't a new concept by any means, and yet it hasn't gained traction. There are commercial buildings situated on acres of turf. Why can't prairie be planted in their place of these ecological dead zones? If a typical short grass prairie is still too tall for the site, there are certainly species that can be utilized that are shorter. Such mixes are already being used on green roofs. Admittedly the start-up cost of doing so is higher, but the long-term cost is much, much lower.

Short Grass Prairie at Wehr Nature Center

Green Roof at Chicago Botanic Garden
 In areas where turf is necessary, there are still ways to reduce water use and maintenance time involved. The first few are things that you should be doing with any turf here in the upper midwest.

  • Mow at 2.5-3" minimum. That seems pretty high to most lawn lovers, but it's the ideal height for fescue-bluegrass blends. It will reduce water loss, reduce light penetration to weed seeds, and actually form a thicker turf. 
  • Keep your blade sharp, sharpen and balance at least once per year. A dull blade creates poor cut which results in more water loss. 
  • Stop fertilizing in summer, stop watering, stop bagging grass clippings! All of these are related. Cool-season grasses are meant to go dormant in summer. They don't need much water to stay alive, they will green up in fall when temps go back down and rain (usually) falls again. If the grass is dormant, it doesn't need fertilizer. And if you DO water and fertilize, you're just making it grow more so you need to cut more often. And if you do water and fertilize and then bag your clippings, you're just throwing that fertilizer right in the garbage. Grass clippings put nitrogen back into your soil. It also feeds the soil ecosystem which feeds the grass.
  • Stop dethatching annually. Thatch is mulch. It reduces water loss, keeps soil cool which keeps the grass growing longer, and keeps the soil ecosystem healthy. Healthy soil equals healthy turf. 
  • Use only organic fertilizer. Again, healthy soil equals healthy turf. Milorganite and other organic lawn fertilizers do a great job feeding the lawn and the soil ecosystem. The best lawns I've seen are fertilized only with organic fertilizers.
  • Fertilize only in spring and fall. Fall is the most important time for fertilizer. Spring is the second most important. Any other application is a waste of money. Seriously. 
All of the above will help you have a lower cost drought tolerant lawn. Here's a few things that most DON'T do that would go a long way to having better lawns. 

Proper soil preparation. Soil prep is the single most important thing to do for growing anything. We do it for gardens, why not do it for turf? All that's usually done now is a little top soil brought in over clay or sand subsoil, seed, water and watch it grow. Most of my lawn was done this way (long before we bought our house). We just got done with a week in the 80s, and haven't had rain in well over 6 weeks. This is what most of my lawn looks like:


I don't mind, as I've said before it's dormant and will come up when we get some rain. Hopefully soon as things are far too dry, and even a lawn has no business looking like this in late September!
But to get ready for selling our house, I removed my gardens and put in turf. Granted the soil prep I did for this area was done for gardens and not turf, but it has made a difference. (This post is when I put the gardens in in 2013). If you're doing your own lawn, plan on compost rather than just plain topsoil. Request proper prep from your contractors if you're not doing it yourself. It will cost a little more, but it's worth it.

Variety selection also plays a big role in drought tolerance, and you typically get what you pay for. For seeding my former gardens I used Black Beauty seed from Jonathan Green. This is comprised of specific strains of tall fescue which happens to be quite drought tolerant. Proper soil prep and drought tolerant variety selection results in the area looking like this:
As you can see the area of tall fescue is much greener and more healthy. Though I do have a few bare spots that just haven't filled in properly, those have recently been overseeded. It was only fertilized last fall with a starter fertilizer.

I have still had to mow this area though so it hasn't reduced my maintenance input. How can that be accomplished? There are several low mow or "no" mow options out there. They tend to all be good options for drought tolerance and having a lawn that looks decent.

Prairie Nursery offers the original no-mow mix, which consists of 6 varieties of creeping fescue. It's drought tolerant and has good root depth which makes it pretty water thrifty. They say it reduces mowing to once or twice a year, but that's really dependent on the look you want. Certainly it will reduce your mowing almost regardless of how you want it to look as they tend to be slower growing.

There are some low-mow forms of bluegrass out there. Some of the seed strains appear to be a little more prone to disease problems. Vegetative forms have been selected for good disease resistance. I worry about vegetative forms having a complete meltdown once they become prone to a disease. But these forms tend to only grow to 3" or so, making them almost no mow.

High Country Gardens and a few other sources offer vegetatively propagated grasses in plugs. This is an expensive way to go, but the options are certainly intriguing. Blue Manna and Buffalo grass are both extremely drought tolerant and offer good options for less mowing. These are warm season grasses, meaning they'll look good in summer but green up slowly in spring and go dormant early in fall.

As we hunt for our next house and our nursery location, we've already discussed installing low/no mow lawns. I'll definitely be trying a few options out when the time comes, and will probably even order a few flats of grass plugs to see how they do here in the far north and our sandy soil. Hopefully some of you will consider renovating your lawns or at least over-seeding with some slower growing or drought tolerant selections.

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