Features and Occasionals

If You Really Want a Lawn

By Katherine Pioli

When we think of the American lawn, we think of 1950s suburban America and the manicured single family dwelling, but the obsession is actually much older than that. Consider that the push mower was marketed to the masses as early as 1870. The first great surge towards the suburban landscape as we know it came around the time of the Civil War when East Coast cities began rapidly expanding and when city planners placed great emphasis on public parks. But, even before that, Americans’ idea of the lawn (a symbol of status and civilization) took inspiration from the green expanses around English manor homes of the 18th century – though those lawns actually served a purpose, to feed grazing livestock.

Today, lawns have replaced southern marshes, northern woods and western deserts. They have given rise to riding lawn mowers, rubber hoses, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, even municipal water systems. Yet, in this time of drought, the American lawn may finally be working its way towards the annals of history.

My own yard is in the process of conversion – both due to action and inactivity. While most of my Kentucky bluegrass is reentering dormancy and turning brown from lack of water, my front strip is slowly suffocating under black plastic awaiting an autumn makeover with a native plant xeriscape.

We ask that you consider lawn alternatives, or creating less lawn if you don’t “use” it. Berry bushes, fruit trees, flowers, a vegetable garden or a more xeric look may work for you. But if you are not inclined to go there, here are a few lawn-centric options. Fall is a good time to tackle landscaping, and now is the time to consider alternatives. Here’s a CATALYST rundown of some options.

Traditional sod

Sod gets a bad rap from most Earth-loving environmentalists. But some of sod’s problems are due to our own poor lawn management. Utah State Univer­sity scientists say most turfgrass (often Ken­tucky bluegrass) is seriously overwatered, even though it won’t show stress from over-irrigation as quickly as it shows stress from drought.

Benefits: Traditional turf is the only landscape plant that can withstand heavy traffic – athletics, dogs, kids – and mowing. It reduces surface water runoff and reduces environmental pollutants by trapping dust and pollen. It moderates temperature levels.

Drawbacks: Keeping turf green and soft throughout the hot summer is water intensive, even when watered correctly. Performs poorly in moderate to heavy shade. Requires mowing. (The EPA says a gas-powered mower emits as much hourly pollution as 11 cars; a riding mower, 34 cars.)

Lawn care: Mow to height of 2.5 to 3 inches to encourage deeper rooting and improve heat and drought tolerance. Leave grass clippings while mowing to reduce evaporation from soil surface. Consider investing in an electric or push reel mower. If you use herbicides and fertilizers, choose organic. “Stressing” the lawn by watering less frequently will stimulate roots to grow deeper. Water at night and early morning. to limit evaporation. How much to water? Check this weekly guide: www.conservewater.utah.gov.

Nontraditional sod

For a traditional looking yard but without the heavy water needs. Utah State Univer­sity recommends a few cultivars for our climate. They include buffalograsses – a Great Plains native that’s soft to the touch but has a longer spring and fall dormancy period; fescue – heat-, shade- and drought-tolerant; and perennial ryegrass.

Garden exhibits at the Conservation Garden Park in West Jordan model alternative and water-conserving landscaping. Their Traditional with a Twist Garden uses a mix of buffalograss, tall fescue, blue grama and crested wheat grass.

For readymade sod, look to local companies like BioGrass sod farms, based in Sandy, which grows and sells waterwise sod varieties such as BioNative, made from a Mountain West grass seed mix.

Benefits: Lower watering needs once established. Looks like a traditional lawn.

Drawbacks: Not always as resilient to high traffic and heavy activity. Harder to find. Some grasses grow in clumpy patterns and don’t create the same mat effect. Cultivars are vibrant or dormant at various times.

Artificial turf

First created by Monsanto in the 1970s, artificial turf has long been used on athletic fields and is starting to replace traditional sod lawns. Improved technology gives modern turf a much more natural look, but this alternative still raises a number of concerns.

Unlike grass, which cools the environment around it, artificial turf heats up surface and surrounding air temperatures, potentially contributing to urban heat island effects. When encountering bare skin, hot turf has been known to cause burns and blisters.

Benefits: Low maintenance. No watering (with a catch, see Drawbacks). No weeding, fertilizing, mowing. Looks green all year round. Stands up to high traffic in all seasons. Non-toxic products available that are safer for pet and children. Good drainage.

Drawbacks: Color will fade. High upfront cost. Rubber cushion may need replacing. Not easy to clean up after pets (to address hygienic problems, most turf has antimicrobial components that are safe for humans, but can be very toxic in aquatic environments). Does not cool like natural grass (to cool turf, companies recommend applying water). Per­haps worst: It is dead and uninhabitable; birds, butterflies, insects and worms and other soil life will die or go elsewhere.

Hardy groundcovers

This lawn alternative is a balance between traditional and xeriscape. These ground covers are low-rowing mat plants capable of limited foot traffic. Some actually develop better root structure when stressed by low impact activity. They spread well and can be efficiently used to cover small lawn spaces. Many of these plants are aromatic and flowering, giving them a pleasing quality that not even grass fulfills.

A handful of companies are developing lawn alternative ground covers including Stepables, found in Utah gardening stores. Here’s a list of some ground covers better adapted to Utah yards:

Thyme – Solid mat, low growing, drought tolerant, summer blossoms on many varieties, sun loving, vigorous, good with foot traffic. Shallow rooted, dies easily in direct summer sun. Requires constant moisture when taking root. Wooly thyme most comfortable on feet.

Micro Clover – Low growing, few flowers, shades soil, reduces evaporation, outcompetes weeds, stands up to pet urine and occasional mowing.

Benefits: Pleasing aesthetic, aromatic, drought tolerant depending on variety, total lawn-like ground coverage. No mowing – very useful in small yards. Drawbacks: not suitable for high traffic areas or large lawns, expensive (a single plant plug can run about $2).

How much to water? Check this weekly guide: www.conservewater.utah.gov

Katherine Pioli raises ducks in her downtown Salt Lake yard—talk about organic fertilizer. She is CATALYST’s associate editor.

This article was originally published on June 29, 2015.