Low Water Lawns

Low Water Lawns

Part of Ep. 1905 Water Conservation

Many people think you need lots and lots of water to maintain a healthy green lawn.  Doug Soldat puts this myth to rest and shows how to minimize water usage and still have great looking green grass.

Premiere date: Jul 06, 2011

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley Ryan:

I am with UW Extension Soil Scientist Doug Soldat. We are continuing our conversation about water conservation. You know, Doug, I didn't know turf was one of the big culprits.

 

Doug Soldat:

It's only a culprit if we feel the need to keep it green.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Most people want their lawn green.

 

Doug Soldat:

Most people feel that if they let it go brown, it might die.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Well, we are standing on what kind?

 

Doug Soldat:

This is a very common to the state of Wisconsin. This is Kentucky Bluegrass.

 

Shelley Ryan:

A lot of people have this.

 

Doug Soldat:

Yeah, a lot of people have this and some tips for keeping it green as long as possible is to mow it high with a sharp mower blade and to improve your soil with compost.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Compost?

 

Doug Soldat:

Yeah.

 

Shelley Ryan:

And how do we do that on an established lawn?

 

Doug Soldat:

It's actually quite simple. Get a load of high quality compost.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Which you've got here in the shovel, I bet.

 

Doug Soldat:

You just spread that over the lawn.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Really? Right on top?

 

Doug Soldat:

Right on top, yeah sure.

 

Shelley Ryan:

This is simple enough.

 

Doug Soldat:

Rake it in with a leaf rake.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Would you do this to any type of soil?

 

Doug Soldat:

Any type of soil, this will work on any soil. It will make the biggest difference in sands and clays. But any type of soil compost will improve the water holding capacity of that soil.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Okay, and you keep talking about keeping the lawn green. There is a time in its natural life cycle where it's not going to be green?

 

Doug Soldat:

Absolutely. Grasses have evolved to survive in very dry conditions. Think of Nebraska, all grass, no trees. Grasses do well in dry environments.

 

Shelley Ryan:

For Wisconsin, that's usually August or after a long period without rain.

 

Doug Soldat:

Yeah, usually we get about a two maybe three week period in Wisconsin where the lawns will go brown, dormant.

 

Shelley Ryan:

We have an example behind you, kind of what it looks like.

 

Doug Soldat:

Yes, absolutely.

 

Shelley Ryan:

This is where homeowners usually panic because it's brown. They're going, oh my God, it's dead.

 

Doug Soldat:

Right. But it's not dead. It's not dead. The leaves turn brown and die off but the plant remains alive. When the rains return in the fall, that grass will come back, strong as ever.

 

Shelley Ryan:

So, do nothing.

 

Doug Soldat:

Do nothing, yeah.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Boy, that's going to be hard to stick in people's head. Turn brown, do nothing.

 

Shelley Ryan:

It's okay. Then what if I have-- Is there any time when I might want to irrigate it during that time?

 

Doug Soldat:

Sure, sometimes maybe you have a big family event coming up where you want to keep the grass looking green during that time.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Okay, during the dormant period, what do I do?

 

Doug Soldat:

About two weeks before the event you want to start watering the lawn with either a sprinkler system or maybe you have an in-ground system.

 

Shelley Ryan:

How do I know how much water?

 

Doug Soldat:

That's the critical part, applying the right amount. It's actually relatively simple. What I like to do is space out some tuna cans, or you can use Tupperware dishes, usually maybe three or four of them, space them out along the path of the sprinkler. Turn on the system for about a half an hour and measure how much water in inches fell into those cans.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Into each of the cans spreading out. And how much do I want?

 

Doug Soldat:

We want to shoot for about an inch per week. To keep the grass green and healthy. Any more is a waste and any less you might not keep it as green as you want.

Shelley Ryan:

Basically, I'm going to measure to see how long it takes my particular sprinkler to get an inch in those cans.

 

Doug Soldat:

Exactly.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Then do that once a week for the next two weeks until the party.

 

Doug Soldat:

Right.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Good, I'll have a party. Do you have any other suggestions? I mean, it sounds like Kentucky Bluegrass is great, but it's still fairly high maintenance. Are there easier choices?

 

Doug Soldat:

Yes, here at the OJ Noer Turf Grass Research Facility, we are looking at different alternatives to Kentucky Bluegrass that use less water, and require lower fertilizer and even lower mowing.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Let's go look at those.

 

Doug Soldat:

Great. Shelley, this is a grass I really like called Fine Fescue. What I like about it is grows slower and when grasses grow slower it means they need less water, less fertilizer, and you don't have to mow it as much.

 

Shelley Ryan:

So more water conserving, too, then.

 

Doug Soldat:

Absolutely.

 

Shelley Ryan:

It's beautiful, soft and spongy. I actually kind of like it better for bare feet too. Are there any down sides to it though?

 

Doug Soldat:

Yes, this grass will do really well in sunny sites. It does really well in shady sites. Excellent, okay. But it will do very poorly in wet compacted soils or areas that get a lot of foot traffic, a lot of use.

 

Shelley Ryan:

So, some places we could not use it.

 

Doug Soldat:

Right.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Are there fescues that we don't want to use?

 

Doug Soldat:

I'm glad you brought that up. So, Tall Fescue is another grass that I think we're going to be hearing a lot more about. It has a really deep root system, which means that it's more efficient with the water in the soil. The problem with Tall Fescue is it doesn't necessarily survive all of our cold Wisconsin winters.

 

Shelley Ryan:

So we're going to be hearing about it because it's going to be drought tolerant but it's not winter hardy.

 

Doug Soldat:

Not yet.

 

Shelley Ryan:

We want the short Fine Fescue.

 

Doug Soldat:

Fine Fescue, absolutely.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Well, I think I'd like to add this to my yard. Thanks a lot, Doug.

 

Doug Soldat:

Thank you.

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