Close your eyes and picture the perfect lawn: green, thick and uniform. Maybe it has perfect stripes from a recent mowing. Maybe kids are throwing a baseball and a grill is smoking in the corner.
I’ll bet there’s also a sprinkler. There could be an entire irrigation system raining down lovely arcs of water in the sunshine.
But what if you want that lovely lawn where water is scarce? Say, in a desert?
“You can have a lawn wherever you want,” says Jackson Powers, a science student in the master’s program at New Mexico State University (NMSU), who concentrates his studies on water conservation and turfgrass systems. With proper lawn care techniques, he says, you can have a lawn in the desert using minimal water and resources.
Even in an extremely dry climate, the dream of that perfect lawn isn’t out of reach. And you can do it without using the gross domestic water product of a small country.
Start Off With the Right Grass Seed
In any climate, from the low desert of Palm Springs, Calif., to the high desert areas of Arizona and New Mexico, a successful lawn starts with choosing the right type of grass. That’s especially true for a desert climate.
When water is rare, it may even seem that growing a lawn full of turfgrass at all isn’t such a good idea.
But that’s not the case. In fact, the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension says, the question isn’t whether turfgrass should be used in desert communities, but how.
Turfgrasses play an important role in desert landscapes. They reduce water runoff and carbon dioxide emissions and mitigate the heat.
When it comes to deciding which type, though, two factors dictate the best species to use: water use and intended purpose.
Cool-Season Vs. Warm Season Grasses
Turfgrass comes in two types, based on when they grow best. If your goal is water conservation, warm-season turfgrasses are likely the better choice.
Cool-season grasses use as much as 20% more water throughout the summer than do warm-season grasses, NMSU says.
Just which grass works best for you depends on where you are, though.
Cool-season grasses prevail in higher-elevation Northern New Mexico, for example.
Bonnie Hopkins, an agricultural agent with the New Mexico Extension in San Juan County, says she recommends a blend of tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass for her area. Whichever variety is better suited for the lawn will emerge and take over.
Warm-season grasses, though, are more drought-tolerant and use water more efficiently. Varieties such as Bermuda, buffalograss and blue grama top the list.
Hopkins says in the southern part of the state, and places like Phoenix and the rest of the hot Sonoran Desert, warm-season grasses are the top choice.
Powers, based in the southern New Mexico city of Las Cruces, says Bermudagrass is the choice there. Its resiliency and good performance with low inputs lands it in the top spot for home lawns, playing fields and golf courses.
Desert Tolerance by Grass Type
The Nevada Extension breaks them down:
- Bermudagrass does well in full sun but produces a lot of pollen. An aggressive grass, it can tolerate low maintenance and poor, unimproved soils.
- Zoysiagrass is tough. Wear-resistant and tolerating of desert soils, Zoysias can survive in moderate shade and are very resistant to foot traffic. Unfortunately, Zoysias are slow to establish and slow to recover from damage.
- Buffalograss is descended from North American prairie grasses. That means drought tolerance and low water and fertilizer use. It’s not very wear-tolerant and does better in the full sun.
- St. Augustinegrass probably has the best shade tolerance of any warm-season grass. It’s used to replace Bermuda in shady areas and is tolerant of desert soils. It’s also a slow grass to establish and may have difficulty surviving low winter temperatures.
- Seashore paspalum has become a mainstream warm-season grass since its early days of specialty salt tolerance. It’s tolerant of drought and desert soils with a moderate tolerance for wear.
And cool-season grasses aren’t entirely out of the picture, even in warmer climes:
- Tall fescue can grow in the transition zone found in the Mojave Desert, tolerating a wide variety of soils.
- Ryegrass can be used to overseed Bermuda for the winter. And some more heat-tolerant varieties have shown potential for year-round use.
New and Improved Desert Grass Varieties?
You may soon have more choices, too, as turfgrass researchers breed new varieties that stand up better to low water use.
Researchers are currently working with Bermudagrass strains to withstand colder temperatures, Powers says. Existing varieties shut down in the winter when soil temperatures drop below 60 degrees. When those soil temperatures climb back up, the grass starts to green up.
A Bermuda that stays active through winter could help golf courses and home lawns stay green and lush year-round. It also means that Bermuda’s water-saving qualities could spread to more northern, cooler climates.
Establishing Your Desert Lawn
Knowing your soil is just as important as choosing the right grass if you want a successful sustainable lawn in a dry climate.
“Get a soil test,” Hopkins tells homeowners looking to establish a new lawn.
Most soils in her area are sandy and contain less than 1 percent organic matter. She recommends peat moss or other organic material to get that up to 5 percent.
When establishing your lawn, the Nevada Cooperative Extension recommends a few extra steps:
- Add a high-phosphorus starter fertilizer according to instructions.
- Amend the soil with 2-3 inches of compost.
- Cultivate the soil to a depth of roughly one foot and remove any large rocks from the soil surface.
- Roll the future lawn area but make sure not to compact it. Your foot shouldn’t sink into the dirt more than half an inch when you walk on it.
Once you’ve got the grass down, the soil underneath plays a crucial role in managing water that’s available to the lawn.
Soil is a reservoir for water storage, says the Texas A&M Extension. Pore space, which can hold air or water, makes up for as much as 50-percent of the soil itself.
Practice Good Lawn Maintenance
That’s why good lawn maintenance practices such as aeration and dethatching are so important in desert climates. Hard, compacted soils mean water just runs off and doesn’t reach down to the grass root zone.
Another factor to keep an eye on in desert soils is the infiltration rate, or how well water seeps into the soil.
Dry soil may have a very high infiltration rate at first, but once it’s saturated water will just run off.
Desert soils can also contain barriers that have the same effect without the saturation first.
Texas A&M explains that layers of compacted soil, gravel or clay can impede water movement. The answer may be amending your soil with another material.
Add soil amendments like organic matter, calcined clay aggregates, gypsum or lime. They can alleviate surface compaction and increase infiltration rates, helping you get a lot from a little bit of water.
About that little bit of water. If you don’t have a lot to work with, it’s important to be careful about how you irrigate.
“Water is the No. 1 thing that can make or break any turfgrass system,” Powers says.
In some parts of the country, turfgrass irrigation can account for 50 percent or more of city water usage in the summer. That’s according to an article written by Richard Duble, professor emeritus and longtime turfgrass specialist with Texas A&M University.
If you’re going to have a sustainable lawn, you need to know how to use that water effectively.
First, says the New Mexico Extension, know your grass type and how much water it requires. Hopkins recommends an annual irrigation audit using a tuna can or another vertical-sided container. Set the cans out in your lawn in different places while your sprinklers are running to see how much water is actually making it to your lawn.
Make the Most of the Water You Use
And make sure that once it’s there, it can hang on to it. Your lawn loses water both from the soil and the grass.
Where your soil falls on the scale of water loss and retention depends on its makeup. Sandy soils allow water to soak in faster but don’t hold as much. The opposite is true for clay soils and loamy soils. Improve your soil to adjust its water retention.
Your local extension can likely help you to get a handle on how much water your grass needs and how much your lawn is losing to evaporation.
But you don’t have to replace all that water, says the New Mexico Extension. All turfgrasses can survive without replacing 100-percent of water lost to evaporation. But just how much below depends on the type of grass.
And there are plenty of choices on how to reapply that water. But the option that combines high-quality turf and water conservation is a pop-up sprinkler system. When you see the best lawns, you can bet they’ve got an underground irrigation system installed, says Powers.
It takes more than installation, though, to get the best results.
Tips for Reducing Evaporation
Duble says direct evaporation from sprinklers takes at least half that water in desert climates.
So if your answer is regular irrigation via sprinkler system, Duble lists a few things that can help reduce your water loss:
- Set sprinklers for a low trajectory.
- Irrigate at night or early morning.
- Set sprinklers for low pressure with as large a nozzle as possible.
- Maximize sprinkler overlap.
And as a finishing touch, contact your local extension agent. They’ll have the latest evaporation measurements reported via weather stations across the country.
There’s also an option for folks who want to go the extra mile and eliminate the guesswork.
Computerized irrigation controllers factor in daily evaporation, temperature and rainfall data and adjust your settings to match.
Another consideration for desert lawns are “cultural practices” —how you fertilize, mow and irrigate. These lawn-management practices can go a long way in saving water.
“Knowing the cultural methods that we use to manage turfgrass are the No. 1 ways that homeowners can get that lush, green lawn, even in environments like New Mexico,” Powers says.
Being water conscious is essential in that type of climate, where Powers says rainfall may total 3 inches annually.
Desert climates are different, so when you’re planning out your annual lawn care regimen, you’ll need to make some tweaks to give you a water-saving edge.
In the United States, desert climates exist mainly in the Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and California.
But desert areas exist in more northern states including Colorado and Oregon, too, and good cultural practices are the way to go no matter where you are.
Hopkins says many folks make the mistake of leaving dull blades on their lawn mowers. Dull blades rip and tear the grass rather than cut it, stressing the plant and increasing its need for water.
Keep those blades sharp, she says, and cut the grass higher. She recommends about two to two-and-a-half inches.
And Texas A&M reports that excessive thatch accumulation can lead to excessive evaporation, as water in the thatch layer evaporates easier than in the soil.
Practice Good Lawn Care
A healthy lawn reduces the need for water, so practice good, basic lawn care.
- Make sure to fertilize only when the grasses start to come out of dormancy and green back up.
- Mow when it’s dry. Water early in the morning or late in the evening when hot temperatures won’t immediately steal water that should be making it to your lawn.
- Also, if you buy a new home that already has an irrigation system installed, check its settings. Many times, those sprinklers remain calibrated for establishing a lawn. That means higher water usage to keep those grass seeds moist. Once a lawn is established, those settings need to reflect the smaller amount of needed water.
“Some people think the water you need is a lot more than what the grass actually needs,” Powers says.
Opt for an Ecolawn
One option for the water-wary is an ecolawn. It resembles a typical grass lawn that can withstand the wear from an occasional pickup game of football or holiday cookout — but without as much water input.
Oregon State University Extension defines an ecolawn is a low-input alternative to a conventional lawn. Instead of a grass such as Bermuda or Kentucky bluegrass, it uses a mix of broadleaf plants and perennial grass species.
That mix stays green through dry summer months and needs less water than conventional grass lawns with little or no fertilizer.
Regular maintenance for an ecolawn is a fraction of your typical lawn. It needs mowing only once every two or three weeks, and once established uses around one-quarter to one-third the water of a normal lawn.
Establish an ecolawn just like a regular lawn but with the proper seed mix. Oregon State says several mixes are commercially available. Most include a dwarf perennial ryegrass that’s noncompetitive and stays green in the winter. It may go dormant in the summer heat, depending on irrigation.
Yarrow and clover, both drought-tolerant and green through the summer, round out the most common mix.
Others may include flowering broadleaves including English daisy or Roman chamomile.
If sizing way down on the grass cover and ramping up landscaping is an option for your lawn, xeriscaping could be the way to go.
Your picture of a perfect lawn likely didn’t include desert plants such as a towering Saguaro cactus or spotty desert grasses. But a well-done xeriscape can give you everything you need in a water-wise lawn.
And yes, it includes turf.
Powers notes that many people in his area keep a small lawn surrounded by xeriscape style plants in the front yard, saving the big lawn for the back.
But Hopkins cautions homeowners about mixing and matching. Turf needs more water than native, drought-tolerant plants. Watering species such as juniper trees the same as turf will stress them out and shorten their lifespan.
Xeriscaping is essentially landscaping in a dry climate, says the Oregon State Extension. It’s likely what most people picture as desert landscaping.
In desert climates with wildly fluctuating temperatures and extremely low annual rainfall, it can be the best option.
Planning a Xeriscape
To develop a xeriscape plan for your landscape, focusing on use. Plan pathways and areas of bunch grasses or ornamental grasses versus open spots of turf, and where to place your irrigation system. This is a great time to get some help from your local extension. Agents can recommend suitable native plants and wildflowers as well as the perfect drought-resistant native grasses.
As you develop your plan:
- Group plants with similar needs for water, sun and soil together in zones.
- Then examine your soil and amend it accordingly. Design an efficient irrigation system for the entire layout.
- Xeriscaping doesn’t have to be all gravel and cacti, Oregon State says. Turf can be a valuable part of the xeriscape, but err on the side of caution. Use it only where you need it.
- Lastly, mulch and add ground cover where you need to, helping stave off evaporation and keep out weeds.
Grass Is Good
The truth is that turfgrass is good for an environment like New Mexico, says Powers.
While some policymakers tend to think it’s not essential (it doesn’t feed the country) its environmental benefits are undeniable.
In a high-wind area like New Mexico, it staves off erosion, Powers says. It provides low-cost, high-quality, low-maintenance recreation surfaces and cools the ambient temperature.
That’s a big deal in places like Las Cruces, where there were 18 days that topped 100 degrees July.
Not only can you have that perfect, lush green lawn in a desert climate. You may just be doing the environment a favor for it.