by David Goldstein

 

Many communities in Ventura County are now under one-day-per-week outdoor watering restrictions, with exceptions for drip irrigation and hand-watering with a shutoff valve. Other portions of Ventura County also have restrictions on frequency and timing of outdoor watering. As in past droughts, water purveyors are managing increased applications for incentives offered to replace lawns with artificial turf or other low-water-using landscape.

Nevertheless, many people love their lawns and will not rip out the landscape they spent years maintaining. Grass makes a great play area and can look beautiful. 

Reduction to once-per-week watering will not kill most lawns. Scotts, a major vendor of lawn maintenance products, recommends enough watering to keep the top six to eight inches of soil moist, with the company’s website stating, “Most lawns need 1 to 1.5 inches of water per week — either from rain or watering — to soak the soil that deeply.” However, “that amount of water can either be applied during a single watering or divided into two waterings during the week.”

To make this level of watering viable, Scotts also has on its website a section with watering recommendations. Among these are recommendations to water early in the morning, when there is less wind and the lawn will have time to dry. Watering at night leaves grass wet for too long, setting up “conditions for disease to take hold.”

LawnMowerGuru.com also advises using mulching mowers to retain moisture and cutting lawns at higher settings to help grass grow deeper roots. 

Nevertheless, many local lawns will stop looking lush. Some lawns are made of thirsty grass varieties. 

The University of California Integrated Pest Management Program has a guide to healthy lawns, including a section on the types of grass “best adapted to California conditions,” and ordered on a grid based on tolerance to heat, cold, drought, shade, salinity, and wear/traffic.  

If your lawn has the wrong type of grass, it may be too late to switch. Establishing new sod during drought restrictions is impractical. The “sod watering tips” section of the web page for Southland Sod Farms, an Oxnard-based grower of sod, shows a watering schedule for new sod, recommending watering daily for three weeks, with watering at 7 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the first week. The times and frequency required would violate water restrictions.

Instead of starting with sod, companies advertising in national magazines and on the Internet are promoting mail-order “plugs” of grass varieties, such as Zoysia, allegedly requiring just one third as much water as other varieties and capable of being planted into existing lawns. The plugs can be planted in a checkerboard pattern or used just to fill in brown spots. The Zoysia Farm Nurseries website claims just a one-inch plug per square foot will completely fill in a lawn within two the three growing seasons and will “choke out crabgrass” and other weeds. However, the powerful nature of this type of grass is also a potential problem. It is invasive and difficult to control. It could spread to garden areas where homeowners do not want grass, and it could even spread to neighbors’ yards.

With new water restrictions, many lawns will develop brown spots at the tops of slopes, in direct sunlight, and on spots of excessive wear. Grass may go dormant in places, even if once-per-week watering keeps grass from dying. 

One solution is paint specifically designed for making dormant turf look healthy. Solarogen sells this paint via the Internet, urging customers to ensure 24 hours of drying time so the paint “cures” and “rub off” will be minimized. The website claims the paint will “keep grass blades green for months or until cut by mowing.” Elsewhere on the website, the “months” claim is clarified: “It may even last as long as three months.”

An online Safety Data Sheet for one common type of turf paint classifies the product as “suspected of causing cancer,” recommending protective gloves, clothing, eyewear and face protection during application. The reason for the warning, however, is the product’s use of carbon black, which is also present in many items we tolerate daily, including the ink from photocopy machines. 

Based on centuries of history, from the time lawns were a hallmark of British estates, Americans have been conditioned to desire grass. The current drought will likely not revolutionize local landscaping. Instead, homeowners will find ways to adapt.


David Goldstein, an Environmental Resource Analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, can be reached at 805-658-4312 or david.goldstein@ventura.org.