Lawns and the 2014 California drought

montelJanuary 22, 2014


We are in California and it appears that 2014 will be an all time record drought year. With that in mind I would like some advice on what to do with out lawns.

We have a couple of small cool fescue lawns in our front yard (1 we are already contemplating removing), and a larger back yard cool turf lawn.

I would like to save the lawns for future years - but we are expecting pretty heavy water restrictions to come online soon, as there is little rain forecast. A couple of years ago we had water restrictions that only allowed 15 minutes 2 days each week for any sprinklers. This year I expect it to be reduced below that, and possibly eliminated.

I expect that we will have a brown lawn for all of the year.

I was hoping to do some work on our lawns over that last couple of months - but we have had no rain at the work to improve them hasn't happened (lucky I guess since it looks like we won't be watering them this season). Fertilizing, over seeding don't work so well when there is no rainfall to speak of...

So will they die - or just be dormant for a year or more?

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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

15 minutes twice per week is not enough water for anything in the garden to survive. What corner of hell do you live in? Please be specific. Fescue might not be the right grass or it might be the only grass. Need to know where you are. Can you use soaker hoses, buckets, or hand-held devices to water outside of the 15-minute window?

I'm in San Antonio where we are limited to watering one day per week, but we have 7 hours available to us. In some neighborhoods we can use soakers any time of the week. Toward the end of last summer we were restricted to one day every other week but for the same 7 hours. That was enough time if your soil was prepared for it. If you had any runoff at all, then you were going to have a dead lawn.

One thing that will help is compost on the lawn. I'm not big on compost but this is one situation where it can help to provide a micro-mulching effect that should conserve moisture. The application rate for compost is 1 cubic yard per 1,000 square feet.

Another thing that will help water penetrate deeper into your soil is shampoo. I know, sounds crazy. And I know people here on this forum that fight the notion of putting shampoo on the lawn, but all they have to do is try it. The universities will tell you it doesn't work, but they turn around and use a very similar chemical to make their RoundUp work, so I don't get it. The application rate is at least 3 ounces per 1,000 square feet. That means if you have 3,000 square feet of grass, then put at least 9 ounces of any clear shampoo into a hose end sprayer. I like to dilute it with plenty of water to make this flow easier. Spray it at any dial rate, as evenly as you can, until the spray bottle is empty. The amount of dilution makes no difference - just get the stuff on the soil. Then follow that spray job up with a full inch of water (while you can). Use cat food or tuna cans to measure 1 inch. A week after you spray the shampoo, water another full inch. Two weeks later, repeat the shampoo and inch of water. That is all you need. If you really want to go crazy, one of the gurus on another forum spray his yard every week with the equivalent of 50 ounces per 1,000. He was trying to soften his soil very deeply. Don't know how that worked but the report is that the heavy soap treatment did not harm the lawn, so we learn a little bit every time someone tries something. Another one of the gurus on that forum posted a picture where a limb had fallen from a tree and embedded itself 27 inches deep into his soil...after he had been using the shampoo. At first I thought it was a bunch of hooey until the tree incident. Then I tried it. That was 2 years ago and my soil still gets very soft when I water it. It is so soft you have to be careful not to turn your ankle when you walk on it. I'm talkin' soft! Then when it dries out it gets hard again. And then soft when I water, so it's back to being normal soil. This shampoo treatment, by the way, takes the place of core aeration if you had been thinking of doing that. Shampoo actually works (all the time??) where core aeration seldom works to soften the soil.

There are many (MANY) alternatives to having grass. If this is a one-year thing, mulching the lawn area is a perfect alternative. Find a tree trimmer with one of those pull behind chipper shredders and see if they will dump a load on your lawn. 3 inches of mulch will keep your underlying soil as healthy as it can be while everyone else's soil dries out and becomes unhealthy. Then next year when the rains return, you can pull back the mulch and sod or seed immediately. Mulch really does cure all the ills of the soil.

Other alternatives are more permanent. Let us know if you might want to do something else. Also, how many square feet or acres are you talking about?

    Bookmark   January 25, 2014 at 2:48PM
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Thanks for the reply.

In answer to where I am - it is Santa Cruz CA - 95060.

Our city is pretty strict on water, and every drought in the past has had some restrictions. This year is our worst water year ever. I expect some pretty tighter rules this time around.

In the past we could water with a hose as long as it has a hand operated shutoff - we could also do unlimited water if it was drip, no sprayers or sprinklers except on our 2 days a week for 15min max.

I even thought about putting in drip under our lawn instead of sprinklers - but every landscape person we talked with at the time wouldn't do it.

We have only about 2000 sq/ft of lawn total - 1200 in our larger back lawn, and the rest in the front yard.

Our front yard has 2 patches of lawn that was a "no mow" cool shade fescue that was advertised to need very little water - our experience in the 2 years is that is still takes quite a bit of water - and our location isn't turning out to be a very good location for this turf - we are in a very hot micro-climate despite being in such a cool coastal aea, and this turf doesn't like the sun and heat it is getting....I think our original plans called for this version:

But our installer worked with a more local company and installed this grass:

Once it was installed I questioned him on the choice and when we later installed our rear lawn we switched to a more sturdy turf from the same company:

I wish we had used this on our front lawns. However, since they are so small we may just re-sod on or both of them next spring???

Also, since the "no mow" variety is kind of designed to look like prairie grass I could let it grow out a bit this spring and then not water it or deal with it at all until next year.

We were planning to get rid of one of these front patches already, since it is on a bowl shaped depression that makes it hard to water correctly and we would rather just plant some shrubs, a couple of small trees and make it a rock garden.

Our other small front patch is pretty small as well - but it is in a zone we would like to continue to have a lawn located. But as I mentioned it doesn't like the heat/and or sun exposure and is getting harder and harder to control. We are also getting a ton of bermuda invasion that is driving me crazy. I think the turf choice is just wrong - so I can use the drought as an excuse to kill it off I guess...

We may go with your suggestion of adding mulch to it for the year. We are just about to get a big delivery of bark - I could just put down a few inches extra over the lawn area and deal with it when we get more rain hopefully next year....will good wood chip mulch work for that?


    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 5:26PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Liberal college town water restrictions, huh. Sorry about that. Clearly they don't want to see any green lawns in Santa Cruz. Drip will work in a lawn. Look for a pressure compensated system like Toro's. I get excellent results with a black soaker hose turned on the the bare minimum drip out of the faucet. If you apply too much water pressure to a soaker hose it will push all the water out in the first few feet of hose and very little gets out the the tail end. But if you start with a drip at the faucet, it works much better. I turn on the faucet to a drip speed of 1 cup per minute. Then connect the soaker and leave it on for a week. The slow, deep saturation works very well and will stay moist a long time after you turn it off.

Bark is more ornamental than anything. It is not as good for the soil as a completely chipped plant material which includes leaves, twigs, and entire branches.

I have a bowl in one of my yards. The neighbor's land drains into mine and it sits in the bowl. Fortunately (or unfortunately) we don't get much rain. The cure is to bring in fill dirt until the bowl has a crown of topsoil. Of course you have to be very careful where that water diverts to. You can't back it up into your house or the neighbors' houses.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 8:10PM
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Yes the bowl is part of the lots drainage plan, so no filling it in, but I can plant it with whatever I want.

I found out the city will pay me $.50 sq/ft to remove my lawn - so that is something...

We still have no real rain in the forecast - so I am expecting that lots of lawns will be dead/dormant this year (and rightfully so based on how little water we have received). I think we got 4 inches total in 2013 - our wet season to date is 1.9 inches - plus it hasn't rained since Dec 5....

I just hope we have enough water to drink.

Our town just freaked out about building a de-sal plant - I think it was going to cost several hundred million dollars, so I am glad they put the brakes on that plan. They used to have a option on a second reservoir in our mountains, but gave that up many years ago. I think our mountains in a good year can get upwards of 100in of rain in some spots - so we normally have plenty of water, and just watch most of it wash into the ocean. Hard to imagine a water shortage - it is really just a water storage shortage!

I would love to see a new reservoir planned, but I don't see that happening here ever again - too many 3 toed salamanders and other plants and creatures to protect. Right now they are trying to figure out how salmon and steelhead can spawn, when then rivers are dry or closed off to the ocean.

This is slightly ironic as one of the reasons we have less water for irrigation and drinking is due to a attempts to increase river and stream flows to try to improve our fish because of drought there is no flow to control.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 5:09PM
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Hi Montel,

I'm writing a story about how Californians are approaching lawn care during the drought. I'm also interested to hear people's thoughts on letting the lawn go brown. I came across your post and wanted to see if I could interview you for the story. Please drop me an email if you're up for it. Best,


    Bookmark   February 24, 2014 at 10:04AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

I had no idea about the extent of drought in California when I replied the first couple of times. You might look at mulch as an alternative to a lawn. The best mulch you can get for free is the stuff the tree trimmers have in the back of their trucks. They use a chipper/shredder to eat trees into pieces and blow it into a truck. That's the stuff you want. In a few years when the snow pack returns, then you can redo your lawn. The mulch will set up the underlying soil better than anything else you can do.

    Bookmark   March 1, 2014 at 10:11PM
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