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Waterwise Ways With Lawns

Mmm... we love the smell of freshly cut grass.
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Front yard of modern home during late spring
Front yard of modern home during late spring

What's not to love about a green lawn? No groundcover looks as lush, or feels as cool and cushiony under bare feet. Freshly mown grass is one of summer's sweetest scents. But is lawn the ultimate ground cover for everyone, even those living in the country's driest regions? Should it be?

That's the debate, especially in arid states such as California, Nevada, and the American Southwest, where yearly rainfall averages less than 10 or 11 inches per year, droughts occur regularly, and growing populations continue to tax existing water supplies.

If your lawn's only purpose is to look at, you may well want to consider a less thirsty alternative such as bearberry, creeping mahonia, creeping thyme, or a native meadow grass such as Carex pansa. But if lawn's your choice, the following strategies can help curtail its water use.

Choose the right grass for your region. In the western U.S, many native grasses can live on rainfall alone in their native ranges. These include buffalo grass, hair grass, and tufted wheatgrass.

Shape your lawn. Make it a simple square, rectangle, or circle -- all easier than freeform lawns to irrigate without overspray and wasteful runoff.

Irrigate deeply but infrequently. This encourages deep rooting and conserves water. In mild climates, once or twice a week should be adequate during warm weather; in hotter regions, you'll need to water more often. To prevent runoff, sprinkle your lawn for about 10 to 15 minutes, shut off the system to allow the water to penetrate, then repeat the cycle.

Other ways to save water: Improve the soil by digging in compost. Put down mulch to control weeds, which steal water from desirable plants. Use permeable paving for paths and patios; it allows water to pass through it to plant roots.