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Silencing the Siren Song of the Suburban Lawn
updated: Aug 16, 2014, 11:00 AM
By Billy Goodnick
“Regardless of whether the drought ends or not, it’s stupid to be watering parkways.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, but that’s Christine Dunstan, my newest Water Hero and co-owner of the Cheshire Cat Inn. She was explaining why she had recently converted the grass parkway strips along both sides of West Valerio Street at Chapala to decomposed granite and tidy borders of brick. “It was a no-brainer. I probably should have done it years ago.”
Next on Dunstan’s hit list are portions of the lawns in the larger outdoor spaces behind the two Victorian style houses built in the 1880s and 90s. Dunstan, a native of England has been in charge of the colorful gardens surrounding the property. Where thirsty fuchsias and ferns once resided, varieties of lavender, rosemary, statice and geraniums step in to provide an English garden sensibility. As for the rest of the garden, she’s cutting back on irrigation and taking a Darwinian approach: “I’ll just see what dies.”
The Evils of Lawns…
But back to the subject of grass. Lawns have no business in our area, at least not if we’re concerned about protecting our most precious resource: water. Historically, our areas receives 15 and 20 inches of rain per year, the majority of it falling in the winter. Most of the popular turf varieties need about an inch and a half per week during the growing season. If that liquid isn’t falling from the sky on a regular basis, it’s coming from our critically depleted reservoirs and ground water. Like Christine Dunstan, can’t think of a more absurd way to waste a precious resource.
My adrenal glands kick into hyper-drive when I see water waste. I don’t care if it’s a poorly adjusted sprinkler system sending whitewater rapids down the gutter, or some lazy bonehead hosing one leaf across a driveway; it drives me nuts. Whether due to ignorance or indifference, there’s no excuse, since we have no idea when the next rains will bless us or how much we’ll receive.
Sure, kids and dogs gotta play on something soft and it’s not likely you’ll carpet your garden with old mattresses. If you really have a compelling reason to keep a lawn – for me, that only includes recreation, not decoration – at least care for it in the most benign, planet-friendly way.
Here are a few ideas that will make the best use of what water we’ve got left. And for more in-depth info, sign up for my Saturday morning classes coming up in October at the Center for Lifelong Learning.
Mowing: Did you know that setting your mower a half-inch higher in warm weather conserves water by encouraging longer grass that shades and cools the ground? (If you employ a gardener, require them to make this easy adjustment.)
A few manufacturers have redesigned and retooled their human-powered push mowers to make lawn mowing easier and reducing dependence of fossil fuels. At a recent garden show I “test drove” a Fiskars StaySharp manually operated reel mower that looks like something from a sci-fi movie. It’s quiet, amazingly easy to push (self-sharpening blades won’t “choke” on stubborn turf), allows simple adjustment of the blade height, and the only thing you smell is the aroma of fresh baked bread. (Okay, fresh chlorophyl.)
Another mowing innovation is the powered mulching mower, which holds the cut grass in suspension long enough to pulverize the leaves into tiny pieces that invisibly fall back onto the lawn. These little bits act as an insulating mulch layer that gradually decomposes, reducing evaporation, supplying nitrogen and eliminating the need for emptying heavy catcher bags. (Does your lawn service use these?)
Unintentional Manicures: What else do I hate about lawns? The noise, the stink and the danger to life and limb posed by power tools. (The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates that about 17,000 children require care in the emergency room each year because of lawn mower accidents.)
On-demand Watering: Irrigation is another place in the garden where significant changes can be made. We’ve got smart phones. But did you know we’ve also got smart controllers? Instead of having the sprinklers come on in the middle of a rain shower (remember those?), there’s a whole new breed of irrigation controllers that connect to either an on-site or off-site weather station and adjust themselves to deliver only enough water as required for healthy growth. They respond to real-time weather information and “decide” whether to water more on hot and dry days, less on cool, foggy days, or not at all while it’s raining. You can find out everything you need about these whiz-bang gadgets at local irrigation suppliers like Aqua-Flo Supply or All Around Landscape Supply.
Watering: The rotator nozzle is a newer innovation that can reduce water waste by a whopping 30%. They do it by eliminating the fine spray of old fashion nozzles that drifts away on the slightest breeze. City of SB customers can partake of a can’t-miss program where you can trade your old nozzles for rotators at no cost!
Another no-cost step for conserving water turf on sloping land is adjusting your irrigation controller to cycle on multiple times, but for shorter periods, assuring the water soaks into the root zone rather than slip-sliding away.
In my next post, I’ll be writing about total, premeditated lawn-i-cide and all the beautiful, diverse, water-thrifty alternatives. And if doing “the right thing” isn’t enough motivation, I’ll tell you how to get as much as $1000 of somebody else’s money to persuade you.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with Christine Dunstan’s parting words: "I just had to do the right thing. This is something I'm doing for the future."
For more water-saving info click explore these links:
Santa Barbara County Water Conservation
City of Santa Barbara
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