Field Report: Low-water lawns replace turf in dry regions

Turf-based landscaping may become a thing of the past as more cities in the Southwest move toward stricter water conservation laws and turf limits. Some laws regulate or prohibit grass in designated areas, while other cities work to allow residents to experiment with alternative solutions.

Stephanie Duer, Salt Lake City’s water conservation programs coordinator, has worked for several years to update the city’s zoning ordinances requiring grass or “approved groundcover” in areas not planted with trees or shrubs. Duer, who was a landscaper for 20 years, does not have grass in her yard. She went so far as to try issuing a complaint against herself to draw attention to the need to amend the ordinances.

“There’s nothing wrong with turf itself, but there are places where it doesn’t make sense and doesn’t get used,” Duer says. “Having a code that indirectly requires turf doesn’t make sense.”

Though Salt Lake City’s zoning ordinances define groundcover as plants less than 12 inches tall, officials have interpreted “approved groundcover” to include mulch and other cover used in low-water lawns. The amendment, approved by the city’s planning department and expected to be passed by the City Council, will require only one-third of the yard to have some type of vegetation, and the rest must be covered with mulch to prevent soil erosion.

For Duer, the amendment serves as a means to grant landscapers and homeowners more flexibility in deciding what to plant in their yards, especially in the interest of environmental sustainability. Just as building codes don’t limit paint colors, zoning ordinances should not limit residents to having only grass in their yards. “Lawns arebecoming like the McDonalds of the landscape world,” Duer says. “People have stopped designing them and are just installing them with very little thought. I think we need to allow the homeowners to have a broader expression of self.”

Replacing grass with low-water plants
In some Southwestern counties, officials are taking a stronger stance against using grass. Residents of Las Vegas can participate in a Water Smart Landscape rebate program, which recently doubled its cash incentive to $2 per square foot of grass that is replaced by low-water plants.

Kristen Howey, public information coordinator for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, says more than 76.4 million square feet of turf has been converted to more water-efficient landscape since the program began in 1999. “We’re averaging more than 4 billion gallons of water savings each year,” Howey says. “That’s huge for being in the middle of the desert.”

Replacing one square foot of turf with anything else can save 50 gallons of water each year, Howey says. Still, the city encourages residents to use grass functionally in their yards, such as in areas where children play. “But, if you’re the type of homeowner who never plays tag in the backyard, maybe something else that doesn’t take nearly as much water would work better,” Howey says.

Residential outdoor water use creates the majority of water use in Las Vegas, which receives only about 4 inches of rain per year and is considered the driest metropolitan area in the nation, Howey says. More than 70 percent of the city’s water use is outdoors, and in the summer, that percentage increases to nearly 90 percent.

Rob Diaz, chief executive officer of Land Care, Incorporated in Las Vegas, says his customers are usually interested in xeriscapes because of the rebate program. Xeriscaping is a foliage management practice in which landscapers install plants appropriate to an area’s specific climate and group them together according to irrigation needs. But customers who exchange their turf for more water-efficient landscapes may save less money than they expected because they forget to factor in the amount of maintenance required on the xeriscapes. “Their impression is that the cost should be less because there isn’t any turf involved, when the reality is it takes more man hours to properly maintain a xeriscape project than a turf project,” Diaz says.

For Diaz, the low-water landscapes are more beneficial for their environmental friendliness than for their cost-effectiveness. “I think it is our responsibility to guard our resources, whether it be mandatory or not,” he says.

Cities imposing limits on turf and ornamental grasses
Las Vegas also imposes turf limits to restrict or prohibit the amount of grass planted on new properties as well as the types of grass that can be planted during different stages of drought, which is constantly monitored. During a drought watch, the city prohibits new turf in the common areas of a neighborhood. During a drought alert, no new turf is allowed in front yards and only 50 percent of the side and backyard or 100 square feet (whichever is greater) is allowed to be grass.

In Pima County, Arizona, officials have banned the use of ornamental grass – unusable strips of turf around businesses – in new commercial developments. Duer says this type of grass is not functional. “Why not just pour concrete all the way to the foundation?” she says.

Many in the landscaping industry take issue with measures by local governments that restrict the types of plants used in landscaping. John Ossa, president of Gardeners’ Guild, a landscaping company based in San Francisco, and the former chairman of the Irrigation Association’s Water Management Committee, says he opposes prescriptive solutions about what landscapers can plant. Instead, he says, officials should set allocations of water for particular sites based on local conditions and requirements and install water meters.

“Then, let the market settle it,” Ossa says. “Let the creativity and expertise of designers solve it. If someone can figure out how to irrigate turf in Las Vegas within the allocation of water, let him. That’s what drives innovation. Legislating a plant type – to me – works against innovation and creativity. Landscapers want to be held accountable for creating landscapes that are water efficient, but adopting measures against one type of plant or another is too shortsighted.”

Xeriscaping a hit in hot-weather climates
Xeriscaping has increased in popularity in recent years despite the misperception that it consists only of “sand and spiny things,” According to Duer. She says xeriscaping is simply responsible, sensible landscaping and a good alternative to turf grass in dry climates. Xeriscapes include native plants as well as plants native to regions with similar climates. “The important thing is that irrigation of turf is independent of other plant material,” she says. “The irrigation should be designed to maximize efficiency.”

Ossa, agrees, saying hydrozoning plants – or grouping them logically to maximize proper irrigation – is an easy way to efficiently water landscapes in dry geographic zones. The science behind the practice of xeriscaping is constantly evolving as landscapers discover new ways to maximize water efficiency. To guarantee success, the irrigation method used in xeriscapes should closely match the natural rain patterns the plants evolved with and are used are accustomed to. Simply installing a drip irrigation method may not be best all the time, as wastage and over-watering of indigenous plant types may result. Instead, using smart irrigation controllers to simulate natural rainfall patterns may be a better strategy.

Ossa says awareness of xeriscaping has increased by necessity in many dry regions, though he sees most demand for it when there is common perception of a drought. “In Texas, Arizona and parts of California, where they’ve had prolonged droughts in recent times, people now realize populations are growing so rapidly that they don’t have enough water, period,” he says. “That’s a good thing. It’s an illusion to think otherwise. Landscapers have to be cognizant of those trends and learn to work within and around them.”

Still, he notes that people “are fickle” about xeriscapes because of the way they think of landscapes. “The idea of a landscape is really cultural in nature,” Ossa notes. Rolling green turf and beautiful trees may be the common ideal, but the notion stems from the landscapes of France and England, where plants enjoy summer rain. In some areas of the U.S., these concepts may not be feasible.

“Here people think of landscapes like they think of pulling products off the shelf,” Ossa says. “You end up with roses and birch trees, which are beautiful, but in Phoenix, that’s a problem. It takes a lot of water to keep those trees going in Phoenix.” TLC

Not all turf is created equal
Researchers from Texas Tech University and Frontier Hybrids partnered 15 years ago to develop a drought-tolerant turfgrass called Turffalo. Turffalo, in its third year on the market, boasts the color and texture of Bermuda grass combined with the resilience and heat resistance of buffalo grass.

Dick Auld, chairman of the department of plant and soil science at Texas Tech, says Turffalo requires minimal amounts of water, fertilizer and pesticides and while delivering top quality lawn characteristics. “As we look at communities subject to periodic water rationing or in situations where you just don’t have enough water for the lawn and everything else, Tuffalo makes for an ideal lawn,” Auld says. “It looks more like turf and less like a pasture.”

Turffalo survives on about 10 inches of water per year, and it needs 2 inches per month to stay green. During periods of drought, the grass becomes dormant, turning a golden yellow color. Auld says its green color returns within a day or two once the grass is watered again.

Water, energy conservation more important in ’07
Thanks to a solid economy, increasing crop prices and growth in the housing market, 2006 was a strong year for the irrigation industry. The Irrigation Association anticipates another strong year in 2007, with an increased focus on conservation for landscape and agriculture.

“There are going to be more and more outside limitations, either by water providers or governments, to the freedom to use water,” says Tom Kimmell, senior projects manager for the Irrigation Association. “Regulation hasn’t impacted our industry that much, but it will in the long term.”

Some say the weakening housing market could affect the turf and landscape aspect of the irrigation industry, with Commerce Department figures showing home construction late in 2006 at its lowest level in almost eight years.

“The landscape is usually one of the last things completed on a new home, so there is a lag time before a slowdown in housing begins to show in the results of the irrigation manufacturers, distributors and contractors,” says Jeff Carowitz of Strategic Force Marketing.

Still, irrigation is most affected by changes in the high-end housing market, as well as commercial construction, which is on an upswing in most communities, Kimmell says. Tom Barrett, marketing vice president for The Kenney Corporation in Indianapolis, says contractors can prepare for changes in the market by focusing more on conservation and by participating in regional groups and associations.
–Lori Creel

ASLA receives grant to educate public about green roofs

The American Society of Landscape Architects Library and Education Advocacy Fund is using a $22,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to educate the public about green roofs. The grant funds outreach and education programming for ASLA’s new green roof demonstration project. ASLA hopes to raise awareness about the advantages of green roofs, which can improve air and water quality, reduce the urban heat island effect, manage storm water runoff and provide aesthetic amenities and economic benefits.

SASP to offer classes at Hardscape North America
The School for Advanced Segmental Paving (SASP) will hold classes at the Hardscape North America trade show in Nashville, Tennessee. SASP will offer two one-day classes March 9 and March 10 called “Hands-On Best Practices for Paver Installation” to teach introductory-level paver installation methods. For more information, visit this site.

Toro Irrigation manager joins IA Board of Directors
Phil Burkart, vice president and general manager of The Toro Company’s irrigation division, has been appointed to serve on the Board of Directors for the Irrigation Association. The association plans to continue its support of the irrigation industry by increasing awareness of critical issues and public policies and educating irrigation professionals on new technologies and more effective water management practices.

LSU landscaping school ranks No. 1 in the nation
The Louisiana State University School of Landscape Architecture has the No. 1 undergraduate degree program in the nation, according to a 2007 survey by DesignIntelligence, a design professions journal. The same study also ranked LSU’s graduate program fifth in the country. The school has been among the top 10 since the survey began.

The Attachments Idea Book
Landscapers use a variety of attachments for doing everything from snow removal to jobsite cleanup, and regardless of how often they are used, every landscaper has a favorite attachment.
Attachments Idea Book Cover