Drought sparks interest in water-saving alternatives to thirsty lawns

A person stands over patches of grass.
Maggie Reiter, turfgrass educator for the University of Minnesota Extension, checks the growth of a patch of grass at the university’s research center in St. Paul on Friday.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Like elsewhere across the state, rain has been scarce this summer at the University of Minnesota’s Turfgrass Research, Outreach and Education Center, making it a perfect year to study how well grass can survive a drought. 

University Extension educator Maggie Reiter checks on a science experiment that looks more like a big patchwork quilt. She inspects a couple dozen square patches of grass ranging in color from bright green to dingy brown, all planted with different combinations of green seed.

One particularly scraggly patch is completely brown, with weeds creeping in along the edge. It’s Kentucky bluegrass, the dominant grass in most Minnesota lawns.

“It's what we've used historically, as long as we've been able to fertilize and give it enough water,” Reiter said. “But now, we're at this point where we need to start conserving resources that we use on lawns.”

Reiter points to a different square planted with a seed called hard fescue, part of a category of perennial grasses known as fine fescues.

"It's completely green, [and has] maintained great density,” she said. “No weeds in this plot at all.”

A sign in front of a field of dirt.
A sign marks the entrance to the University of Minnesota’s turfgrass research center in St. Paul, one of the sites where the U’s turfgrass science program conducts field-based research.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Minnesota has more than 780,000 acres of turf, Reiter said. Most of that is residential lawns, but it's also common in parks, golf courses, sports fields, cemeteries and along roadsides. All that grass requires a lot of water, fertilizer and mowing. 

The university's turfgrass team is researching and promoting different types of grass that require less water and chemicals to thrive.

The research is getting more attention this year, when water has been a scarce commodity. Cities across Minnesota have adopted restrictions or outright bans on lawn watering. 

That's been tough on Kentucky bluegrass lawns, which require a lot of water and can go dormant quickly in a drought.

"That's something that we've seen a lot this year,” Reiter said. “I think it's gotten people to consider more what they have in their lawns, and what's required to maintain it at the expectations that they have."

Fine fescues are better able to tolerate variations in precipitation, which climatologists say Minnesota likely will experience more of in the future.

And while historically, water has been an abundant resource in Minnesota, there's concern that increased irrigation of crops and lawns is depleting groundwater aquifers faster than they're being replenished.

"I'd say we're hoping 2021 is kind of a wake-up call to Minnesota home lawn owners,” said Shane Evans, a lawn water conservation educator with the turfgrass research group. 

A person stands in front of patches of grass.
Shane Evans, lawn water conservation educator, stands at the University of Minnesota’s turfgrass research center. The center also educates commercial turfgrass managers and homeowners about managing turf using fewer resources and protecting Minnesota’s water.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Evans said it's important for homeowners to continue the efforts they made this summer to reduce their water use, even in years with enough rain.

"If you can kind of keep that mindset of, 'I need to be more efficient,’ or, ‘I need to conserve a little bit more,' that'll help years down the road,” he said.

Through a funding partnership with the Metropolitan Council, the university educators have been trying to spread the word about better ways to plant and manage grass. They've visited more than a dozen communities, hosted field days and talked to people at the Minnesota State Fair. 

This summer, it's been easy to get people to talk about their lawns, Reiter said.

"I say, 'How's your lawn looking this year?'” she said. “And it’s a lot of, 'Oh, so terrible,' or 'It's completely dead.’ ” 

A brown patch of grass.
A research plot planted with Kentucky bluegrass seed has turned brown and weedy during this year’s drought, while other plots planted with fine fescue and other drought-tolerant species have thrived at the University of Minnesota.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Reiter suggests that when it’s time to reseed or repair their lawns, people should consider using fine fescues because of their many benefits. 

Along with requiring less water and fertilizer, they’re also more tolerant of shade and salt, and are slower growing, so they don’t need to be mowed as often.

But old habits can be hard to change. Fine fescue seed can be harder to find, especially in sod, which municipal codes often require in new housing developments. 

One of the biggest obstacles is the cultural norm that grass must be perfectly green and manicured no matter what the cost, Reiter said.

"We need to change our expectation around what is a lawn,” she said. “It doesn't have to be lush green grass all summer long. Some browning is OK. In a lot of cases, the grass is just going dormant."

Reseeding with more drought-hardy grass this fall could be one way homeowners can keep their lawns a little greener in future years without being a water hog.

The turfgrass team also works to educate homeowners about more water-efficient ways to manage their lawns, such raising the height of their lawn mower to at least 3 inches and watering less frequently, which helps promote deeper root growth.

“A lot of people don't understand that having a robust root system is probably the best thing for your lawn, especially in these drought times,” Evans said.

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