There is a supposed Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.” Although scholars debunk the Asian ancestry, the essence is that interesting times are turbulent and unsettling, not tranquil and blissful. Most green industry professionals would agree that the last decade has certainly been “interesting,” with even more interest to come down the road.
One of the most interesting issues the green industry is grappling with is the use of water. Supplies have been tight in the western United States for decades. However, water issues are taking center stage throughout the country, and the world. After all, there is only a finite amount of water on the planet; only 2.5 percent of the earth’s water is “freshwater” and less than 1 percent (.37 percent) is drinkable or “potable.” And that small percentage is what we use to irrigate turf and landscape plantings.
The point is that the green industry will undoubtedly see changes as potable water supplies dwindle, and the savvy professional should plan a business strategy that takes that into account.
“Xeriscape” is a term coined by the Denver Water Authority in 1981. “Xeric” is a Greek word meaning dry, and the term was invented to move beyond the concept of dreary, cactus and rock “drought-tolerant” gardens. Ironically, to many people the term now means exactly that, but the concept that water-conserving landscapes can be beautiful is as true as ever.
Since 1989, Personal Touch Landscape & Gardening, Inc. in Colorado Springs, Colo., has offered start-to-finish services for its clients, from design to installation to maintenance. “Living in Colorado’s arid climate, we have promoted xeriscaping from the beginning,” says President Joanne Goodner.
The term is not as widely used as in the past because of trademark issues, but the “Seven Steps” that embody the xeriscape philosophy are a smart map to saving water in the landscape. And yes, there’s a place for turfgrass.
1. Plan and design to conserve resources, such as water.
Xeriscape design is built around the “oasis concept.” This involves grouping native and other low-maintenance plantings together, and installing turfgrass, annual color and other ornamentals that require similar amounts of water together. This is called hydrozoning, grouping plants by their irrigation needs. This allows for more efficient irrigation and maintenance.
2. Analyze and improve the soil.
This step is recommended for all landscape designs and turf installations, whether or not water conservation is an issue. Soil testing will indicate exactly what types of amendments will be necessary. Colorado’s arid soil is low in organic matter, so Goodner uses amendments whenever planting turf. “Incorporating soil amendments is an important step here to insure healthy turf,” she notes.
3. Select the most appropriate turfgrass.
This is one of the key steps in a successful water-conserving landscape. No matter where you live and work, there are plants that can survive and even thrive on minimal supplemental water. Even in desert climates, there are plants that might need regular irrigation to become established, but after the first year can get by on seasonal rainfall or occasional watering in dry years.
In addition, there are turf varieties that can save water. “Kentucky bluegrass is the favored turf variety here, but tall fescue uses less water. We are especially impressed with a blend called ‘Survivalist’,” Goodner notes. The new varieties of tall fescue used in the blend were developed for improved appearance and the ability to withstand drought and poor soils with reduced maintenance.
One drawback, at least in Colorado, is the lack of availability of fescue sod. “Our sod growers don’t carry fescue sod, and oftentimes a client doesn’t want to wait for seeded turf to establish,” says Goodner.
The blue sphere represents “all” of the water on earth. The next largest blue dot represents all of the earth’s fresh water. The tiny dot over Atlanta (look closely) represents the fraction of fresh water available for our use.
Globe illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
In warm-season areas, bermudagrass is one of the most drought-tolerant choices. New varieties of zoysiagrass also provide drought tolerance and good looks. Although both grasses become dormant during cold temperatures, many clients who live in water-stressed areas will accept and even appreciate the look. As the saying goes, “Brown is the new green.”
If brown turf in winter is objectionable, turfgrass can be dyed. Golf course superintendents have been using colorants for years, and this can be another service offered by a turf maintenance company.
A research study by the Crop Science Department of North Carolina State University concluded that turf colorants are a viable option for year-round green grass. “Turf in a Bottle and Wintergreen Plus had the best combination of natural green color and longevity on bermudagrass; Wintergreen Plus and Ultradwarf Super had the best combination on zoyosiagrass,” the study concluded.
Bermudagrass can also be overseeded, but that option requires precise and copious irrigation, so the overall water savings could be lost. In addition, turf colorants are much less expensive, saving more than 50 percent in comparison to overseeding.
Artificial turf is another option that some clients might appreciate. However, even with advances in aesthetics and a more “natural” look, it might not be the best choice. “It looks bright green throughout winter, which makes it look out of place,” says Goodner. “Our clients with children never request it, either.”
In the summertime, artificial turf can heat up to temperatures between 150 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, with pets there is also a sanitation issue. As a playing surface for children and pets, turfgrass can’t be beat. Which brings us to step four.
4. Use turf where turf is needed.
One catchphrase used by the Southern Nevada Water Authority and others is that “if the only time you walk on your lawn is to mow it, get rid of it.” While a green lawn can also look terrific as an accent, using turf in appropriate areas will save water and maintenance.
“Our practice has been eliminating large areas of grass,” Goodner says. “But I like grass; I think it accents a xeriscape.”
In the past, the official fourth step to Xeriscape was “reduced turf areas,” but that implied that turf was a villain in and of itself. Instead, use turf where it is most needed. Play areas are a perfect example. In an oasis design, turf areas close to the home or viewing area can also provide cooling accents.
There’s definitely a place in water-conserving landscapes for lawns as long as you use them for more than just mowing.
Avoid narrow, odd-shaped turf areas. This is as much for routine maintenance as it is for the next step.
5. Irrigate efficiently.
Irregular or narrow-shaped turf patches are almost impossible to irrigate efficiently. Watering the sidewalk, street or other pavement is never desirable. “Head-to-head irrigation is the only way to go,” says Goodner. This means that the turfgrass is watered evenly.
When irrigating turf, schedules are set to “water to the dry spot.” This simply means that a dry spot will influence the irrigation duration to the detriment of the rest of the turf stand. Distribution uniformity is critical to efficient irrigation. In other words, water should be applied evenly to the entire area.
Turf irrigation is an entire study on to itself, but it is one that a turf professional should know well. “Education is key,” says Goodner. Classes are available through the Irrigation Association, at most green industry trade shows and conferences, and often through suppliers and distributors.
6. Use mulch.
Bare soil results in faster water loss than soil that is mulched with a layer of organic material or even rock. Grass clippings also make excellent mulch, as long as they are not applied too deep.
Along the same lines, using a mulching mower will keep the soil cooler and reduce evaporation in turf. Nitrogen needs will also be reduced, not to mention the need for bagging and disposing of clippings.
7. Maintain with best practices.
The final step should be part of business as usual for the turfgrass professional. “Keeping the turf healthy actually reduces water use,” says Goodner. “Proper fertilization and aeration are part of our regular maintenance schedule.”
Is xeriscape only for arid climates? “Many landscape trends across the nation are turning to xeric designs as we become more earth and energy conscious,” says Goodner.
Saving water in the landscape can also result in a healthier bottom line, as well. “Our community is starting to understand and embrace the importance of xeric and water-conscious landscape practices, enabling a smooth, productive and effective flow for our marketing efforts,” Goodner concludes. “We are excited to help our community invest in, and work toward a more sustainable future.”