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Alternative Lawns Can Help Save Water

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By Laura Casey

RISMEDIA, February 25, 2009-(MCT)-It may be time to rethink that large expanse of green growing in front of your house.

As people are forced to cut back their water usage, they may look to get rid of their homes’ biggest water user. And sorry, lawn, that’s you.

There are several alternatives to a traditional lawn, alternatives that conserve water and help reduce the pollution from mowing traditional lawns. And, by the way, all the alternatives require less maintenance than the lawn you likely have today.

Artificial Grass

A red-blooded American’s attachment to green grass is the stuff of legend. “People don’t want to give up their lawns, they just don’t,” says Scott Ose of the Fremont, Calif.-based PolyGrass, the company that installed the faux grass in the front and backyards of Jean and David Hansen’s home in Orinda, Calif.

Jean Hansen says green grass is warm, soft and feels like home. But, she says, the environmentally concerned couple felt guilty about the hundreds of gallons of water they were pouring onto their lawns every month.

So the Hansens replaced 2,000 square feet of lawn with Ose’s product. This is not the familiar electric green AstroTurf. The blades of grass are 1-inch high and look extremely natural.

Artificial turf is designed to mimic the real thing. Some models have yellowing and browning strands woven with the green to give it a more realistic appearance. The Hansens’ model-there are several to choose from-looks damp as it glistens in the sun.

Ose says the grass is permeable, meaning water can pass through it, and odorless. Dogs and cats can even do what dogs and cats will do on it without creating stains. You just clean up the mess with a paper towel.

“And once you install it, it’s virtually maintenance-free,” Ose says.

The Hansens’ summer water bill dropped dramatically after installing the new lawn, going from $600 for three months to $150. Their new, artificial lawn should last 15 to 20 years.

“I am very happy with it,” Jean Hansen says.

The drawbacks: Despite rebates and special offers, installing artificial grass can be prohibitively expensive at $12 to $15 a square foot. The price is high because crews have to first remove your old lawn, prepare a base of rock and rubber to prevent sinkholes, then lay out the plastic grass.

Critics also argue that this alternative is not environmentally friendly because the grass is made from plastic and, when installed, does not add anything to the soil. Finally, like concrete, artificial grass also gets hot on warm days and homeowners may need to spritz it with water to cool it down.

Drought-Tolerant Grasses

Several types of grasses on the market are both drought tolerant and lawn-like, the most popular being a California native, carex pansa.

“Maybe all lawn isn’t evil-just some lawn,” says John Greenlee of Greenlee Nursery, which specializes in grasses.

Carex pansa is an evergreen, creeping grass that will grow into a natural-looking lawn. It only needs to be mowed about four times a year, Greenlee says, and it will stay green and attractive with only two to four watering sessions per month. After killing or removing your lawn, place plugs in the soil 6 to 12 inches apart, depending on your budget, Greenlee says. A 100-plug pack sells at some nurseries for about $120.

The drawbacks: Greenlee cautions that the old lawn must be completely killed before the carex pansa or any other native grass alternative is planted.

“It’s really important to get back to square one,” he says. “If people are not thorough in eliminating the weed grasses in their old lawns, they’ll be very less than satisfied with their results.”

A contact chemical herbicide such as Roundup will kill a lawn, he says. Nonchemical methods such as sheet mulching or soil solarization-covering the lawn with black plastic to kill the lawn with solar heat-also will work. Just make sure everything is dead before you attempt to replant.

Also, carex pansa and other native grasses will not likely conform to a manicured lawn look. Often called “meadow-like,” these lawn alternatives look wilder and less maintained.

Strolling Garden

When one of Susan Morrison’s landscape clients wants to get rid of a lawn, she suggests making the space into a strolling garden.

A strolling garden has paths that meander among raised beds. Gardeners can add flowers or edible plants in the beds and non-gardeners can install more durable, low-maintenance plants.

“By doing this, you’ve created a space that you can walk through and enjoy that is visually more exciting than a lawn,” says Morrison, who owns Creative Exteriors Landscape Design. “And if you’ve got kids, it’s a great way to get them interested in gardening.”

The first step to creating a strolling garden is to design one on paper, either on your own or with a professional landscape designer. Look around for gardening classes that offer design tips, if you want to do it yourself.

The drawbacks: Depending on the size of the area, creating a strolling garden can be a major investment. Also, if you don’t select low-water plants, you may end up using a significant amount of water in your strolling garden anyway.

Functional Lawn Alternatives

Many plants that require less water than turf grasses serve the same purposes as a lawn. Some accept light foot traffic; some give the appearance of a lawn with a meadow effect.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Silver carpet (Dymondia margaretae)
Beach strawberry (Fragaria chilensis)
Woodland strawberry (Fragaris vesca)
Cat mint (Nepeta racemosa)
Thyme (Thymus sp.)
White clover (Trifolium repens)
Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis)
Pacific dune sedge (Carex pansa, C. praegracilis)
Berkeley sedge (Carex divulsa, C. tumulicola)
Red fescue (Festuca rubra)
Idahoe fescue (Festuca idahoensis)
Purple needle grass (Nasella pulchra)
Torrey’s melic (Melica torreyana)
Foothill needle grass (Nasella lepida)

Source: Bay-Friendly Landscaping and Gardening, www.bayfriendly.org

© 2009, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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