July Green

By Cynthia Bee, Conservation Garden Park

We’d like to suggest a new normal for Northern Utah lawns called “July Green”.  It’s a lighter shade of green that makes for a more secure water supply while giving hardworking lawn a break.  Several seasons ago, I taught a landscaping class in Seattle, Washington and noticed an interesting phenomenon.  In the heat of summer, nearly all the lawns in the famously green city were golden and dormant.  Summers in Seattle can be nearly as dry as Utah and thus lawns require supplemental water to keep them active.  When I inquired, my host explained that you’d never dare have a green lawn in the summer as you’d worry about what the neighbors might think!

Here in Utah, worrying about what the neighbors might think has created exactly the opposite situation. As the drought deepens and demand for new water supply increases, there’s a disconnect between our self-interest of having a secure water supply and our social interest in meeting the expectation of the neighborhood norm for our landscapes. This norm, of course, includes expansive green lawns regardless of temperatures or water supply.  It doesn’t take a crystal ball to realize that these two competing interests cannot continue to co-exist without creating a future crisis.

By far, the most common grasses chosen for lawn are cool-season grasses, such as Kentucky Bluegrass.  Cool-season grasses are green and actively growing in the 60-80 degree days of spring and fall.  Left to their own devices, they would choose to be dormant when temperatures reach the 90-100 degree range.  We prevent this from happening by adding extra water and fertilizer to force continued growth.

Lawn is not bad but we often manage it badly.  We can wait for a crisis to force our hand or, instead, we can create a new normal.  Instead of trying to prevent dormancy with daily lawn watering and monthly fertilizing, give your lawn a break.  Water every 2-3 days, between 8 pm and 8 am.  This will keep your lawn alive and semi-green but will lessen the impact of outdoor watering on our water supply.  Further, do not fertilize the lawn in summer as the goal is to keep it alive and slowly growing rather than the fast and active growth of spring. Mulching lawn clippings instead of bagging them will provide extra nutrients and reduce the loss of moisture in the soil too.

Utah continues to be an economic powerhouse but that engine is fueled with water.  As we grow and evolve as a population, it’s time to reconsider our long-held but impractical expectations surrounding lawn. Currently, 60-65% of all the water your household will use this year will be expended in the landscape, and it’s no surprise that peak demand occurs in July.  Shaving this peak by adjusting our expectations reduces wear and tear on public infrastructure too—saving money for all of us.

Most of us consider lawn and important part of our yard.  We can continue to have and enjoy lawn so long as we collectively learn to manage it smarter.  Make your yard the example in your neighborhood, it’s time for a more sustainable “normal”.