Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Drought-tolerant seeds let lawns go green

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URBAN lawns are under ever-increasing scrutiny when it comes to water usage. They're accused of using far too much water relative to what they give back.

When I was growing up on the farm, the opposite was true.

We had a massive lawn that served as the perfect spot for pickup games of football. My brother, school friends and I spent countless hours there. Since we had only a small well on the farm, our water was restricted to household use, and the only water our lawn received was from the sky.

Today in urban environments -- with our relatively inexpensive and seemingly endless supply of high-quality city water -- lawns can account for a disproportionately large amount of domestic water consumption. But urban lawns can be part of an ecologically sound and sustainable program with the proper soil, correct use of irrigation and the right drought-tolerant grass species.

Let's start from the ground up.

Good-quality soils are like the foundation of a house. You can't build a quality house on a bad foundation, nor can you build a quality lawn on a bad soil.

Good soils are better able to store water, so it's important to have at least 15 cm of loam (a fertile soil comprised of roughly equal parts clay, sand and silt) before sowing seed or sodding.

Lawn irrigation systems can be as rudimentary as a sprinkler attached to a hose or as complex as an underground, pop-up sprinkler system with automatic timer. Regardless of which system you use, the objective is to get as much of the applied water as possible to the grassroots, with the least waste. I've seen far too many irrigation systems that do a better job keeping sidewalks wet than keeping grassroots hydrated.

If you have a drag-around-the-lawn sprinkler, just make sure it's the kind that applies coarse droplets (fine droplets tend to evaporate before they reach the ground).

Also, with either system avoid watering on warm and windy days to reduce evaporation. Keep these tips in mind and you will reduce a lot of water waste and save some money.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in lawn-water conservation has come about thanks to the work of plant breeders. There are now outstanding drought-tolerant grass varieties that require 30 to 50 per cent less water than conventional lawn grass, without sacrificing performance.

I like Less Water Grass Seed from Manderley. New to the market this year, it has been independently certified by the Turfgrass Water Conservation Alliance.

The TWCA is committed to water conservation, and part of its mandate is to ensure the endorsed varieties look good and are drought tolerant.

I've seen test plots of some of these new varieties and their performance under drought conditions is remarkable. Not only do they endure dry spells exceedingly well, they're able to recover more quickly from them, too.

The good news is you don't have to rip up sod to convert your lawn to a less-thirsty patch of grass. You can simply overseed with these new blends and over a few growing seasons your lawn will be converted.

With high-quality soil and drought-tolerant grasses, can you forget about irrigating entirely? Well, my answer is a qualified "perhaps."

Irrigation is critical for establishing new grass. But once established, drought-tolerant varieties can survive some very long spells of dry weather and still look pretty darn green. When it comes to watering these varieties, the real question is what degree of brown (or should I say "off-green") can you tolerate?

Drought-tolerant varieties can endure only so much before looking rather parched. So, it will be up to you to decide when to fire up the sprinkler.

Personally, I think we urbanites worry too much about the greenness of our lawns. Because when I think back to playing football in our yard, I don't remember whether the lawn was green or brown. I remember the brilliant catch I almost made.

So close....

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 F11

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