The Garden Guru: Turfgrass on trial

Posted Friday, Aug. 01, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Lawns seem to have become the eye of a firestorm. As water resources become more and more limited, our lawns are being cast as bad guys that need to be corralled.

But hang onto that lasso, Bubba. Before you tighten that noose and reduce or eliminate the lawn in your life, you may want to consider a few facts.

Oh, sure. We’ve been in a drought, and that brings the temptation to eliminate all plants that require more than a minimum of our valuable water.

The scope of my message here will be to try to get us to landscape (and “lawnscape”) to the mid-point, not to the extremes.

When we experience prolonged wet periods, we don’t rush to convert everything to wetland gardens, and when it’s dry, we shouldn’t try to emulate the look of West Texas, either. This isn’t West Texas, and those plants are not native here for one or more reasons.

So, getting back to the subject of turf grass, many vocal critics hold it accountable for all of our current water shortages. (Although they may be losing sight of the fact that local growth has far outpaced additional sources of water.) You hear figures saying that outdoor watering accounts for two-thirds or three-quarters of all the water consumption in Southern states during the summer.

Those figures are probably correct, but there are remedies available. Before we start ripping out large parts of our lawns, we need to be honest — we waste water. We could reduce water consumption for irrigation by 40 or 50 percent without having any measurable impact on the looks of our landscapes. That’s how badly we overwater our plants.

Smart controllers on sprinkler systems could help us meet that goal. So could smart people in charge of water faucets. If we learn the symptoms of plants that need water, then wait to irrigate until we see those symptoms starting to appear, we could save hundreds of dollars and thousands of gallons.

If we would be willing to make those few significant changes in how we water our lawns, we could still have healthy turf grass and ample water for all of our other needs.

Why lawns are important

Lawns are our friends. They’re worth the effort, and here are a few reasons why.

• Lawns cool the environment. The Ohio Turfgrass Foundation says that eight average-size lawns provide the cooling effect of 70 tons of air conditioning. That’s almost 9 tons of cooling power per house. How large is your air conditioner? How much larger would it have to be if you didn’t have turf?

• Lawns provide a cool surface. The Turfgrass Producers International group says that on a hot summer day, the barefoot temperature on turf will be 30 degrees cooler than on asphalt and 14 degrees cooler than bare soil. You’ve gone barefoot outdoors. You know.

• Lawns clean the air. That lawn grass outside your house will provide most of the oxygen you will breathe. The Ohio Turfgrass Foundation says an acre of grass will absorb hundreds of pounds of sulfur dioxide per year. Haze created by such pollutants can reduce sunlight by as much as 15 percent on summer days. You’ve seen it. Without grass, it would only get worse.

• Grass reduces glare. If you’re outdoors entertaining, or if you’re sitting by a window working on your computer, which would your eyes rather see: an expanse of green grass or a paved surface?

• Turf grass reduces erosion, runoff and even flooding. No plant is more efficient at holding the soil. Grass roots penetrate deep and wide, and the runners and blades slow the flow of water across the soil surface, allowing much more of the rainfall to soak into the soil.

Water flowing off a grassy hill is usually almost clear (free of sediment), while water coming off bare ground or ground covered with stone may have significant loads of eroding topsoil. And there will be far less water exiting the grassy slope than a hard-surface hill anyway.

• Lawn grasses improve the soil. As the organic matter from roots, runners and leaves decays, it will enrich the soil. That’s better for all of the plants you’re growing, and it’s going to begin just as soon as you start replacing lawns with pavement and stone.

The main reason most people want lawns

The prime benefit we get from having attractive, vigorous turf grass, however, is the look it brings to our home and to our neighborhood. It’s where we play. It’s where we have parties. It surrounds our pool and our patio, and it sets the pace for a nice, relaxing time in our own personal meadows.

The takeaway from all of this, then, is that there is ample room for turf grass, decorative stone, handsome and lush shrubs, and even, in proper planting spots, xerophytic plants in every North Texas landscape. Enjoy them all.

Hopefully you won’t take out all of your turf grass. You might be giving up a valuable asset for something that wouldn’t serve you nearly as well.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: www.neilsperry.com.

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