Using science to maintain lush carpet of grass during drought conditions in Washington County

ST. GEORGE — With recent watering restrictions implemented in Washington County due to the extreme drought conditions present throughout the region, keeping a lawn green and healthy is not impossible – but will take a little extra work this summer.

A healthy lawn of grass growing at a park on North Bluff Street in St. George, Utah, May 20, 2021 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Creating a drought-tolerant yard requires a concerted effort that involves choosing the right grass seed combined with good maintenance practices that can work in concert to create a drought-resistant lawn.

Choosing the right grass variety is important, since about 70% of all water used in Utah’s cities is primarily to irrigate grass, according to Utah Rivers Council. 

It goes further than that, and several different factors can affect a healthy yard – particularly when water use becomes limited – a situation that has already taken effect in cities scattered throughout Washington County.

St. George News reached out to Jesus Rivera of Elite Landscaping who said that keeping a lawn green during drought conditions is possible as long as the primary factors are addressed at the right time.

It all starts with the soil

The soil is an important element in lawn maintenance, Rivera said. Many areas  across Southern Utah are covered in soil that has a very low nutrient content. The closer one gets to Arizona, the worse the soil gets. “Just look at the Arizona Strip,” Rivera says, where much of the top soils are basically deplete of any nutrients.

Stock image | Photo by Piyaset/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Rivera went on to say that enriching the soil with a top soil blend can help when planting a new lawn or when seeding any bare spots. Dirt in Southern Utah has a very high content of clay, which creates a “bowl,” he said, and prevents the soil from absorbing water. Instead, any watering creates runoff while the underlying soil remains dry.

Digging down a foot, he said, is a good depth to start adding top soil.

For established lawns, providing nutrients and fertilizer to the soils can enrich the base so it nourishes the grass and also helps to ward off fungus and disease. Moreover, amending the soil to include organic matter helps the soil retain moisture so the grass is better able to withstand the heat of summer.

In May, crews start a fertilizing schedule again and that continues until temperatures rise to the level that any application of fertilizer can cause irreversible damage to the lawn. Crews also start leaving the length of the grass longer to protect the soil and maintain a heathy root system.

“The shorter we cut the lawn,” Rivera said. “The more the soil is hit by direct sunlight which dries it out.”

Mowing at a height that is species-specific can also increase the lawn’s tolerance to dryer conditions.

Moreover, mower blades can place added stress on already damaged turf and cutting no more than one-third the height of the grass will also help. Keeping mower blades sharp can also help the plant to retain moisture and only mow when the soil is dry.

Also leaving the grass clipping on the turn after mowing is recommended, as the decomposition process the clippings undergo adds moisture to the soil and can keep the lawn from drying out.

Once the heat reaches triple-digits, an effective summer lawn maintenance schedule should focus primarily on watering and mowing as needed.

Kentucky Blue grass and long fescue blends can grown in shad and in sun. Grass growing at a park on North Bluff Street in St. George, Utah, May 20, 2021 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

“With grass, it’s all based on watering here.”

It is better to water after the sun comes up but before it is directly overhead, or right as the sun is going behind the hills but before dark, and watering twice a day for shorter periods can also help in extreme heat, he said. Splitting it up into two 3-minute intervals can help to hydrate the turf’s deep root systems.

All grasses are not created equal

Choosing the right variety of grass for the area is also important, he said, and one grass that is very hearty and perfect for Southern Utah is Bermuda grass, since it requires less water and grows well in extreme summer heat. The only downside, he said is that if watering completely stops, then the grass will go into a dormant stage and turn a yellowish- brown. Once watering commences, it will come back to life. Moreover, fertilizing during the hot months can be particularly damaging to this grass variety.

Known for its dense green blades, Bermuda grass is a low water user due to its deep route system that can extend as far as six feet underground, so it can use the water that is deep underground and also uses any water it does receive more efficiently.

Fescue blends dry out faster, he said, which can leave brown spots that can dot the lawn. But under normal conditions, this blend will stay green all year, unlike Bermuda grass will go dormant through the winter months.

Speaking of fescue blends, one blend that is designed specifically for the Southern Utah region is available at Star Nursery, the store’s general manager, Steve Gibson, told St. George News.

The product, Emerald Carpet, is a blend of four dwarf fescue varieties that are specific to the the area and require less mowing and watering.

Blend of grass and other brushes and flowers create a peaceful landscape in northwest St. George, Utah, May 20, 2021 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Similarly, fine fescues and ryegrass can be developed into a more drought-tolerant variety if they are managed properly, including tall fescue, a dark green grass, is among the best drought-resistant species due to its low water requirement. It also uses water efficiently using its roots that can grow 2-3 feet into the ground where it can access water stored deep in the soil – making it one of the most common species of grass found in Utah.

He also said for fescue lawns, it is best to water before 6 a.m., and not after 4 p.m., otherwise the soils can remain wet which is a breeding ground for fungus and spores grow best in darkness.

Some fescue species also requires more water, he said, so watering for seven minutes twice a day will keep the grass green. He also said that mixing a fescue with ryegrass or Bermuda can keep the lawn a deep shade of green all year. The ryegrass dies out in hot weather while the fescues and Bermuda grasses start greening up, which creates a lawn that looks healthy year-round.

St. Augustine grass is one type of grass that has above-ground stems, or stolons, that can help repair areas damaged by drought and can also endure dry conditions since it needs minimal irrigation of one inch weekly. Similar to Bermuda, this species can also go dormant for up to three weeks without dying during periods of drought, according to the Spruce.

Zoysia grass is another variety that tolerates both sun and shade but is a slower-growing grass when compared to Bermuda or St. Augustine. Once Zoysia is established, it provides a dark green turf that can tolerate heavy foot traffic while providing a drought-resistant turf.

Even the water-loving Kentucky bluegrass, one of the most common species growing throughout northern Utah, can survive on half of the normal requirement of H20 if the soil is fertile and the grass is not cut too short.

Mixing things up with drought-resistant plants

Drought-resistant plants can also enhance any landscape, and two of the hardiest that thrive in drier conditions are geraniums and lavender.
Lavender is naturally found in the dry, sandy soil of the Mediterranean allowing it to evolve into a variety that can survive on very little water.

There is also a wild lilac species that is not only fragrant but is evergreen and drought tolerant. New plants will need to be watered weekly, but after that, the shrub won’t require water except during prolonged dry spells. These shrubs can live for 10-25 years.

When all else fails

If drought conditions persists or worsen, Rivera said, some residents have resorted to painting their lawns using paint specifically designed to provide colorant without damaging the grass or its root systems.

Stock image of painted athletic field | Photo by Fotoglee/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

In fact, lawn spray painting is the process that uses grass coloring, a paint-like substance, to effectively paint a lawn when faced with intense water restrictions resulting from extreme drought that prevents healthy lawn growth. While its use is less common on residential properties, it is commonly used on golf courses and athletic fields to keep the lawn looking healthy, according to Home Reference. 

Moreover, residential use of lawn paint is a growing industry particularly in areas facing droughts and water-use restrictions – as may be the case in Southern Utah – where the dry hot climate can make it difficult to retain moisture and sustain good lawn health.

The paint is water-based with natural pigments, coloring dyes and binders to keep it together, and depending on the brand, some are entirely natural while others are partly artificial. And even the artificial dyes are not harmful, but oversaturation of an area can restrict the lawn’s growth. Moreover, the paint is safe for any lawn, as well as any humans or pets that come into contact with it.

After the Washington County Commission passed a countywide ordinance restricting outdoor watering to be permitted only between 8 p.m. and 10 a.m., using science may be key to maintaining a lush yard.

While the ordinance applies to only unincorporated parts of the county – various municipalities may be adopting the same in the coming months – it may be the time to take steps now to reduce the amount of water needed to maintain a healthy landscape and also have a profound effect on the amount of water use.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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