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The Practical Gardener

Should you let your lawn go dormant?

Posted on July 29, 2010 by Paige

Missoula, MT - brown hill, green trees - it's summer!

I went to graduate school in Montana. Before that, I’d never been west of Georgia where the grass grows green all summer. I still vividly remember how perplexed I was, upon arriving in Missoula in August,  to see that the grass on the hill behind the campus was brown.

“Aha,” I thought, “they recently had a fire, that must be it.”  Coming from the land of summertime rains, brown grass occurring naturally in the summertime was incomprehensible to me. But over the years, I’ve learned that brown grass is what you will have all over the west, even in the “rainy” Pacific NW, unless you irrigate.

Lawns are out of favor among many in the gardening world – too much maintenance, pesticides and water called for to keep them looking good but I think having a little bit of healthy, green lawn is nice. It sets off other plants. It’s pleasant to walk and play on and you don’t have to use pesticides and herbicides to keep it looking green and lush. You do, however, need to give almost all kinds of lawn grass supplemental summer water.

Given that the typical amount of water recommended for lawns is 1″/week (of course this varies with grass type, evapotranspiration rate that week, etc. but that’s another post) what’s a westerner to do? Be economical and environmentally friendly and let their lawns go dormant or water for that lovely lush green look?

I say water. Summer is when you are out using the yard, lying in the grass, playing ball, having picnics. No one wants to do that on scratchy brown sticks, but keep it as small as is feasible.

Why small? Check out the math below.

To water 1 acre of lawn with one inch of water:

1 acre = 43560 ft²

1 inch = 1/12 foot

43560 ft² x 1/12 ft = 3630 ft³

At 7.48 gallons/cubic foot (ft³) you need

27,152 gallons PER WEEK to cover one acre in 1 inch of water.

(I keep looking at that gargantuan number and trying to figure out how I did the math wrong – dont’ see it.)

Now 1 acre is a huge area but even for a 1/4 acre, a not unreasonable size for some suburban lawns, you’re looking at 6788 gallons/week. I don’t know what water costs where you are but there’s now way I’d be laying on that kind of money.  So what can you do to cut down on water costs if you have a lot of grass?

  • Identify the part of the lawn you actually use (and perhaps see the most of) and water only that – let the rest go dormant.
  • Decide if you really want to keep that much of the yard in lawn. If not, start thinking re-design. Plants aren’t you’re only option. Don’t forget about hardscaping (the ultimate in low maintenance, no water needs, an excellent place to have a meal or set up some chairs to soak up the sun – or rest in the shade).
  • Do the above and consider some different kinds of lawn grass that require less water. Check out High Country Gardens and Nichols Garden Nursery for options.

More on plants and water in the next post.

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