Choosing the right drought-tolerant lawn can save water

Living in a desert as we do, we need to conserve water whenever possible. One way to save huge amounts is to plant a more drought-tolerant lawn than the bluegrass that 95 percent of us have in our yards. There are at least half a dozen good alternatives to bluegrass, each with their own pros and cons. So consider how you use your yard, and choose the grass variety that suits your needs best.

First, let me define a few grass terms. Cool-season grasses are those that tend to stay at least somewhat green throughout the winter. They grow best in cooler temperatures and may need occasional waterings to keep them green and thriving through our hot months. Cool-season grasses can be planted in spring or late summer.

Warm-season grasses are actively growing only during very warm weather and go completely dormant and tan during cool weather. They usually need less water to stay nice during the summer, but because they arenít growing at all in winter, they tolerate less traffic then.

Grass varieties that are rhizomatous spread by creeping stems like bluegrass does. These grasses usually take traffic better because they creep into bare spots relatively fast. They also creep into flower beds and other places youíd rather not have them. Bunch grasses grow naturally in clumps with spaces around them. Planted thickly in a lawn situation, they can look fine from a distance but tend to seem bumpy up close. In very dry situations, they often stay clumpy, giving your lawn a more wild, natural look rather than the manicured look weíre used to in lawns. This growth habit works well when youíre mixing wildflowers into your lawn mix, since the grass naturally leaves spaces for flowers to grow. Rhizomatous grass varieties will crowd out wildflowers and weeds over the years.

Just for comparison, here are the basic stats on bluegrass. It is a cool-season, rhizomatous grass that takes traffic very well, but requires a minimum of one to two fertilizations annually to stay nice. Bluegrass needs 1 to 1Ĺ inches of water every week through summerís heat. It needs very regular mowing and grows best in rich, well-aerated soil. Bluegrass can be planted by sod or seed and both are readily available. Bluegrass is the standard lawn grass used over much of the country and if water is not an issue, is still the best.

Turf-type tall fescue is one good alternative if you want to conserve water but still want a nice, lush-looking lawn. Tall fescue is a bunch grass, but when seeded thickly it fills in nicely. It comes up quickly from seed and is sometimes available as sod. It takes traffic well, but wonít fill in bare spots quickly. Tall fescue needs about three-fourths of an inch of water per week through the summer and prefers that water in one or two deep waterings every week rather than a little at a time. Tall fescue will tolerate some shade, but another variety called creeping red fescue is best for heavy shade. Tall fescue grows quickly and needs regular mowing. It needs less fertilizer than bluegrass, but still looks best with one or two fertilizations every season.

Sheep fescue is another bunch grass that has a more native look. It is a fine-textured grass with narrow leaf blades that definitely grows in clumps. Sheep fescue is very drought tolerant and will grow well with monthly waterings through the summer, although it will stay greener with a little more water. Mine went dormant last summer with no water and looked pretty dead, but greened up within a few days of our late summer rains. It takes traffic well, but is bumpy to walk on. It stays relatively short and needs infrequent mowing. Sheep fescue needs fertilizer only every other year and is easy to grow from seed.

Buffalo grass is a warm-season, rhizomatous grass. It makes a thick, lush-looking turf in summer, but goes completely dormant and tan in winter. Buffalo grass stays short so it needs very infrequent mowing and grows well with light fertilizer every two or three years. It needs about a quarter-inch of water per week through the summer, but this can be applied with a deep watering every few weeks and it will stay alive with less. Buffalo grass is slow to germinate and fill in from seed, and small plants called plugs are often used. Itís more expensive to get started since seed costs about three to five times as much as other grass varieties and planting lots of plugs can get pricey. Since buffalo grass grows actively only during warm weather, it needs lots of heat to thrive, so it does best here only at our lower elevations. Wait until the reliable heat of May to plant either seeds or plugs.

There are at least four varieties of wheat grass being used as lawns in our area. All are cool-season grasses with wide, coarse-looking blades. All germinate easily and need more water than buffalo grass through the summer to look their best, but like sheep fescue can go dormant and revive easily when water is available. Sodar and thickspike are rhizomatous varieties. Sodar has a definite blue tint while thickspike is greener. Both tend to stay shorter and need only occasional mowing to look neat. They will take some traffic. Ephraim and Roadcrest are bunch grasses. They both have a bright green color, but grow faster and taller and need more regular mowing. They take less traffic than Sodar and thickspike. None of the wheat grasses need much fertilizer.

Choosing the variety that is best for your situation takes some thought, but the water you save will make a difference to our future.

Sherry Fuller is a horticulturist living in Cortez. She has sheep fescue in part of her yard now and is replacing her bluegrass front yard with thickspike wheatgrass. She can be reached at Cliffrose at 565-8994 or by e-mail at fullers@frontier.net.

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