Environment & Science

Don't want to ditch your grass? 5 tips for putting your lawn on life support

Dr. James Baird, assistant Cooperative Extension specialist in turfgrass management at UC Riverside, stands on a synthetic and natural blend of turf inside the Turfgrass Research Facility on Monday afternoon, May 11, 2015.
Dr. James Baird, assistant Cooperative Extension specialist in turfgrass management at UC Riverside, stands on a synthetic and natural blend of turf inside the Turfgrass Research Facility on Monday afternoon, May 11, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Listen to story

04:35
Download this story 2.0MB

There's a lot of pressure on people to give up their lawns for the drought, but you don't have to scrap it completely to save water.

In fact, grass can do a lot of good.

According to UC Riverside turf researcher James Baird, a lawn can help cool urban areas, trap carbon and provide a home for many critters.

Still, he said most lawns are over-watered and Californians can conserve while keeping their turf alive.

As Felicia Marcus, head of the State Water Resources Control Board, once put it, we just need to "keep the lawns on life support."

Here are some tips for giving your grass the bare minimum without killing it completely.

1. Water less

Baird said the majority of lawns are watered way more than necessary.

During mild, dry weather in coastal areas, lawns should only need a 10-minute soak every week or so.

In drier, hotter places or during the peak heat of the summer, he suggests increasing that to a few waterings a week.

Sure, your lawn may lose some of its bright green luster, but even on this watering diet Baird said it should be a healthy yard.

"We can still have a functional lawn that may be a little less green but still be able to do the things we want it to do."

(Seth Larson and Jen Belichesky live in the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles. They have two young boys and want to keep their lawn, but they also want to save water. Their plan has been to water as little as possible and stop mowing all together. So far it seems to be working.)

2. Know your turf

To put your lawn on life support it also helps to know your grass type.

Baird said one of the most popular strains in California is called tall fescue.

(Festuca arundinacea (habit). Location: Maui, Haleakala National Park. Photo by Forest & Kim Starr via Creative Commons)

It’s a cool season grass. That means it’s lush and green in the winter but turns brown in the summer unless you give it extra water.

Since California is in a drought, it's best to let your tall fescue lawn go brown in the summer and wait for it to revive when things cool down.

A better strain for California's climate, according to Baird, would be a warm season variety like Bermuda grass.

(Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon). Photo by Lash Hairston via Scot Nelson, Flickr Creative Commons. This image has been cropped.)

"Inherently due to their physiology these grasses use about 20 percent less water than do the cool season grasses."

Baird recommends switching to a warm season grass if possible. These strains go brown in the winter months, and watering won't do much to stop that.

However, come summer, they should be green again, even on a water diet.

3. Don't mow too low

While your lawn is on life support, you don't want to mow it as much.

When you do mow it, use the highest setting, recommends Frank McDonough, Botanical Information Consultant at the L.A. County Arboretum & Botanic Garden.

"Cutting grass low stimulates growth which encourages water loss," he explained.

"Mature grass leaves develop a thicker cuticle (skin) which helps them stand up to drought much more readily."

Taller blades of grass also produce more energy, allowing the plant to grow deeper roots which can help the plant find water.

4. Try watering less, but for longer periods

Speaking of growing deeper roots, Lili Singer, garden expert for the non-profit nursery Theodore Payne Foundation has a tip along those lines.

She suggests infrequent, but longer watering session.

She said this will encourage grass to "put down deeper roots to a place where it never gets bone dry."

The soil about a foot down isn’t exposed to the heat above, so it doesn’t dry out as easily. If water seeps down to that level the roots will follow, she explained.

She suggests watering your lawn for 15 minutes, then digging up a patch to see how far the moisture traveled.

"You want it to go probably about 12 inches and get that nice deep soak in there," Singer said.

Be careful though, as watering too much at once can lead to run off. Singer says you can break up the 15 minutes into smaller chunks of time to allow the water to fully absorb.

After a few of these deeper soaks, she said the roots will grow down and the grass will be able to go for longer periods with less water.

One problem with this approach is that some districts like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power won’t let many homes water for that long on any given day.

So be sure you know your local rules before trying this method.

5. Watch for signs of dying grass

The goal here is to keep your lawn using the bare minimum without killing it.

James Baird of UC Riverside says if your lawn is getting close to kicking the bucket, it will start to give off certain signs.

(Dr. James Baird holds a piece of Bermuda grass that he's breeding at UC Riverside's Turfgrass Research Facility.)

If the grass is still in its green season but not getting enough life support, it may take on a grayish, blackish wilted hue, he noted.

You may also see something called “foot-printing.”

"You walk across it and you look back and your footprints sort of just stay there," said Baird.

Hopefully your lawn won't reach this point.

You can also check on it by doing a little digging.

Baird suggest rooting around to examine the crowns of the plant. These are the nubs or growing points that the grass blades grow out of.

If they are still fleshy, pale green or not dried out, your life support is working.

(This story has been updated)