A Healthy-Looking Lawn

Gardeners weigh in on being waterwise

Credit: seelensturm

Plenty of maintenance and work is required for a healthy green lawn

Carol Pope: If you feel a waterwise garden can include some lawn: Would it be a healthy-looking lawn in your experience, or is it likely to look sparse and brown?

Paul J. Tukey: A water-wise lawn can be lush and green. Absolutely. It’s all a matter of taking the appropriate steps to prepare the soil and in lawn maintenance.

Nan Sterman: Why bother having a lawn if it is sparse and brown?

With all due respect to Paul, for regions like Southern California, where water is so limiting, I have yet to see anything that would qualify as a lush and green waterwise lawn.

We get absolutely no precipitation from March (at the latest) to November (at the earliest), and what we get from November to March is minimal. There is absolutely no alternative to irrigation for lawns, and there are no lawns that need less than watering several times per week. In fact, lawns are rated among the highest water-use plants in our gardens—exceeded only by aquatic plants. How can that be water wise?

Would having a waterwise lawn include getting it off drugs? If you use pesticides and herbicides, is there a danger that they will leach into groundwater and drainage systems?

Paul J. Tukey: Synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides should never ever be used on lawns. Period. These substances will absolutely leach into places they shouldn’t go.

Nan Sterman: Even if those pesticides and herbicides are “organic” (a dreadfully misused term), they still cause problems if they leach into groundwater and drainage systems. And in my area, they contaminate estuaries, lagoons and beaches as well.

Paul J. Tukey: Certainly there are climates in North America that don’t lend themselves to lawns. Having said that, I’ve seen organic lawns flourish in California, Texas and Arizona climates where rain is truly scarce. The lawns, planted with the proper species, require soil preparation with copious amounts of organic matter. They also require water while being established. Once established, however, they can remain vibrant and healthy without frequent watering. Most turf grasses, in fact, can thrive in an organic environment with no irrigation, as long as the climate offers at least 15–25 inches of annual rainfall. If rain stops completely for an extended period, these lawns will go dormant, but will recover in cooler seasons—provided people don’t mow them or apply fertilizers during dormancy.

I completely agree that there are better choices than turf-type plants for truly dry climates. For information on groundcover plants that will tolerate drought, gardeners should check out:

Nan Sterman: Here in Southern California, our rainfall is 10 inches in a good year. Last year, we had a grand total of 3 inches!

Turf grass doesn’t make it unless we water and water and water. Many parts of Northern California have much more rainfall, but then again, they are hundreds of miles north of us.

On the other hand, the arid states to the east of California have even less rainfall than we do. I was at a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where you see almost no turf, and one of the big landscape contractors made the point that, a decade ago, he was installing 15 semis of turf grass every week. Now he is seldom asked to put in a lawn at all.

Climate is key to the appropriateness of turf grasses. We all run the risk of painting the continent with the same broad brush, but we have to be very, very careful not to do that.

Carol Pope: While the recommendation is overwhelmingly for moderation with lawns, an ecologically sound lawn is absolutely possible based on Paul’s comments. I don’t have lawn now and while I don’t miss it, I do miss the clippings as they are great mulch for other areas of the garden!