Can we use grass that needs less water?

Even if your lawn is still buried in snow or has turned to a wetland, you know it won't be long before people start watering and mowing the grass. Sam Bauer at University of Minnesota Extension says the mowing season typically begins in mid-May, although it has started as early as about now in recent years.

Beneath the Surface: Minnesota’s Pending Groundwater Challenge

So it's not too early to ask Question 8 in our series of water-related Q and As. A number of drier cities have moved to reduce the amount of space -- and therefore, water -- devoted to grass. That idea isn't foreign to Minnesota, but lawns still dominate. So . . .

FROM THE PUBLIC INSIGHT NETWORK:    Can we develop drought-tolerant grass strains for lawns? What about encouraging residents to replace lawns with native species?

Klayton Eckles, Engineering and Public Works Director, City of Woodbury

There is significant opportunity in the area of turf management and even more so in turf establishment.  Changing some of the practices during the initial establishment of a new yard can have positive repercussions for decades.  The amount of topsoil placed at the time a yard is established and use of seed instead of sod can have a dramatic difference in the water demand of a yard.  Seed mixes are available that include varieties of grass that adapt to soil, moisture, shade and nutrient conditions.  This can yield a much more resilient yard with lower water  and fertilizer demands, and, ironically, much less maintenance on the part of the homeowner.  Over the last 25 years the housing construction industry has adapted to meet the demands for erosion control and customer expectations by sodding almost every new residential lot.  The result is short rooted bluegrass that is easy to grow as sod but that tends to be very thirsty.

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There are some very successful examples of alternative lawns around Minnesota, but the construction industry and most importantly the buyers don’t see the benefits right now in the current economic framework of lawn maintenance.  Examples to consider include No-mow grass (a fescue mix that I highly recommend), prairie plantings or native gardens, Compost soil amendments, and extra topsoil.  But to succeed we have to be willing to consider alternatives to the “English Garden” expectations we put on our own lawns and that of our neighbors—in short we have a cultural issue here that will make change difficult.

Brian Horgan, associate professor, turfgass extension specialist, University of Minnesota.

Here is how we think about this concept at the University of Minnesota.

First of all, like a major appliance in your house, outside your house, your grasses in your lawn need occasional replacing.  Not every year or every 10 years. We advocate for changing out the grasses in your yard at least once while you own the home and do so because we have better lawn grasses today than existed yesterday.  My colleague, Dr. Eric Watkins, is a turfgrass breeder.  His focus is on developing grasses that withstand stress.  Stresses like heat, cold, insects and drought.

Second, we listen to and study market trends related to landscapes.  We know that homeowners value lawns that require less water, do not need to be mown as frequently and do not have as many weeds.  We also learned that although homeowners do not want to apply as many inputs to their yard, their yard must still function as a yard.  This function will be different for a retired couple and my family of 5 with a dog.  I expect more of my yard than the retired couple may.

To answer the original question; we are developing drought tolerant grasses that still provide a functional landscape.  Our focus has been through breeding new grasses, evaluating native grass species and through intensive screening of all the grasses available on the market today.  All of this research takes place on the St. Paul campus.  We even have a shelter that keeps rain off the grasses, which allows us to define the length of time grasses can go without any water.  Over the last decade, we have focused our efforts on the fine fescue species.  These grasses are shade tolerant, drought tolerant and have a slow growth rate.  Future research is working to improve the fine fescues heat tolerance and susceptibility to winter snow molds.  Just goes to prove that tomorrow, there will be a better grass for your lawn.

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Previous questions:

Question 1. Should water cost us more?

Question 2. Should farmers be forced to change?

Question 3. Why would a farmer drain land and irrigate it?

Question 4. Does Minnesota water law make it easier or harder to deal with conflicts?

Question 5. Can we fill up our underground water supply with stormwater?

Question 6. Do you know how much water your neighbor uses?

Question 7. Why not just fill up White Bear Lake from one of the rivers?